Squaw Valley USA has become the second Lake Tahoe area resort to change ownership in recent months. The purchase announcement, made three days after the resort opened for the season, signals the end of the dynasty of the Cushing family.
The announcement took some by surprise, but change has been afoot since August when Nancy Cushing resigned as CEO. Her resignation heralded the end of an era, bringing in the new CEO and President Andy Wirth from Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. and Intrawest.
KSL Capital Partners LLC, a private equity firm based in Denver and New York, is in the process of acquiring the bulk of the shares of The Squaw Valley Development Co., owner and operator of the ski area as well as the Village at Squaw Valley and other real estate properties. The acquisition is expected to be completed by the end of 2010.
"I have worked diligently over the past five days to be tuned in to every segment, including locals hanging out, and I can't find a single person that has nothing but positive to say about the change," Wirth told OnTheSnow. "There's truly a buzz about the new ownership and commitment. The only sentiment is one of concern about turning Squaw into Vail."
KSL has earmarked more than $50 million in capital improvements for the resort. Wirth said that the long laundry list of improvements are exclusive to operations and base area facilities, not real estate. He is just beginning to work up the plans for improvements to be implemented over the next three-fo-tive years. "We're very committed to preserving what's unique about Squaw," he said. "We'll be adding a great deal more luster and broadening its appeal."
The sale of the resort to KSL ends one of the longest dynasties in ski area ownership, more than 60 years under the Cushing family. Alex Cushing founded Squaw Valley in 1949 with one chairlift, a rope tow, and a lodge. Its development leapt forward with expansion for hosting the 1960 Olympic Winter Games. Nancy Cushing, Alex's wife, served as head of the company for the past 16 years. She will remain as chairman of the board until the deal closes.
Facebook comments on the sale were limited to a handful of people who mostly expressed optismism in the change. UnofficialSquaw, an underground blog that has verbally slapped the resort's management in the past, expressed guarded support.
"Everyone agrees Squaw hasn't been living up its potential, and a lot of things were being severely neglected," Tim Konrad, co-founder of UnofficialSquaw.com, told OnTheSnow. "But we're leery of becoming a cookie cutter resort or another Vail."
The concern about cloning Vail perhaps comes from more than the big money involved. The founding owners of KSL, Eric Resnick and Michael Shannon, previously held top positions with Vail in the past. KSL, however, has not been in the ski area business. Its portfolio of investments includes hotel, spa, golf, and business properties.
Much of the concern among locals about the sale is directed toward unknowns. "There's mixed emotions around the valley. People get nervous with any big change," said Konrad. "We're hoping the emphasis stays on skiing."
"For a long time, it's been our mountain because the ski corporation wasn't too hands on," he continued. "Now that they've stepped in, it's going to be their mountain, but with the power to change Squaw Valley."
Konrad, like most locals at a mountain, has his wishes for the resort. "The best way to win us over is to open the boundary and put gates in," he added.
The current optimism at the resort isn't solely due to the sale. A Thanksgiving week storm dropped 99 inches of snow. Even KT-22 opened, which may have been the earliest in recent history.
One thing is clear to Wirth, who has been overhauling customer service and hiring practices. "People are already seeing the change," he said. "The comments from guests have been that everyone is on their game and more engaged. It's been a dramatically positive experience."