By Ray Carbone
NEWBURY, N.H. – The public meeting held at the Sunapee Lodge on the Mount Sunapee Resort property last week was much less contentious than a similar one held in the same building last year.
At the earlier gathering, more than 100 people came to the state’s Department of National and Cultural Resources (DNCR) meeting to voice their opposition to the transfer of the resort’s recreational lease to Och-Ziff Real Estate. The multi-national alternative asset management firm had recently paid the federal government $413 million in fines, and supporters of the local resort were concerned that the organization would not manage the local property appropriately.
Things were much different last Wednesday, July 25, when an even larger crowd came together to voice their support to Sarah Stuart, the DNCR’s commissioner, for a proposal to turn Mount Sunapee’s lease and operating agreements over to Vail Resorts, operators of the famous Vail Mountain Resort in Colorado.
‘Candidly, Vail is a dream partner.’
Hessler Gates, Sunapee resident
The deal is part of an $82 million sales agreement that will also add Vermont’s Okemo Mountain resort and the Crested Butte Mountain Resort in Colorado to the Vail, Colorado company. (Vail Resorts also owns/manages Stowe in Vermont; Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone in Colorado; Park City in Utah; Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood in the Lake Tahoe area; Wilmot in Wisconsin; After Alps in Minnesota; Mt. Brighton in Michigan; Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia; and Perisher in Australia.)
Tim and Diane Mueller, owners of the companies that have managed the local resort since 1998, told the crowd that if they could have chosen an organization to take over their enterprises, it would be the Vail group.
“Vail is clearly the leading ski operating company in the country, if not the world,” Tim Muerller said. “I’m glad we’re turning it over to them.”
The audience gave the Muellers an appreciative round of applause.
Speaking for the new managers, Pat Campbell, president of Vail Resorts’ mountain division, said her company is excited about its first business foray into New Hampshire and that it remains “incredibly passionate” about creating memorable resort experiences for visitors.
In addition, the company’s Epic Pass, which allows for unlimited skiing at all of its 14 resorts, will be available at Sunapee. (Vail owns and/or operates resorts throughout North America and Australia.)
Addressing concerns that Vail would push for more development at and around the Sunapee resort, Campbell said that her company has been divesting itself of properties that are primarily real estate and that it has no plans to move forward with either the West Bowl Expansion or any other development project in the area.
“Candidly, Vail is a dream partner,” Hessler Gates of Sunapee said in the public commentary portion of the meeting. “For the decision-makers, this should be an easy decision and I urge you to do it promptly.”
The majority of the speakers were in agreement with Gates, urging Commissioner Stuart and others involved in the transfer to approve it as quickly as possible.
Campbell said she’s hoping the transfer will be completed by Labor Day.
But some did express concerns.
A member of the New Hampshire Sierra Club repeated an earlier call for an independent audit of the resort’s finances, and encouraged the Vail team to maintain the four non-skiing trails on Mount Sunapee.
Another speaker asked how the Vail proposal had come forward so quickly and whether there is an appeal process if the state turns down its proposal.
Will Abbott of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests said Vail Resorts could prove its intent to stay focused on recreation, rather than development, by permanently conserving 600 acres of land located in Goshen. The idea was heartily applauded by the audience.
Holly Flanders, a two-time Olympic and three-time World Cup alpine racer who grew up skiing and racing at Sunapee, said that from her current home in Park City, Utah, she’s become familiar with how the Vail company operates.
“Vail is a great ski operator, they invest in improvements,” she told the crowd.
“I tell you want I’ve seen,” she added. “Many local businesses are making more money. Property values are going up. The ski area is more crowded, so the roads are more crowded. And everything is more expensive – the hotels and restaurants.”
Photo: Breath -taking view of Lake Sunapee from the Mount Sunapee Resort, by Garrett Evans. Courtesy of Vail Resorts.
This story first appeared in the InterTown Record, a weekly newspaper published in Sutton, New Hampshire, on Tuesday, July 31, 2018.