It was a straightforward request. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area (MMSA) CEO Rusty Gregory was asking for a letter from the Mono County Board of Supervisors in support of a land exchange between the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and MMSA to secure land at Main Lodge.
But the agenda item raised red flags for many in Mono County, and the hearing Tuesday was entirely lopsided in opposition to the exchange.
Representatives of MMSA did not attend.
Supervisor Tim Alpers, who sponsored the item, his first in 16 years, said Gregory contacted him last month, asking for a letter from him personally. The Supervisor said any letter on policy, especially of this magnitude, must come from the Board. Alpers further said he wanted the item “completely open,” and did not include a draft letter for Board consideration. “I didn’t want to ram anything down anyone’s throat,” he told The Sheet.
“Rusty asked for this … [the June Lake community] mobilized, he’s not here,” Mike Bogash a landowner in June Lake said during the hearing. Indeed, according to Alpers, MMSA VP Real Estate Jim Smith called him Friday night, saying the June Lake Peer Resort Tour had yielded additional information that he and Gregory wanted to add, and asking if the item could be pulled.
On Monday, Board Clerk Lynda Roberts notified Alpers that the item had been agendized for 72 hours already. County Counsel Marshall Rudolph advised that in the interest of the public who would be attending, the agenda item should go forward.
The letter, the second one in two years, would essentially support a second bite at the land exchange apple for MMSA and the USFS.
In February 2012, the Supervisors approved (then Supervisor Tim Hansen dissented) writing a similar letter to federal representatives in support of legislation, HR 2157, setting forth provisions for a land trade with the U.S. Forest Service that would convert about 20 acres of land at the base of Mammoth Mountain Ski Area to private property. It’s not within the Forest Service’s authority to approve an outright sale of the properties, thus the need for a “swap.”
HR 2157, sponsored by Congressman Howard “Buck” McKeon, was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in June 2011. In April 2012, H.R. 2157 was passed in the House of Representatives on April 24 with a vote of 376-2, but didn’t make it through the U.S. Senate. Currently there is no bill pending in Washington D.C.
The exchange involves various parcels up and down U.S. 395 [from Lone Pine to Lake Tahoe]. In Inyo County, two of four parcels are administrative properties, which are owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Land in Mono County would include a parcel by Mono Lake previously owned by Dr. William Cunningham, much of which MMSA purchased a few years ago.
Cunningham took the Board through his recollection of the land swap’s history. A fair exchange, he suggested, would have enabled the Town of Mammoth Lakes and Mono County to build a civic center in Mammoth, would have helped the Hospital (via the McFlex parcel exchange) and would have allowed the Mammoth Lakes Fire Department to expand onto land presently owned by the USFS.
All opposed … ?
During public comment, June Lake residents largely focused on their perception of June Mountain’s poor treatment by Gregory and MMSA. “As Gregory slammed the door on June Lake last July, we were told June Lake has an identity problem,” June local Alice Suszynski commented. “Now, Mr. Gregory wants the officials in this county to help him get his land exchange, without a bill in Washington. He hopes to take this letter to Washington and help get his bill rolling.” She vowed to continue fighting the land exchange until substantive overtures are made to June Lake.
Bogash went on to assert Gregory isn’t being fair by sinking millions into MMSA, but ignoring June Mountain. “He’s got to come up with $5 or $10 or $20 million for the land swap [legislation], but doesn’t have the money to keep June open. Does that seem right?” Bogash asked rhetorically. “Let him give the rights to operate the property to the Forest Service, with an option for someone to come in and buy it. Do what’s right, do what’s fair, and leave money and politics out of this.”
Don Morton said his first concern is with commitments MMSA made to June Mountain. Morton wants to hear from Gregory what kind of discretionary capital commitment above operating money and deferred maintenance MMSA is willing to put in to promote June Mountain as a ski resort. He did insist on a fair exchange, taking into consideration not just the value of the land, but the overarching economic community benefit, as well as the benefit to MMSA’s bottom line when a buyer looks at it. Commitments, he concluded, must be honored.
Hansen said he knows “damn well” that Inyo County’s against it. “Nothing’s fair in this world, and it’s all about money,” he opined. “[This] Board is being asked to support a special dispensation, and it’s not appropriate until you’ve heard from the other counties [Plumas and Stanislaus] involved. Until you do, it’s all speculative.”
