Ski resort unification cut off by landowner

Jeff Tyler Apr 18, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: The snow report from the Squaw Valley ski resort today up in Lake Tahoe is kinda eh — 96-inch base, nothing new in the past 24 hours. Spring conditions, it says, which are always a mixed bag.

That’s not a bad metaphor, actually, for the ski industry as a whole. There’s a lot of pressure to consolidate in the face of a weak economy. Here in California, two big resorts up in Tahoe want to merge and become the biggest ski area in the country. Just one thing stopping the deal: the guy who owns land in between.

Marketplace’s Jeff Tyler has a profile of the man in the middle.

Jeff Tyler: This season, the Lake Tahoe ski resort Squaw Valley bought its neighbor — Alpine Meadows. Andy Wirth is CEO of Squaw Valley Ski Holdings.

Andy Wirth:The two resorts combined provide over 6,000 ski-able acres within 10 minutes of each other. So they offer something that nobody else has in this marketplace. At least, in Northern California.

Tyler: I’m surprised that you didn’t say that it’s the biggest resort in the U.S., if you take them together.

Wirth: Well, that fundamentally inaccurate. We’re not connected. We’re not together as one resort. We connect the resorts with a convenient shuttle.

I tried taking that shuttle.

Tyler: OK. Here at the Squaw-Alpine bus stop at 2:01.

It took me 35 minutes to get from one resort to the other. And that only got me to the parking lot. But the ride doesn’t bother snowboarder Rusty Bailey.

Rusty Bailey: It’s nice to be able to ski both mountains whenever you want. Get a pass. Works at both places. Got a bus that goes in between. I think it’s really convenient.

No. What would be really convenient would be a chair-lift that connects one resort with the other. That’s likely to happen eventually. But it all depends on local landowner Troy Caldwell.

Troy Caldwell: We own a piece of property. It’s 460 acres. It lies between Squaw Valley ski area and Alpine Meadows ski area.

He paid less than half-a-million dollars for the land more than 20 years ago. To raise the money, the Caldwells liquidated everything.

Caldwell: We basically got rid of our home and our spec house and whatever we could to make it work. We ended up living in a trailer when we moved on the property.

That trailer was without electricity or running water for about six years. But no matter the hardship, Caldwell resisted offers to sell.

Caldwell: We’ve been offered in the $45 million category for it.

That’s right. He turned down $45 million so he could build his own minimal ski resort. He has no partners. Caldwell is building it on a budget of $50,000 to $60,000 a year.

Caldwell: But I own everything. I don’t have any mortgages. We’re able to make $50,000, $60,000 kind of work for us.

He does a few odd jobs, like parking cars for the Alpine Meadows resort. At the end of the day, Caldwell shuttles skiers to the parking lot in his own personal truck.

Caldwell: I’m going up you guys, if you need a ride. You got boots, poles. You got it all.

Caldwell is a multi-millionaire on paper. So why is he spending his time parking cars?

Caldwell: The ski areas pay us to park the cars there. And that’s also a good source of revenue for us.

He also saves money when people like retired banker Pete Crosby volunteer to work on his planned ski resort, called White Wolf.

Pete Crosby: Like Troy told me, he said, “If I get a lot of cash in my wallet, it’s not good when I’m driving my car because it bothers my back.” So he said, “I don’t need a fat wallet.”

Caldwell resists taking a partner because he doesn’t want to sacrifice control. That would be a smart move, says ex-banker Pete Crosby, who used to work with entrepreneurs speculating on real estate development.

Crosby: They want to take control. They’ve got a lot of money invested in it. They want to control it. And they’re going to impose their own ideas. In many cases, they’ll change it substantially. Primarily for economic reasons.

Caldwell doesn’t seem to let economic considerations affect his plans. When he runs out of money, he puts his project on hold. He expects it could take another 10-15 years to get his ski resort going. Squaw Valley management hopes it won’t take that long to strike a deal with Caldwell.

In Alpine Meadows, Calif., I’m Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.