The tipping point in turning ideals into action was a sagging real estate market. Values have dropped enough for MRA to buy a piece of modest Mt. Abram, 90 minutes north of Portland. We caught up with MRA’s Jamie Schectman about what the Abram deal means and how he wants to use MRA to fund a ski area trust that would help resorts go greener, enable for-profits to convert to co-ops, and shake off some of the corporate hegemony that so thoroughly grips the sport.
Tell us about the Abram deal.
Mt. Abram has been a ski area since 1960. It’s 560 acres and is privately owned, with a vertical of 1,150 feet. It was purchased by current owner Matt Hancock in 2008. Since then, he has been working hard to offer Maine’s “non pretentious” authentic ski experience. This year Mt. Abram was awarded NSAA’s Golden Eagle Award for Environmental Excellence (along with Stevens Pass and Aspen). Mt Abram has received the permits and is very close to installing one acre of solar panels to make them North America’s first net negative ski area. Matt and I first began talking almost two years ago and have agreed in principal to MRA purchasing Mt Abram and converting it to our first Mountain Playground. Matt sees MRA’s global vision and has graciously offered his ski area to be the “pilot project” to replicate the world over.
Okay, what’s that really mean. Is this a member model? A co-op?
Well, certainly our prices will be more affordable [than the resort model]. But we also aim for lower skier density than a typical corporate resort.
In our membership model, which is still being developed, members will have benefits, special privileges, reciprocation to other mountain playgrounds and will elect a MVP (Mountain Voice of the People) board who will talk directly with management to ensure their needs are being met. Non-members/guests will be welcome except during peak times.
Have you talked with the likes of June Mountain or Snow King, which are struggling to survive (or come back from the dead)?
Snow King ownership approached us last year about different ownership options. We have since put a local team in place who suggests we let the dust settle a bit more. But our model would be a great fit there.
As for June, I grew up skiing Mammoth and am intimate with the Eastern Sierra. I have many friends down there and it’s close to my heart. We have been monitoring the situation closely and supporting the local community as they seek to find a solution to keep the mountain open. We believe our Mountain Playground model could be an excellent fit for June Mountain’s future.
Do the math on local ownership for us. Isn’t the argument that it’s just too costly for small ski towns to afford the kind of investment it takes to own and manage a resort and also offer summer options like zip lines and mountain biking? Not to mention come up with the capital to convert a polluting resort into “green” one?
Great question. First of all, utilities are the number two expense in the ski industry, behind payroll. By including on-site clean energy creation into our capital purchases, not only can we eliminate that expense, but the tax depreciation, grants, and other incentives make it more viable than many skeptics want to believe. Also, most people would agree energy isn’t going to get less expensive as the economy continues to falter and unrest continues in the Middle East.
There are also clean energy companies looking to expand their portfolios. Recently we have discussed providing the land at each mountain playground and essential being the landlord for clean energy projects.
That’s the energy; what about infrastructure investment? It takes a ton to maintain a ski area.
Another great question. We talked long and hard about this subject to ensure a large investor can’t dictate the direction and operation of each mountain playground. If they could, we would be no different than the typical corporate ski area whose first goal is to make its shareholders (often non-local) a quick profit.
What we came up with is to have each Mountain Playground structured as a Limited Partnership. We would then raise money either through our MRA holding company and/or in each individual Mountain Playground. For facilitating the deal, MRA, LLC will take a 10 percent minority stake and be the general managing partner to ensure our core values are followed. In this structure, the big money investors and community will own a majority of the Mountain Playground, and MRA will essentially oversee operations.
Take June as an example. We could do a combination of a California direct public offering as well as skier Co-op. California’s population is over 37 million residents and it has more investment dollars available than all 49 other states combined. For reference, Kirkwood sold for $18 million and June has operated at a loss for 26 years.
Play that scenario forward then, presuming you have IPOs like selling June on the public market.
As MRA, LLC acquires more Mountain Playgrounds, the economies of scale will work into our favor, as we will be able to share best practices and share resources. Right now, many stand-alone and mom and pop’s are getting squeezed out and cannot compete with the big corporations.
Isn’t there another model here that needs to be considered — skipping skiing entirely? In the Northeast we’re seeing mountains like Highland Park in New Hampshire going only for summer activities like mountain biking. And there’s also another option: no lift-served terrain, and just letting people earn their turns. You may get fewer turns, but there’s way less infrastructure.
We refer to them as Mountain Playgrounds because we believe there are many ways to recreate on them. We have identified a yurt system in Colorado for sale that would fit into the backcountry resort model, though we could add lifts later. We also want to create music venues at our mountain playgrounds. Mt. Abram is an ideal spot for holding a big concert and there is onsite camping for over 7,000. So yes, we want to create multiple revenue streams, but first and foremost, get back to being in the uphill transportation business.
What’s the low hanging fruit for the Mountain Playground model?
Places where there’s an engaged community with enough population base to support their ski area. Besides June and Snow King, you could throw in Moonlight Basin, Mt. Bachelor, Soldier Mountain, Idaho, and probably a dozen East Coast ski areas into the mix.
Environmental coverage made possible in part by support from Patagonia. For information on Patagonia and its environmental efforts, visit www.patagonia.com. Photo by Steve Casimiro