Corrections, 3 June 2022: The percentage decline of skier passholder sales was calculated incorrectly by Moonshine Ink. Also, the reduction in units for the resort’s development plan was reported to Moonshine Ink incorrectly. Both numbers have been updated below. We regret the errors.
JMA Ventures President Art Chapman remembers the days when Homewood Mountain Resort had six or eight ticket windows open with lines leading up to each window. Those days are no more. According to Chapman, one day during the week of March 7 there was a single ticket window open, and only one person bought a walk-up ticket the entire day. On Feb. 2, Chapman reported that only 115 skiers were on the mountain the whole day, and that included seven employees. Even on big holiday weekends, Homewood is barely getting 1,000 skiers.
“People in the area have to appreciate that it’s pretty tough to run a business like that,” Chapman said. “Less than 100 people skiing a day at Homewood is not sustainable.”
With passholders and skier visits in decline during the past 10 years, JMA Ventures, which bought Homewood in 2006, has had to pivot to a new financial and development model that is sustainable. What the company came up with is a hybrid, semi-private model that will restrict access to season passes to people who buy new Homewood residences as well as full-time residents of several West Shore homeowners associations. This model will be phased in over a number of years as Homewood transitions away from being a public ski area in the hopes that it will eliminate a key problem for Homewood — commuter skiers cannot get to the resort in the heavy weekend traffic that occurs on the highways leading into the Basin, according to Chapman.
Over the past decade, skier visits to Homewood have dropped 40%, Chapman said, and season passholder sales have fallen from 2,800 in 2012 to 1,800 this winter, a 36% decline. According to Chapman, the large majority of current passholders are West Shore residents. He attributes these slumping numbers to one major thing — traffic.
“The fact is today with all the Ikon passes, if you go to Highway 89 on a Saturday afternoon you will see traffic backed up all the way from Squaw and Alpine into Truckee. You can’t even get to Homewood,” Chapman said. “Commuters coming from the Bay Area can’t get past Squaw and Alpine and get to Homewood unless you are through the Mousehole at 7:30 in the morning.”
Because of the traffic and a younger generation that is more attracted to the steeper and bigger terrain of Palisades Tahoe and Northstar, Chapman said Homewood can no longer compete with the large resorts.
“If we are going to keep the ski area open, we can’t do it as a public ski area that requires a lot of employees and having to rely on fewer skiers,” he said. “We are not in the least bit interested in trying to promote Homewood as a competitor to Squaw or Northstar.”
Homewood’s development plan was approved in 2011 with wide community support. The plan originally called for 223 homes, a 75-room, five-star hotel, and a new base and mid-mountain lodge. Since then, the number of homes has been reduced by 17% to 185 units and the hotel has been downgraded to a small boutique hotel that will mainly serve Homewood residence owners as a place for friends and family to stay.
While JMA says it is committed to doing the right thing for the community, some West Shore residents are skeptical.
“I would never have signed up for this and I don’t think the community would come out in droves for this plan. It feels like a bait and switch,” said Renee Koijane, a Homewood resident who did public outreach for the ski resort development in 2010. She characterized the community support for the original project as “overwhelming.” “They came out in droves to support the development because their worst fear was that it would become a private, gated community, and they wanted to preserve access to public spaces.”
The development, which is expected to break ground this summer, will roll out in phases over five to seven years. The first phase includes the construction of seven homes at the North Base. Chapman says guests will not see any changes to the pass program and tickets next season.
“Selling seven units isn’t going to make a difference,” he said. “Next year there will be day tickets for the public. As more and more private homes sell and are occupied, we will be balancing the number of skiers between residents and local homeowners.”
When the new hybrid model is fully implemented, day tickets will end and, besides skiers who own one of the new Homewood residences, passes will be available only to locals who live in one of the six or seven major West Shore homeowners associations. Chapman declined to name specific HOAs and is unsure at this time if the pass program will be extended to smaller HOAs.
“Our intent is not to shut the public out,” he said. “Since we know most skier attendance is from the local community, we intend to work with the HOAs to ensure that a certain number of residents can get passes to ski .” He noted that Homewood will constantly be tweaking the model as they learn what works best. “We are going into this with rigid rules but trying to create a hybrid model that works, that allows us to keep Homewood going. For people who come up for one or two days, we are not going to be doing that anymore.”
According to Chapman, pass prices will remain about the same, for now. But as more amenities are added and infrastructure replaced, pass prices will increase. By how much is unknown at this time.
JMA will be investing heavily in the resort, whose infrastructure has been in steady decline for decades. According to Chapman, JMA will spend $15 million to replace two lifts that are about 50 years old. The Madden Chair will be replaced with a gondola in 2023, and the Ellis Chair by a new high-speed detachable quad a few years later. Homewood already spent $1 million fixing the Ellis Chair’s gearbox last year, which broke down in January, trapping people on the lift for up to four hours.
Homewood, which is one of the few ski resorts on private land in Tahoe, also plans to build new hiking and mountain bike trails, opening up the area to public use in the summer for the first time. The development also includes a small grocery store that will be open to everyone.
“We are trying to do the right thing here; we want to keep Homewood open,” Chapman said. “We are trying to do this hybrid model but at the same time we want to make sure the ski area itself remains viable.”
Nevertheless, some longtime West Shore skiers and homeowners remain dubious.
Paul Hartman lives in the McKinney Rubicon neighborhood in Tahoma and has been a Homewood skier for 20 years. He was married at the ski resort, and both his daughters are on the Homewood ski team.
“I think that everybody who is willing to travel up here and pay the pretty crazy price to ski right now should be able to,” he said. “I don’t think it should be a select group. I think people are going to drop their jaws. I think there are going to be a lot of people pretty pissed off.”
Homewood High & Dry Marina, which JMA also owns, will remain public, but the future of the West Shore Café is up in the air. Chapman said the restaurant’s revenues have been impacted by the decline in skier visits, and JMA may transition the café to what it is primarily used for now — weddings and special events.
While residents like Hartman criticize JMA for not going public with the new plan, Chapman said he and his team are in the midst of finalizing the hybrid model and will present the plan to West Shore HOAs this summer.
“This plan has just been evolving. We are not hiding this at all,” he said. “It’s taken years and years and years to put it in place and refine and analyze it. We think we are doing the right thing for Homewood, and I am proud to be going out to the community to talk about it.”
The fact that a firm called Discovery Land Company is the sales and marketing agent for the new Homewood residences, however, makes some locals nervous. Discovery is the same company that developed the Yellowstone Club, a private community and luxury real estate in Big Sky, Montana, and the only private ski and golf resort in the world.
“It’s more lifestyles of the rich and famous and eking out people from public places,” said Koijane, who is also a passholder. “The deck [Discovery’s Homewood brochure] says it’s all very ‘exclusive.’”
When asked what assurance the community has that in the future Homewood won’t become completely private, Chapman replied: “No assurances at all. We are going into this with the new model because the old model didn’t work.”