Supervisor Fred Stump said that a recent conversation with Forest Supervisor Ed Armenta revealed that there are currently no interested buyers who have contacted the INF about buying JMSA.
Patty Heinrich said she knew of one potential buyer, Wyoming-based Mountain Riders Alliance, which had approached MMSA, but was sidelined due to the asking price. The Sheet spoke with MRA’s founder, Jamie Schectman, who said the firm was started three years ago with the aim of helping “niche, small to medium mom-and-pop ski areas,” that are having trouble competing with larger, corporate-owned resorts. “They’re getting squeezed out,” Schectman said, “while skiing is becoming less and less affordable to the masses.”
Schectman said he’s been following the June Mountain saga. “I’ve skied the entire U.S. 395 corridor, I grew up skiing Mammoth Mountain and Dave McCoy is one of my heroes,” he said. “It’s close to my heart. When the [June Mountain closing] story broke, I took great interest. MRA was started to take back ski areas.”
Having studied small to mid-size ski areas, he described June as “special,” and said it “still has its charm.” MRA, if it had purchased June, wanted to “play to its strength” as “California’s premiere family ski resort,” and also highlight it as perhaps the state’s leading lift-served backcountry ski outlet, lowering lift ticket prices roughly 30% in the bargain. Hosting ski and snowboard events were also part of the plan.
The way Schectman sees it, MMSA is holding June Mountain “hostage” to get some form of entitlements, be it the Rodeo Grounds property or the land exchange, or perhaps both. “June’s operated at a loss for 26 years, and [MMSA CFO] Mark Clausen told me it was mostly considered overflow from MMSA,” he pointed out. “We collected data, attended meetings in June Lake and met with the June Lake Revitalization Committee, including Connie Black and Ralph Lockhart, Alice Suszynski and Supervisor Tim Alpers.”
Clausen, he added, checked out MRA’s interest and qualifications, and finally MRA had a meeting with Gregory. “He told us it was, ‘(Colorful expletive omitted) $14 million, not a dime less,’” Schectman related. “Basically it was his way of saying it’s not for sale.”
He did acknowledge, however, that Clausen also told MRA that any deal would be further complicated by the fact that JMSA has been leveraged as collateral against bank loans.
Schectman balked at the price, indicating it’s unlikely any buyer would spend that much for it. JMSA, he described, has deferred maintenance and upgrade needs, including a new J1 chairlift, snowmaking equipment and infrastructure improvements.
Schectman said he hopes that a philanthropic remedy presents itself, or that MMSA and Starwood change their minds and opt to divest of it. “[JMSA] is probably worth 2-4% of MMSA’s portfolio; that’s a small piece for a lot of headaches.” Meanwhile, he fears economic atrophy might have set in. “That poor community is getting hosed,” he concluded. “It could take them years to recover.”
Chicken or the egg?
Meanwhile, Stump said he’s looking a way to link a letter and MMSA’s commitment to June Lake. “I don’t think we should authorize a letter of support, but I’m not yet at the point where I want to write a letter of opposition. I’d like to hear from the members of the peer resort tour. Some of this is the chicken and the egg. I watched MMSA do a lot of improvements over the years, and those created demand and that helped fund lodging.”
Supervisor Larry Johnston, who was on the recent June Lake Peer Resort Tour, said the “chicken” came first, that the ski area resorts got where they are by investing in facilities, marketing and programs, and the towns followed along. “It’s not about TOT, it’s not about sales tax and it’s not about corporate profits. It’s about building successful communities … the Mountain and June working together.”
“If they come up with a good plan, I’d consider throwing our support behind a clean land exchange,” Chair Byng Hunt said. Hunt cited positive impacts to Mammoth Lakes, in terms of more revenue and a net gain in property tax income to the County. Gregory, he posited, could come out of this a hero. “But he has to act. If he doesn’t, I’ll be seriously rethinking my support of the land trade.”
Supervisor Tim Alpers said Jim Smith, who was on the Peer Resort Tour, wants to convene the group a few more times to help add more information to MMSA’s presentation. The Board continued the public hearing to April 2.
Any further requests for postponement, Alpers added, should be put on the record. “Action has a shelf life.”