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The revival of Mt. Waterman

The family-run ski resort, which reopened last year after a six-season closure, has a small-town feel, and that's the way regulars like it.

March 12, 2009|Tiffany Hsu

At Mt. Waterman ski and snowboard park, the vintage two-seater chairlifts are a bit on the rickety side, and equipment pokes through the snow near a huddle of no-frills buildings and plastic picnic tables scattered halfway up the slope.

With none of the chaotic cacophony of larger resorts, the isolation is punctuated only by the soft swish of skis, the occasional darting flash of a boarder through the trees, the snow melting into the sky.

And that's how the regulars like it.

"It's more of a local resort, with a small-town feel," said Rick Metcalf, who bought Mt. Waterman three years ago with his brother, Brien, and reopened it last year after a six-season closure. "We already have plenty of people coming here, and we don't have grander plans to turn it into a big, major place."

Southern California ski resorts have weathered the recession better than those elsewhere in the state, said Bob Roberts, executive director of the California Ski Industry Assn.

The proximity of the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains makes area resorts cheaper than parks that require visitors to fly in and stay in hotels, he said.

"Generally speaking, good snow conditions and proximity will trump a bad economy, like bowling and movies during the Depression," Roberts said.

In an industry dominated by corporate-owned operations such as Big Bear Mountain Resorts and Mammoth Mountain, Mt. Waterman is part of a shrinking breed of small, family-run resorts.

Its owners -- jovial Brien, 46, and Rick Metcalf, 45, a hulking man in a black Mt. Waterman cap -- work in real estate in the San Diego area. Brien is a coastal property specialist; Rick is part-owner of a mortgage brokerage.

The pair grew up in La Canada Flintridge and skied at Waterman as children. Now, armed with a public ski resort operating permit from the U.S. Forest Service, they commute up on weekends to sell tickets or dig chairlifts out of snow.

The Metcalfs used much of their own money to buy the resort for an undisclosed sum. And although they have no debt, they have yet to recoup their investment, Rick said.

Between maintenance, operating licenses and renewed chairlift permits, running Waterman can get expensive. A percentage of ticket sales goes to Wells Fargo to pay the resort's liability insurance.

In the 2008 season, when the mountain was open for only nine days, the resort's revenue was less than 5% of the cost of purchasing the land, Brien Metcalf said. This year, the park might be open for 20 days, drawing an average of 300 visitors a day.

"I joke that it costs me $1,500 to come to work," he said. "It's been a huge undertaking and sometimes we've flown by the seat of our pants."

For now, Waterman is earning enough for managers to start planning. The Metcalfs are hashing out permits, marketing and the higher insurance premiums associated with opening biking trails and are also negotiating with local companies to host retreats, benefits and even weddings.

Often in a recession, small-scale, family-owned companies maintain the upper hand over larger operations, said Thomas J. O'Malia, director of USC's Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. Relatives volunteer time to save labor costs, and the pressures of unions and regulatory agencies often don't apply.

"Smaller businesses are more agile," O'Malia said. "Often, they're the low-cost provider with better service."

Waterman offers relatively cheap lift tickets at $200 for a season pass or $45 for a day pass. Adult lift tickets to Big Bear Mountain Resorts, which comprises Snow Summit and Bear Mountain, cost $66 for peak weekends and holidays; a season pass goes for $599.

But Waterman has no snow-making equipment. "It's a big expense," Rick Metcalf said. So even though it is well shaded by trees and faces north, away from the sun, erratic snowfall means the resort can't guarantee regular seasons.

"The snow-making, which became de rigueur in California 15 years ago, has always been the Achilles' heel of Waterman," said Roberts of the ski association. "The bigger resorts have flourished because they have equipment."

Waterman also doesn't stock rentals, and 80% of the trails are advanced or intermediate, making it less friendly to beginners. The park operates only on weekends, but Rick Metcalf says managers are considering opening on weekdays.

"People here go to the other resorts too, but more are realizing we're back," he said. "We're closer, so people don't burn as much gas coming, and with fewer crowds, there aren't traffic jams going home."

An hour past opening one recent Saturday, the slopes already were latticed with slicing lines as snowboarders zoomed down. Cashiers in the ticket trailer yelled over the churning gurgle of the lift, which operators slowed for children.

Since the reopening, Stephen Glaab, 43, has visited nearly a dozen times. The Moorpark relocation sales agent said he "grew up" at Waterman and was a ski instructor there in the late 1980s.

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