Finally, the frost heaves are in bloom

By Ray Carbone

There’s a tender coldness to the air today.

It’s spring in New Hampshire – the New Hampshire that’s on calendars, not the one that’s got lighthouses or the one that looks likes the suburbs of Boston. New Hampshire’s spring has some wonderfully charming days like this one.

The only thing that it compares to it is in the fall, when the leaves stand posed at the end of branches showing off their red and gold colors, as they prepare to launch out into the cool blue sky and onto the green-brown ground.

These spring days are pregnant with warmth.

Not real warmth…

There’s a poignancy to these days too, a real sense that they’re here only to leave, like your first love or seeing your favorite car just as it disappears around a corner. These spring days are pregnant with warmth. Not real warmth yet – that’s still ten or fifteen more degrees away before we’re casting off our coats and sweaters. But, a warmth still the same, something that bespeaks of light ahead.

In this New Hampshire, that hint is mostly seen in the heavy water. Somewhere, deep down, below that drift of snow leaning against the barn, beneath the plowed piles clinging to the sides of your driveway, is the water, melting down as the depth of the snow sinks.

It’s known as mud season here, starting sometime in March and heading into April, May, even June some years. It’s messy and annoying, but it’s also a promise.

Spring is here. Summer is coming.

© 2019, Carbone Productions, LLC

 

 

 

 

 

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The first ski trains in New England were launched in Warner, N.H.

By Ray Carbone

WARNER – Looking at this small picturesque New England town today, it’s hard to imagine the significant role it once played in the development of the region’s winter tourism industry.

But it was about 85 years ago when a local businessman made the biggest deal of his life, drawing more than 200 people to town in America’s first “ski train.”

‘They left Boston’s North Station and arrived in a town with a little over 1,000 people… Word spread, and Warner was soon known as the winter sports capital of central New Hampshire.’

Rebecca Courser, the executive director of the Warner Historical Society, talked about the event, and the subsequent impact of impact on the town, as a special “Snow Train Dinner & Talk” in the town hall recently. The society’s fundraising event drew more than 200 people.

Buck Whitford introduced skiing to the town in 1909, Courser explained. He’d picked it up when visiting family members in Minnesota, and initiated friends and neighbors into the sport. It wasn’t long before locals in Warner – and in other northeastern communities – were making their own wooden skis, swooping down their hills and mountains.

But it was John “Happy Jack” Chandler who initiated the ski trains, according to Courser. In the early 1930s, Chandler took a trip to Boston. He visited several large businesses where he promoted Warner as a great place for a wintertime company trip. Some of the organizations sent representatives to the town and, after seeing the local hotels, restaurants and skiing facilities, some – including the John Hancock Insurance company – decided to take Chandler up on his invitation.

“They left Boston’s North Station and arrived in a town with a little over 1,000 citizens,” Courser said of the early ski trains. “The Boston folks grew to have a great appreciation for Warner as a winter playground. Word spread, and Warner was soon known as the winter sports capital of central New Hampshire.”

Of course the operations were relatively primitive. With no snowmaking equipment, business was completely dependent on natural snowfall. So when one winter brought a dearth of good cover, Armdam Doucette, the town barber, challenged the other men in town to join him in a pledge, “not to shave until we get some skiable snow,” Courser said.

In 1950, the Boston-Warner ski train brought 1,200 people to town, making the largest corporate outing America had ever seen.

Almost 30 men participated and, although there’s no proof that it impacted any wintry precipitation, it did bring the town some unexpected publicity. “Permanent five o’clock shadow hovers over Warner,” was a headline seen as far away as California, Courser said. And when the snow finally arrived after Christmas, the ski train people returned.

When the country entered the prosperous post-World War II years, things really took off. At that time, there were 14 inns and hotels operating in Warner during the winter months.

One weekend, approximately 900 Hancock employees got off the ski trains, virtually doubling the town’s population. In 1950, the Boston-Warner ski train brought 1,200 people to town, making the trip the largest corporate outing America had ever seen.

But by 1956, poor skiing conditions and increased competition from places like the state-owned Sunapee resort began the decline of the local tourism industry.

“Many of the inns shut down abruptly,” Courser noted.

War.SkiRR-statn
Main Depot receiving snow train visitors. Dr. Put’s cadillac, Henry Wachsmuth Buick, James Hardy truck. 1953

 

The local ski operations were eventually turned over to the schools. When construction of Interstate 89 divided the primary ski area, the operations were later moved to the Mink Hills area. By the 1980s, the ski businesses were gone.

But the ski trains had a major economic impact on the town for more than 25 years. It brought new people to Warner, some who returned during the summer, and some eventually settling here. And the winter population hike forced local residents, businesses and civic organizations to work cooperatively, Courser concluded.

