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Kirkwood to Vail in Latest Round of Ski Resort Consolidation

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Herby_fr; Flickr
Herby_fr; Flickr

Shock waves rippled through the ski industry last week with the announcement that Broomfield, Colo.-based Vail Resorts had acquired Kirkwood, a ski area located in California, south of Lake Tahoe. The deal, a veritable steal at just $18 million, brings the number of resorts controlled by Vail Resorts to seven. In addition to its namesake resort and Kirkwood, Vail also controls Breckenridge, Keystone and Beaver Creek in Colorado, as well as Heavenly and Northstar-at-Tahoe in the Lake Tahoe area.

The move is the latest salvo in the consolidation wars that have besieged Tahoe in recent years. Vail, which has owned Heavenly since 2002, fired the first shot, gobbling up Northstar-at-Tahoe in 2010. Squaw Valley, which is just a few miles from Northstar, responded this past September by purchasing the neighboring resort of Alpine Meadows. Now, with Kirkwood falling as well, there are no major resorts left in the Tahoe area that aren't corporately owned.

But is this a good thing or a bad thing? Is this a much-needed infusion of cash into an aging industry or a further sign of the loss of skiing's soul? I had the chance to ski both Kirkwood and Alpine Meadows last week, and I can tell you that this issue will have a lot of loud voices on both sides of the ledger, but the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Critics decry the corporatization of ski areas because they feel it replaces skiing's funky roots with soulless base villages and a homogenized experience, with real skiing a mere afterthought. True skiers, the argument goes, don't need all the shops, spas, hotels, tubing hills, skating rinks, groomed runs and other amenities that seem to make each ski resort just like the last. All they ask for is plenty of snow and short lift lines.

This is a legitimate concern. It'd be naïve to think real estate and the chance to develop it didn't play a large part in both deals, so there exists a possibility that Kirkwood and Alpine Meadows could both find themselves with new base villages and more tourists in the future. Ski resorts are businesses, after all. Vail and Squaw Valley didn't make their purchases to lose money.

But as skiers of Aspen Highlands can no doubt tell you, there can be some pleasant trade-offs to counterbalance the alleged negatives. Yes, Highlands was saddled with a base village that hasn't been very successful, but everyone loves skiing Highland Bowl and riding the Deep Temerity lift, both of which opened following Highlands' acquisition by the Aspen Skiing Company.

In the case of Alpine Meadows, the positives of an alliance with Squaw Valley are clear to see. Alpine Meadows lies just one watershed south of Squaw, and the two can be easily linked via chairlift or gondola in the future. In fact, one entrepreneurial Alpine property owner years ago installed lift towers leading up to the backside of Squaw's fabled KT-22 in anticipation of a future connection.

Right now, shuttles ferry skiers back and forth between the resorts, but when they are linked, the combined ski area will boast well in excess of 6,000 skiable acres, giving it the most lift-served skiing in the U.S. In addition, Alpine Meadows' steep chutes and bowls will combine with those at Squaw to form perhaps the premiere destination in America for expert skiers.

At Kirkwood, the advantages to ownership by a corporation are not as readily apparent. The place exudes a ramshackle charm similar to that found at Arapahoe Basin or Mad River Glen. And Kirkwood's gnarly reputation, based on its extensive expert terrain, doesn't gibe with the intermediate, family-friendly feel of Vail's other resorts.

But therein, I think, lies the chance for Kirkwood's salvation. If Vail Resorts executives are savvy -- and there's no reason to think they aren't -- they realize who Kirkwood's core customers are, and they'll do what they can to ensure such customers don't feel alienated. Thus, in addition to changes to Kirkwood's base area, look for upgraded lifts and expanded terrain to appeal to Kirkwood fans.

As for the changes to the base and other aspects of the resort, it remains to be seen how extensive they'll be, but in talking to current and former Kirkwood employees, it appears changes are not only welcome but long overdue.

Charming as it may be, Kirkwood has been slightly neglected in recent years and is definitely showing its age. For whatever reason, the resort's current ownership group has failed to pay for some necessary upgrades. A case in point is the diesel generators used to supply Kirkwood's power, giving the resort one of the highest costs per kilowatt of anywhere in the country. Upgrading Kirkwood's infrastructure, as well as its lift system, will almost certainly be a boon to both Vail Resorts and its customers.

So though Kirkwood and Alpine Meadows will likely undergo cosmetic changes that may not appeal to their longtime and local customers, there's no reason not to be optimistic about the fates of both. There's also no real reason to fear the corporatization of the ski industry in general. Yes, much of the sport's old-time charm has vanished, but the experience of sliding on snow -- regardless of other resort trappings -- just keeps getting better.

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