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Slippery slope

October 11, 2005

DAVE MCCOY FOUNDED Mammoth Mountain Ski Area more than 60 years ago with a single rope tow driven by an old truck engine. It has changed quite a bit since, but not nearly as much as other over-commercialized ski resorts in the West, with the ski area and town of Mammoth Lakes, Calif., retaining a kind of funky charm. To the critics, there was nothing good about funky.

The McCoy era is ending with the sale of the ski resort to Starwood Capital Group of Connecticut for a record $365 million. Starwood plans to add "hip restaurants as well as new residential, hotel and entertainment experiences," said the firm's Marc Perrin. Hello Aspen, Vail and Deer Valley. Goodbye relaxed, down-home eastern Sierra.

The rap on Mammoth was that it was too isolated and hard to get to. With no regular airline service, it's a five-hour drive or longer from Los Angeles, and most of its customers come from Southern California. There weren't enough good restaurants. No first-class hotels. No nightlife. Vons supermarket was the social center of town. Mammoth Lakes catered to families with mostly 1970s-era condos who ate in and watched videotapes at night instead of hitting the bars.

Change began when Canadian resort developer Intrawest bought a large share of Mammoth in the 1990s, although the McCoys retained controlling interest. Intrawest built a sterile, phony alpine village in Mammoth Lakes and linked it by gondola to the slopes. Pricey new condominiums went up on the periphery of town, along with a new golf course.

The result has been predictable: an escalating housing market that is squeezing out many of those who work at Mammoth Lakes businesses and on the mountain. Ski magazine says housing prices rose 40% during a recent 18-month period. A one-bedroom condo that could be had for $85,000 a decade ago now goes for $395,000. The median price of new homes is $1 million.

Realtor phones began ringing off the hook after the sale was announced. Look for even more price escalation and, ultimately, airline service that will make Mammoth a true destination resort.

Restaurant manager Terry Whitman is moving out "before all this becomes Orange County." Mammoth Lakes Mayor Rick Wood gamely says leaders must make tough decisions to keep the town from being ruined. Too late; the town is being irretrievably transformed by commercial forces that did not see it as the jewel of the Sierra that it was. That process now will only accelerate.

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