Ski co-op brings resort community to the table

Bear Valley Mountain is a mid-sized ski area located well south of the global skiing destination of Lake Tahoe. The uncongested drive and fewer attractions make Bear Valley...

Bear Valley Mountain is a mid-sized ski area located well south of the global skiing destination of Lake Tahoe. The uncongested drive and fewer attractions make Bear Valley less crowded than Tahoe’s slopes. But a higher elevation and more predictable snow give it an advantage over many resorts struggling through California’s erratic winters and drought.

Founded in 1967, Bear Valley is one of the state’s older resorts, with an aging infrastructure. An economically challenged customer base has made Bear Valley less reliably profitable in recent years and contributed to unstable ownership. However, the development of a co-op with more than 900 members has laid the groundwork for a novel partnership that seeks to revitalize the resort and improve Bear Valley’s chances of survival.

If its members decide to proceed, the Bear Valley Mountain Cooperative will soon take joint control with new owner Skyline Investments, a firm that was attracted to the resort by the high-level of community interest shown by a co-op organizing effort that exceeded its membership drive goals by over 10%.

While the original vision of cooperative ownership will not be realized, the co-op’s organizing process has dramatically improved the community’s role in the control of the resort. Efforts toward community ownership have attracted an outside partner that can manage the resort’s operations while the co-op focuses more on the resort’s growth, with the hope for a win-win situation that will allow for more improvements to take place on a faster timeline.

Birth of the co-op

Kimi Johnson is the cooperative’s treasurer, as well as a 17-year resident of Bear Valley who is highly involved in the local community, as well as the recreational industry. She manages the local water system and also runs a backcountry ski guide company with her husband.

Kimi identified the co-op’s original motivation as an “underlying uncertainty” about the future of the ski area, which serves as a major economic anchor for an isolated and sparsely populated highway corridor stretching 75 miles over 8,736-foot Ebbetts Pass.

“They’re the biggest player so anything ripples through us all,” she said. “Bear Valley used to be big, and it can be big again. It has high potential, and it’s being missed.”

Last year, after the resort went on the market for the second consecutive summer, she joined a group of residents and others devoted to the mountain. The group was organizing to take control of this key part of their local economy.

Kimi recalled that the community’s concerns about the resort’s future had increased after the mountain’s 2005 sale to Dundee Resort Development – a Canadian firm that also owns Colorado’s Arapahoe Basin ski area as well as properties at a half-dozen other ski resorts in that state.

Suspicions of another looming sale were confirmed when Dundee put the resort on the market in 2013. There was very little information about the buyer or process then, leading to a summer of anxiety for many including Johnson.

“And then it all fell through,” she said. “And then we’re living in this world of rumors flying everywhere that the mountain wasn’t going to open.”

Dundee did ultimately operate the resort for the 2013-14 season, but the sale’s collapse inspired a group of community stakeholders – residents and rental property owners, outdoor sports aficionados and entrepreneurs – to get organized.

“There was hope that some well-heeled persons might say ‘let’s get this done’,” recalled interim board member Mike Wallenfels, who owns a second home in the Bear Valley area and has been playing a leading role in the organizing effort. “But no one was jumping out of their seats.”

“Bear Valley is too big to fail but too small to be the apple in some investor’s eye,” Mike said.

Learning from elders

The group that formed the co-op first began looking at different models of community ownership for ski resorts. They studied Vermont’s cooperative Mad River Glen, as well as two nonprofit-owned resorts: Bogus Basin in Idaho and Bridger Bowl in Montana.

Their research gave them hope that the community could become less dependent on outside owners who lacked commitment to the area regardless of whether there were profitable ski conditions. “It was pretty exciting,” recalled Kimi. “We thought, ‘Let’s not be so vulnerable! Let’s take control ourselves!’”

The other community-owned resorts were happy to share their experiences with the Bear Valley group. “We had a lot of conversations, and asked a lot of questions,” she said.

One of the biggest questions was of affordability, as financial crisis followed by drought had increased pessimism about the resort’s viability.

Some potential members also sought reassurance that a co-op wouldn’t mean committees of novices trying to run the resort in such a challenging economic environment. “We don’t know how to run a ski area – we don’t want to run a ski area,” said Kimi. “We can purchase it and be in control of it, but we aren’t going to run it.”

Plot twist

Co-op shares cost $2,500, and members are also required to spend $300 per year on anything from season passes to food, to build in commitment to the operations. The co-op will not pay member dividends, but will plow any surplus back into the resort, ensuring funds for upkeep and helping to keep the mountain open for business.

But as the co-op was completing its membership drive a new bidder emerged. Toronto-based Skyline Investments was initially seen as a rival, but it invited the co-op to collaborate as its purchase bid was accepted by Dundee.

Mike Wallenfels described Skyline’s offer as appealing for two reasons: A joint bid could lessen the risk of capital shortfall and also dramatically accelerate the rate at which improvements can be made to the facilities.

At a 9 August meeting held in the Bear Valley lodge, Mike addressed a packed gathering of members. He explained that the co-op’s plans would have meant three years of behind-the-scenes work on deferred maintenance before anything new could be attempted. But the collaboration with Skyline provides the opportunity to quickly move toward expansions.

The co-op’s board is now recommending a plan in which members will get the same benefits they would have had in a simple co-op purchase of the mountain. The co-op and Skyline will have representatives on each other’s boards to keep information flowing as the two groups develop mutually-agreeable plans of improvement.

Due to the change from straight co-op ownership, members are being offered a chance to individually withdraw and have their investments refunded, or to vote on whether to approve the arrangement with Skyline.

So while last summer was marked by passive disempowerment and a lack of information, this year the community is highly engaged through the co-op. And if members vote to proceed, they’ll have a solid seat at the table as it moves to new ownership.

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