If you have been paying close attention to changes in the Tahoe ski industry over the last five years, you might be dizzy by now. Resorts have changed hands in rapid-fire succession. More than a billion has been spent on ski development around the Basin. And the transformation of Tahoe skiing is not even close to over.

The latest news comes out of Northstar, where Vail Resorts recently announced a new master plan that gives a 10- to 15-year vision for new projects at the North Tahoe resort, including a new gondola, a series of new ski lifts, and new snowmaking.

Northstar’s new master plan is just the latest salvo in an ongoing arms race between the two Colorado companies that now dominate Tahoe skiing — Vail Resorts and KSL Capital Partners. Northstar’s master plan comes after a lengthy resort development phase that added more than $1 billion of village development and real estate to the base of the mountain. KSL Capital Partners has essentially followed Northstar’s development pattern — only in reverse. Last year was the first year of the resort’s $70 million “renaissance,” much of which focused on on-mountain improvements. Now the Denver-based private equity firm is launching a massive village expansion plan that would add 1,200 condos and a water park to the base of the mountain.

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But the Vail-KSL arms race has not just been confined to North Tahoe. Vail and KSL have both gone on a ski resort buying binge, with Vail buying Kirkwood Mountain Resort, as well as Afton Alps and Mount Brighton in the Midwest recently. Since acquiring Squaw Valley, KSL has bought Alpine Meadows, added access to Sierra-at-Tahoe for certain season passholders, and bought a 24-percent stake in Whistler Blackcomb.  

The stream of news coming from Vail Resorts and KSL Capital Partners has turned Tahoe into the epicenter for ski resort investment in the nation.

“Tahoe is the story in skiing right now,” said Bill Rock, Northstar’s chief operating officer. “What’s happening in Tahoe with the investment is great for everyone. Customers are benefiting.”

At Northstar, the resort’s new master plan includes new chairlifts and a surface lift in the Sawtooth Ridge area would open up 550 acres of new lift-served skiing terrain. The area offers some of the steepest skiing at Northstar.

“It is going to be a little more like lift-served backcountry than traditional tree skiing,” said Jessica Van Pernis, senior communications manager for Northstar.

Northstar also proposes a new lift connecting the Northstar Village directly to Lookout Mountain, and a new lift to access tree skiing at the edge of the resort in an area referred to as Sawmill Pond.

But for anyone who has experienced the laborious process of making it to the mountain from the parking lot at Northstar, the highlight of the master plan could be a new gondola planned to connect the resort’s lower Castle Peak parking to the Northstar Village.

Rock said the gondola will decrease traffic on the upper portion of Northstar Drive, while giving guests a quicker and more convenient way to get to the mountain. 

Comments Raise Issues

The Northstar Master Plan is in the early stages of project review with Placer County. The public comment on the Notice of Preparation closed on Dec. 5. An environmental impact report has yet to be formulated for the project, during which time the public will have ample chances to comment.

Northstar is already confident that the plan will have support from local environmental groups, since the resort’s habitat management plan was developed in collaboration with conservationists. The plan puts 2,350 acres into habitat conservation, closes other areas to recreation during deer fawning periods, and protects important stream zones, but some environmental groups, including the Tahoe Area Sierra Club, have questioned Northstar’s placement of lifts in land zoned for timber production.

The Northstar Property Owners Association sent a letter in support of the new lifts and new snowmaking, while asking that the association be consulted on the location of the gondola and warming huts.

But one neighboring property owner is opposing the plan. The Aspen Grove Owners Association Board sent a letter via their attorneys at the Truckee law firm Stoel Rives, referring to the litigation between the 180-member homeowner association adjacent to the Northstar Village and Northstar owners and Village developers. (Read more about the Aspen Grove/Northstar litigation online here)

Aspen Grove opposes the master plan because of drainage issues and additional snowmaking that the homeowners association says could exacerbate alleged water seepage that Aspen Grove representatives say is damaging their homes, killing trees, and undermining the condominium’s parking lot.

“The past practices of the county has been to suspend the processing of project entitlements until any and all existing code violations are addressed,” the homeowners wrote in a letter to Placer County addressing the issues. “Aspen Grove requests that the county adhere to this policy, and discontinue processing any further entitlement requests for the Northstar Village…”
Aspen Grove particularly opposed adding more pavement and new snowmaking to an area where it alleges drainage facilities are failing and damaging neighboring property.

“As recognized by the court, Northstar’s current storm water facilities are overloaded and failing under existing conditions, resulting in continuing damage to Aspen Grove’s property,” said the letter. “…The introduction of water onto the mountain in amounts and locations where it would not naturally fall, in the form of snowmaking, has already altered groundwater flows in and around the Aspen Grove site.”

The Future of Tahoe Skiing

South Tahoe resident Jeremy Evans, author of “In Search of Powder: A Story of America’s Disappearing Ski Bum,” said if you want to visualize the future of Tahoe skiing, look east to Colorado.

“What we are seeing is what has happened in Colorado for a decade now,” said Evans. “The pieces were already put in place a decade ago and now they are going for check and checkmate, and we were not ready for it.”

The changes come with mixed emotions. On one hand: “When you have the influx of cash and opportunity that comes with being bought by Vail, a lot of opportunities come your way that before didn’t exist,” said Evans.

But the loss of locally owned ski areas and the increase of corporate-run ski areas bring many questions about whether the resorts are driven by pure profit, or if they are truly part of the community.

“It is kind of like house flippers,” Evans said. “Do you want people to come in, buy a house, fix it up, and flip it, and leave the neighborhood? I don’t want that. I want people who are committed to the community.”

Ski corporations are also moving into places they have not formerly occupied, worrying even more the local community members. Dax Willard, owner of Willards Sports Shop and Tahoe native, said he became concerned when he heard a Vail Resorts-owned ski and sports shop called Breeze was opening up in downtown Tahoe City. The Willards’ other ski shop, Squaw Valley Ski Shop, was once an institution in Squaw Valley, but was ushered out of after Squaw Valley Ski Holdings (a division of KSL Capital Partners) decided not to renew the shop’s lease, and opened its own shop in the space once the Squaw Valley Ski Shop left.

Willard said that large corporations can buy in larger bulk, negotiate with brands to carry products that used to be exclusive to other shops, and generate bigger margins. But corporate-owned ski shops will take their profits and send them back to out-of-state headquarters, said Willard.

“A lot of people bought their houses here because they did not like that mentality,” he said.

In some ways, Tahoe skiing is on an irreversible course toward change. It is just a matter of how much change the area will see.

Evans, whose book chronicled the changing landscapes and cultures in ski towns across the nation, said Tahoe residents should brace for an altered skiing landscape.

“I think it is exciting times, but I think we should be a little bit guarded,” said Evans.

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  • David Bunker

    David Bunker almost dropped out of journalism school to hunt non-native rats on an uninhabited Pacific island. Instead, he graduated college and launched into a career of dump truck driving and ditch digging before taking up writing as a profession. He’s written for newspapers and magazines across the West and won numerous first place awards in the California and Nevada press associations.

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