From Vail resort to Vail Resorts
We bought a piece of land in the valley and developed the ski area for $1.5 million; in recent years the value of Vail’s stock has reached close to $1 billion.
In those early years, we were happy to sell building lots for $4,500 to $9,500; a few years ago a single gas station sold for five times what developing the whole mountain cost us.
In 1970 we celebrated when Colorado was awarded the 1976 Olympic Winter Games. Then aggressive environmentalists who opposed the Games organized a statewide referendum on the issue. Our dream of a Colorado Winter Olympics died.
Horrendous gasoline shortages in the mid-1970s cut deeply into skier days. And in the season of 1980-81, the weather itself left us stoically resigned as snowless day followed snowless day, until we became used to the fact there were often more lift operators and ski patrollers on the mountain than skiers.
The darkest day in all my years at Vail was March 26, 1976, when two cars on the Lionshead gondola got tangled in the cable atop a lift tower and plunged 125 feet to the ground. Four skiers died; eight were badly hurt. The rest of that nightmare day was taken up by heroic ski patrollers bringing down 176 people from the 31 stranded cars. A part of the next decade was taken up with settling the ensuing lawsuits.
The fear of lawsuits led directly to the decision later in 1976 by Vail Associates board members – myself included – to sell the resort for $13 million to a fund controlled by board member Harry Bass, a Texas oil man.
From the start Harry and I clashed, and I was eventually forced to leave the company. I spent the next 12 up-and-down years elsewhere, including at rustic Snowbasin, Utah, and at then-spanking-new Arrowhead in the Vail Valley, which is now part of Vail Resorts.
Eight years later Harry found himself out of a job himself when the trustees of the fund, including his own children, pulled their money out of Vail because they didn’t like the return they were getting on their investment.
The new owner of Vail was a friendly, talkative communications multimillionaire named George Gillett Jr., who had once owned the Harlem Globetrotters, as well as a piece of the Miami Dolphins. When he bought Vail for $130 million in 1985, his fortune was in television stations and meat packing. George was aggressive in expanding and developing the ski area. In my case he was most generous when in 1989 he put me back on the Vail Associates payroll.
In 1992 George Gillett had to sell Vail when he went bankrupt, with debts mounting close to a billion dollars. He was replaced by Apollo Ski Partners, a group of New York investment bankers who created a powerhouse corporation that in 1996 bought two other Colorado ski-area gems -Keystone and Breckenridge – from Ralston Purina. Apollo now rules a skiing kingdom of 10,818 acres served by ninety-one lifts, which attracts a total of 4.5 million skiers each year.
The battle over the development of our luxurious sister resort, Beaver Creek, went on for more than a decade. So has the conflict over the fate of the Canadian lynx, which supposedly had prime habitat where Blue Sky Basin now lies. On Oct. 19, 1998, eco-terrorists set fire to three on-mountain buildings and four chairlifts at Vail in the most violent act of environmental protest ever. The replacement cost was $12 million. Yet the courts ruled that Blue Sky Basin could go forward.