VR moves unsettling for community
The news this week that Andy Daly will be moving on, as Vail Resorts eliminates the position of president, is probably unsettling for some, but shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone with more than a passing interest in the ski business.Following a classic economic cycle, the mature ski industry recently experienced a wave of consolidation. Subsequent contraction seems almost inevitable, especially given the present business climate. And undoubtedly, ski executives are almost constantly keeping a wary eye on American Skiing Company, by now the symbol for all that can go wrong if you’re over-extended.Give Vail some credit for starting at the top. Additional cuts may not feel quite as painful after watching the big guys bleed. And part of the idea, of course, is if your captain walks the plank with his head held high, setting a noble example, his subordinates will follow without squawking too much. I also think Vail scores high marks for making sure employees hear the news first, personally, before reading about it in the newspapers.And Daly deserves props for addressing some of the critical issues facing the ski industry, although his veiled acknowledgment that corporate ownership may have a downside comes a little late in the game. But at the very least, the admission that the financial concerns of the shareholders, expressed through the board of directors, comes first, could help dispel the misconception that Vail Resorts is somehow still a community-based company. By the way, that realization may come a little more easily in Summit County, where people are more accustomed to absentee landlords running the show. It may be a little harder to swallow in the Vail Valley, where the mythology of the resort’s founding is still deeply rooted in the community’s consciousness.Perhaps these current events will stimulate a long overdue dialogue on how to balance the interests of Vail’s stockholders with the concerns of the local communities that help sustain the company’s business. Then there’s the sport upon which the whole industry is built and the skiers, the customers who keep the cash registers ringing.That dialogue would be valuable, but I’m not hopeful, considering that the corporate takeover of the industry has also eaten away at the vital political and social essence the very marrow of civic life in resort towns like Vail and Breckenridge. It’s even worse in places like Keystone, where resort-controlled "neighborhood companies" call the most of the shots, leaving many residents feeling dis-empowered; jaded, cynical and hollow.Some observers could even conclude that the elimination of Daly’s position is a signal that the company intends to move in the opposite direction. Upcoming personnel moves may signal the direction Vail Resorts will take. In Summit County, for example, there is speculation that Keystone and Breckenridge will be administered under some sort of unified command structure. If that is the case, will the top executive be someone with long-standing roots in the local community, someone with a passion for skiing and the mountains? Or will it be a relative outsider a real estate specialist perhaps with loyalties to a distant board of directors?It’s an interesting coincidence that the shakeup coincides with the release of a new book (reviewed by me on this page) that’s being touted as an expose of the modern ski industry, showing how corporate ownership is bad for the sport, the environment and mountain towns.In one of the newspaper stories announcing the move, Daly is quoted as saying that Vail Resorts employees should strive to "keep the soul of skiing alive." It will be interesting to see if that’s a realistic expectation under whatever corporate constellation emerges. The resort’s line employees are certainly willing and able to step into that role. The question is, will the leadership be there to back them up?Bob Berwyn is a Silverthorne-based freelancer who reports on skiing and the environment for local, regional and national publications.
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