Corporate bottom line trumps community concerns as Mammoth Mountain makes short-notice decision to close June Mountain
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY —Dave McCoy must be rolling his eyes, and Andrea Mead Lawrence is no doubt rolling over in her grave as yet another small mountain town faces the sting of corporate economic realities with the impending closure of a ski area that has sustained local mom and pop lodges and retailers for decades.
Residents of friendly June Lake, set in a spectacular glacier-carved canyon in the eastern Sierra Nevada of California, learned a few weeks ago that June Mountain won’t open for summer operations and may not open for the coming winter season — never mind that local motels have already booked numerous reservations for loyal customers.
June Mountain has been owned and operated by Mammoth Mountain for decades. Mammoth, founded by the iconic Dave McCoy, is now primarily owned by the Starwood Capital Group, a private East Coast investment group.
Some June Lake residents said it’s inconceivable that a corporation could make this type of decision, affecting so many people, on such short notice. They were left wondering why they weren’t warned a year ago, potentially creating an opportunity to stave off last minute ultimatums.
The town and the wider community have rallied to try and prevent the closure this winter, with some great discussion and brainstorming on the Save June Mountain Facebook page.
Claiming losses of $1.5 million, Mammoth Mountain CEO Rusty Gregory faced the angry community at a meeting last week, claiming that pressure from banks to cut costs and losses forced his hand. Listen to an interview with Gregory on this iTunes podcast.
Gregory said skier visits at June Mountain have dropped by half in recent years, from more than 80,000 to less than 40,000, which is not enough to sustain the ski area. He also said he’s heard from Vail Resorts several times expressing an interest in buying Mammoth Mountain, but added that the resort is not for sale.
But some local residents turned that around and charged that Mammoth has never done enough to promote June as a stand-alone ski area.
For Gregory and Mammoth Mountain, it’s all about business. For June Lake, the closure would directly affect scores of families and individuals who are either directly employed by the ski area, or who work in businesses that depend on revenue from ski-related businesses.
According to local teacher Anna Strathman, as many as 30 percent of the parents at her school are employed either directly by the ski area or by related businesses.
“I cannot imagine, with out small population, that they will be able to exist here without the ski area,” she said.
Other residents have also said that, without the ski area, June Lake could become a ghost town.
“This was swift and deadly, like a rattlesnake striking,” said County Supervisor-elect Tim Alpers. The economy is tough enough as it is … If you close down even just for one year, it could take a long time, if ever, to come back,” Alpers said, also expressing dismay about the short notice.
“It was a terrible snow year, and the banking industry has really tightened up … Mammoth Mountain was very close to defaulting on some of its loans. They had to show the banks they were making some cuts,” he continued, trying to give Mammoth some benefit of the doubt.
Rather than casting blame, Alpers said the short-term focus is on figuring out a way to get the ski area open for this winter. If it doesn’t operate, he estimated that 20 percent of the local business might simply shut their doors for the winter season.
Aside from any pressure Mammoth might be feeling from its lenders, Gregory also appeared to be using the crisis as a way to exact development concessions from the local community.
He told residents and elected officials that the ski area needs an extensive modern bed base to sustain itself in the long run, and also challenged local governments to step up financial support for year-round air service.
Also at issue is June Mountain’s permit with the US. Forest Service, which requires the ski area to operate. There is no formal escape clause, but the Forest Supervisor does have discretion to authorize a period of non-operation.
The issue has been covered by the Inyo Register, the paper of record for the region in this story.
The Mammoth Times wrote about the meeting here.
The Mountain Riders Alliance blog also has coverage, including video clips from the meeting.