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February 23, 2012
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Lake Tahoe's ski industry: Officials, skiers react to Vail's purchase of Kirkwood

LAKE TAHOE — Add Kirkwood Mountain Resort to Vail Resorts' growing list of Lake Tahoe ski areas.

The Colorado-based company announced Wednesday it has agreed to buy Kirkwood for about $18 million. Effective immediately, Heavenly Mountain Resort and Northstar California season passholders have access to Kirkwood. Kirkwood pass holders will be able to ski and ride Heavenly and Northstar.

Michael Dalzell, vice president of sales and marketing for Kirkwood, said the deal has been in the works for a few months and is good news for the business community.

“It made good financial sense to sell,” Dalzell said Wednesday. “It's no secret that Kirkwood has been looking for a buyer for a number of years now.”

Vail is purchasing the ski resort, as well as selected commercial development opportunities in the Mountain Village at Kirkwood, according to a Wednesday statement. Kirkwood's shareholders will retain 100 percent of the remaining real estate development parcels in the Kirkwood base area.

The sale, which is waiting for the transfer of the U.S. Forest Service Permit, is expected to close in three to four weeks.

The resort's big lines and big snow totals are unique among the region's mountains, and its acquisition will add “a totally different experience” to Vail's portfolio in the area, said Blaise Carrig, co-president of Vail Resorts.

Online reactions to the announcement have been split, with some bemoaning the corporation's purchase and saying Kirkwood will never be the same. The possibility of crowding at the resort is on the minds of some, while others said they think the change in ownership will bring much-needed improvements to the resort. Many wondered about specific pass and ticket options, and whether lift ticket prices will jump.

“I've got mixed emotions,” said professional skier Josh Daiek, who calls Kirkwood home. “I think there's going to be some really good things that happen. But I'm also a little apprehensive about what's going to happen to the core of Kirkwood.”

Daiek's sister, professional snowboarder Rose Marie Daiek, had similar feelings about Wednesday's announcement.

“I think Kirkwood needs a sugar daddy,” Rose Marie Daiek said. “But I love it for being kind of hoopty, kind of small. I hope it doesn't blow up.

“I just really hope that the Kirkwood family that's been working there for years and years is taken care of, that's a big concern.”

Kirkwood's Chief Executive Officer David Likins and Chief Financial Officer Nathan Whaley will no longer be in management positions, but will still be involved in the resort and development, as well as real estate, Dalzell said.

Carrig and Casey Blann, vice president of mountain operations at Heavenly, are expected to lead Kirkwood during the transition.

“The rest is still up the air in terms of VPs,” Dalzell said. “It's still too early to tell.”

Despite changes in upper management at the resort, Carrig said he expects Vail to retain existing Kirkwood employees.

“The employees here are looking at it as an opportunity to grow and develop their careers here,” Dalzell said. “We have a lot of talented young people here, and it opens things up for them.”

Vail is an appropriate buyer for Kirkwood because its core values and business model made sense at the resort, Dalzell said, as it brings capital and infrastructure improvement, as well as best practices to the table.

“It's exciting for Kirkwood,” he said. “We're getting a lot of comments from people who don't want us to be like Northstar or Heavenly, but we're going to stay true to who we are — big snow, big mountain experience with passionate people. We're going to remain core to what Kirkwood is all about.”

“I think it's fantastic news for the local community,” he added. “Vail is a major player and they're going to add significant value to Kirkwood Resort, as well as the whole Tahoe region.”

Andy Wirth, CEO of Squaw Valley Ski Holdings, also said he thought the acquisition would be good for the region as a whole.

When asked if he sees Wednesday's acquisition as a growing situation with Vail on one side and Squaw/Alpine on the other in terms of competing for better lift ticket prices, Wirth said “no.”

“I really don't see it in the eyes of one versus the other,” Wirth said. “I think it's ultimately a net positive for the entire Lake Tahoe region, because there is so much interest in developing Tahoe into a major ski destination.”

Mike Pierce, director of marketing at Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe, shared a similar view.

“Look, no matter what, the power of Vail Resorts is going to bring more attention to Lake Tahoe, and that's a good thing because we can use as many destination visitors as possible,” Pierce said. “With Vail, they not only bring a lot of money ... but they're going to draw more attention to Lake Tahoe ... I don't think that's a bad thing.”

Diamond Peak General Manager Brad Wilson has been intertwined with the Tahoe ski industry since 1985, when he took over the sales department at Heavenly Mountain Resort for a few years; years later, he worked as director of marketing at Alpine Meadows.

When asked if the recent trend of mergers and perceived corporate takeover of Tahoe's major ski resorts is good for the region, Wilson said, “I think that chapter has yet to be written; it's tough to know.”

Wilson continued: “I think it really depends on what level of consumer you are. If you're a season pass holder looking to ski at many resorts, than it's a good thing. But if you're a normal skier looking to buy some day tickets throughout the season, it makes choosing which resort more difficult because it will likely be more expensive at these resorts.”

Plans for season pass options are expected to be announced mid-March. Heavenly spokesman Russ Pecoraro said he “didn't foresee any huge price changes at Kirkwood.”

“The reason we bought Kirkwood is because it is unique and special,” Pecoraro said. “We don't want to do anything to change that.”

Vail officials expect to review the resort's existing plans before moving forward with any development at the resort, Carrig said, noting the company operated Northstar for more than a year before announcing any investment plans. Vail bought the North Lake Tahoe-area resort in October 2010.

“I think I like the (Kirkwood) master plan,” Carrig said. “It's just a matter of what to do when.”

Power problems have long been a concern at the resort, especially following a 2010 fire that destroyed the Kirkwood Valley's previous power plant. The resort sits between two passes and is not connected to the power grid.

Carrig said he was confident a new, diesel-fired power plant that will come online shortly will be a viable power source for the resort long-term. Plans to connect the valley to the gird will still be the responsibility of Kirkwood Meadows Public Utility District, Carrig said.

He said he expected to ease any concerns from long-time Kirkwood skiers resulting from the purchase as the resort moves forward.

“I think the proof will be in the pudding, and I think we'll prove it,” Carrig said. He declined to say whether Vail is interested in purchasing any other resorts in the region, but said the company is “growth-minded.”

“You never know where that takes us,” Carrig said.

— Tribune editor Trisha Leonard, Tribune reporter Dylan Silver and the Bonanza's Kevin MacMillan contributed to this story.


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Tahoe Daily Tribune Updated Feb 23, 2012 12:18PM Published Feb 23, 2012 12:15PM Copyright 2012 Tahoe Daily Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.