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Mammoth Mountain as rich folks' cruise ship

October 09, 2005|Hal Clifford | Hal Clifford is the author of "Downhill Slide: Why the Corporate Ski Industry Is Bad for Skiing, Ski Towns and the Environment" (Sierra Club 2002), and executive editor of Orion magazine.

CAN YOU HEAR IT? That's the sound of the fat lady singing. She's up at Mammoth Lakes, Calif., announcing the denouement of a set-piece performance that seems so completely, well ... expected.

Mammoth Lakes is the latest in a string of authentic, unique mountain communities that are being commodified, standardized and gentrified by corporations that see a chance to make a killing. And kill it they do.

Last week, Starwood Capital Group, a luxury-hotel holding company, paid $365 million for control of Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. It was, according to lawyers close to the deal, the biggest sale ever in the ski industry, and included a reported $80-million payday for 90-year-old Dave McCoy, who built the ski area with vision and sweat.

Why would a savvy company pay so much when the sport of skiing is under enormous demographic pressures? The ski industry came of age with baby boomers, and as boomers age, we inevitably ski less. Once we hit 44, our days on the slopes start dropping faster than a black-diamond run. Every day since 1989, 10,600 boomers have turned 44. Behind us comes Generation X -- a cohort of roughly half as many people and far fewer skiers and boarders.

True, ski-area attendance has risen a bit in the last few years, thanks to good snow and regional price wars. But the heady growth of the 1960s and '70s is past. Starwood Capital Group's chief executive, Barry S. Sternlicht, knows this. And he probably couldn't care less.

He didn't really buy ski runs and lifts, although his company will operate Mammoth Mountain. He bought the chance to sell a great deal of expensive real estate fluffed up with what marketers call mountain lifestyle. The property his company now controls is made valuable by virtue of its proximity to extraordinary public lands in the Eastern Sierra. That's the game now in places such as Mammoth Lakes.

Led by Vancouver, Canada-based Intrawest (which is cashing out most of its Mammoth stake), and joined by Vail Resorts and American Skiing Co., publicly traded development companies remade the North American ski world during the 1990s. They understand the demographics and know what boomers want. They brought financial muscle and marketing acumen to bear on places such as Squaw Valley, Calif.; Park City, Utah; Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, Keystone and Vail in Colorado, and Killington and Sunday River in New England.

They remade those ski areas so that investor returns come first. Skiing, once the pole star around which skiing communities revolved, became the carnival barker who lures visitors to the real action: shops, restaurants and, especially, the shiny new real estate, all arranged in the planned base-area "villages." (They're more like landlocked cruise ships, given the nature of their trying-too-hard "authenticity" and weekly turnover.) Ownership in condominiums and slope-side homes was divided into quarters, eighths, even twelfths. Buy a piece of mountain lifestyle for a fraction of the total cost!

Other ski areas desperately followed, feeling that -- in a flat market -- they had to keep up with the big boys. The effect was pervasive and corrosive.

By the time I moved from Telluride, Colo., in 2003, it seemed that every conversation there involved real estate. The whole place had become a real estate play, a modern boomtown. Every local who happened to own a house had effectively won the lottery. A few hoped to stay. Most, if history is any guide, will sell out and move on.

You can expect the same thing to happen in Mammoth Lakes. "We expect things to go crazy around here," one real estate agent told The Times. "Inventory is going to disappear."

And he wasn't referring to the area's earthquakes or volcano.

Last year, a similar scenario played out in Crested Butte, Colo., when a Vermont ski-area operator bought that rundown resort after years of limbo. Prices of single-family homes jumped by double-digit percentages in a month.

Hitting pay dirt like that, most mountain town residents -- or their landlords -- will take the check and take to the road. Given the history of boom and bust in the West, there's no reason to expect that things will be any different in Mammoth Lakes.

What remains will be a lot of expensive condominiums, hotels and tony shops, but not many people who actually live in Mammoth Lakes. (Bishop, here we come!) People will visit -- more and more of them -- if those who pine to expand Mammoth Lakes' humble airport overcome persistent safety and environmental concerns.

They'll even have a good time. After all, Disneyland is fun too. But Disneyland isn't the Santa Monica Pier or the Venice boardwalk. Unlike those places, it's safe, controlled and wholly manufactured, all with an eye toward the company's bottom line.

That's the likely pitch of Mammoth Lakes' future tune. There's too much money at stake for anything to be left to chance now, for anything unique and organic to be given room and time to grow there the way it once could.

I'm glad that McCoy made his money, and I'm glad he had his vision when he did, 60 years ago. There's no room for an original like him in Mammoth anymore.

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