The ski co-op that bought a mountain

Want to buy a mountain? Well 1,800 skiers have: the Mad River Glen Co-operative (MRGC) in Vermont is the owner of the General Stark Mountain.

This makes it the first skier-owned mountain in the USA — and, by the looks of things, it won’t be the last. 

Mad River Glen near Waitsfield started as one of Vermont’s first ski areas in 1948. Through the years it eschewed the commercialisation that befell other ski resorts and provided a frill-free home for die-hard skiers, relying solely on the appeal of some of the most challenging ski trails in the east. With 250 inches of natural snow a year, it hardly needs snow making machines — although, just to be on the safe side, it actually has two.

In 1995, the ski area was put up for sale. Afraid of the changes a new corporate owner might bring, a group of skiers formed a co-operative and bought Mad River Glen. 

The co-operative works to fulfill a simple mission: “To forever protect the classic Mad River Glen skiing experience by preserving low-skier density, natural terrain and forests, varied trail character, and friendly community atmosphere for the benefit of shareholders, area personnel and patrons.” 

It works quite simply: a co-op member invests $2,000 in a share. You can also purchase your share in installments with interest. Members get attractive shareholder discounts on season tickets, day passes and other products.

Four years after buying the ski area, the co-op issued share number 1,667 and paid off its entire mortgage. Since then, MRGC has invested an additional $4 million in capital projects. Skiers even donated $1.8 million to refurbish the historic single-chair lift, the only one in the continental USA. The co-op has been in the black for 13 of the past 15 seasons and operates with no debt.

The members elect the board which has six seats set aside for Vermont members and three for out-of-state members. When you leave the co-op you get your $2,000 back from the investment of the next incoming member, less a $100 processing fee. That way, the co-op’s capital base cannot be eroded by people leaving en masse.

The other interesting duty of the co-op member is to pay each year, by October 1st, the Annual Purchase Requirement (APR) set annually by the board. In 2010, the APR was $200. Members can use the APR payment to charge season tickets, day passes, lift tickets, meals, rentals, repairs and services. This gives the Co-op $400,000 in cash flow at the beginning of the season and reduces its borrowing costs substantially. 

Two hours south of Mad River Glen, another Vermont group is engaged in an effort to buy the Magic Mountain ski resort. In this case, organisers Magic Mountain LLC are starting off by selling 300 memberships at $3,000, with one vote each. With those funds, the members will purchase a 33 per cent interest in the holding company, although they will elect three of the five board members. With additional tranches of memberships sold over the next five years, the plan is for the members to buy 60 per cent of the company and then the member shareholders will elect all five directors. The organisers are hoping they will achieve their first goal of selling 300 memberships this year.

Thousands of miles away in Terrace, British Colombia, a similar group has created My Mountain Co-op, the first skiers’ co-op in Canada. The owners of Shames Mountain Ski Area want to retire and a “community services co-op”

wants to buy the mountain. Keeping the ski area in business means a lot to the region’s skiers and to the local economy. 

The co-op has just started its campaign to raise $2 million (CDN) to buy the mountain and set aside funds for capital improvement. The co-op is selling 5,000 refundable individual shares at $299 each and looking for business memberships and corporate sponsors. My Mountain 

Co-op is enthused by the solid success of Mad River Glen Co-operative and hopes to buy the mountain in 2012. 

In each of these efforts, it is seen that preserving the ski area is part of strengthening the local economy and building community: all good co-operative values. 

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