This story first appeared in the InterTown Record weekly newspaper, published in Sutton, New Hampshire, Tuesday, February 19, 2019. All images are courtesy of the Warner (N.H.) Historical Society.

 

Vail to take over New Hampshire resort

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.

New York hedge fund under scrutiny after taking over ownership of Mount Sunapee lease

 

The above image is from the Mount Sunapee resort website.

By Ray Carbone

NEWBURY – It was a meeting viewed both by complex business interests around the world as well as residents of the Sunapee area.

At a public information session held at the Mount Sunapee Resort’s base lodge last week, more than 100 people gathered to express concerns about the transfer of the lease for the state park’s popular ski resort to one of the largest alternative asset management firms in the world.

Och-Ziff Real Estate, which manages over $30-billion in funds from its offices in New York, London, Beijing, etc., took over the lease as part of a $456 million deal involving 14 properties, most of them family recreation areas, from the previous owner, a real estate investment trust named CNL Lifestyle Properties.

But several people who spoke at the NH Department of Natural and Cultural Resources meeting held on Tuesday, Aug. 22, wondered about the hedge fund’s commitment to maintaining local management and operation of the state-owned recreational facility.

The question has become especially significant after Och-Ziff agreed recently to pay $413 million in federal government fines and other penalties in order to satisfy charges filed by the security and exchange commission that two former company executives operated a “far-reaching” bribery scheme, violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The SEC says the pair paid tens of millions of dollars to high-level government officials in several African countries – including the son of the late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi – to garner investments as well as other valuable resources, including mining deals, for the company.

“Our firm is not proud of what happened here and we take full responsibility,” David Levine, Och-Ziff’s general counsel, told the audience last week. “It’s a disappointing chapter in our 24-year history.”

Levine blamed “two rouge (former) employees” that acted outside company policy for the bribery incidents, which occurred between 2007 and 2012. He said that the company has instituted several measures to insure that a similar problem doesn’t occur in the future.

The operator of Mt. Sunapee will continue to be The Sunapee Difference, a company owned by Tim and Diane Mueller who have managed the property since 1998.

But Andru Volinsky, a member of the governor’s executive council and the official who asked for the public meeting, said Och-Ziff was making a smart business move. “When I see a company that’s instituted a lot of compliance measures, those are all big steps and you do it to avoid prosecution… Certainly, Och-Ziff has stepped up their game but it wasn’t a completely voluntary matter.”

The original, print version of this story, published in the InterTown Record of Sutton, New Hampshire on Tuesday, August 29, 2017, was ended here for space reasons. Below is additional information regarding the meeting.

Indeed, the U.S. Department of Justice has agreed to delay prosecuting the company any further for three years as executives work to incorporate the new measures aimed at greater compliance with the federal laws, and assist the department of justice’s ongoing investigation.

For some residents, the issue of the new lease owner was not as important as how the transfer occurred. Typically, such arrangements like would be subject to approval by the governor and the executive council.

But Jeff Rose, the commissioner of the state’s department of natural and cultural resources, which has governing authority over state parks, and Anne Edwards, an associate attorney general, said the recent situation was exempt from that requirement because it involved, not the lease itself, but the entity that owned the lease and 13 other properties.

So, while Och-Ziff is now the owner of leaseholder, the lease itself is still owned by CLP Mount Sunapee, LLC, the same organization that has held it for the last nine years. (To the relief of some attendees, the operator of Mt. Sunapee will continue to be The Sunapee Difference, a company owned by Tim and Diane Mueller who have managed the property since 1998.)

At the same time, Commissioner Rose said that the state has already begun negotiations with Och-Ziff on the lease, hoping to alter it to make similar transfers require state approval in the future.

But Steve Russell, the president of the Friends of Mount Sunapee nonprofit organization, said no change is necessary. Speaking on behalf of his group, as well as the NH Sierra Club, Russell said that the property’s original 1998 lease indicates that state official should have reviewed the transfer before it occurred in April.

“Examining risk and financial security are essential to maintaining the public trust,” Russell said at the meeting. “It is standard practice in all state contracts.”

Russell also pointed out that the three-year prosecution agreement that Och-Ziff has with the department of justice i as insufficient as a guard against future misconduct by the firm . He said that Public Citizen, a nonprofit organization that monitors government activities, recently indicated that similar agreements are an “inadequate enforcement and oversight mechanism.”

“We believe the state has abandoned its oversight of the lease of the Mount Sunapee State Park,” Russell added. “We appeal to elected state officials to begin a complete and transparent review of this lease acquisition… so that the people of New Hampshire, who are the rightful owners of the Mount Sunapee State Park, can rest assured that our state park is in the hands of those worthy of the public’s trust.”

The story was originally published in the InterTown Record of Sutton, New Hampshire on Tuesday, August 29, 2017.

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