Tahoe Basin residents, environmental freedom fighters and nostalgia whores fighting KSL Capital Partners on the proposed expansion and re-imagining of Squaw into a Redwood Shores-type skyline, a milquetoast multiplex, an office park-ean upcropping of 10-story units which look like a combination of Salt Lake’s flavorless skyline and an Extended Stay America off The 680, with a bit more manufactured rough hewn wood thrown in for flavor…are fighting the wrong fight.
Because guess what? Incorporation or no incorporation, snow or no snow—this development is going to happen.
And no, no matter how much that fist gets balled up and Tahoe McFly stands outside KSL’s HQ threatening incorporation saying, “Hey Biff, get your god damn hands off my mountain” the bulldozers are already coughing up black exhaust in wait.
It’s going to happen because there is, literally, nothing — or nobody, with the exception of the company’s own funding cycle, to stand in the way.
Local electeds will disrupt this development plan about as effectively as a chain monkey stops Gaper Guy and his GoPro from skidding up 80 on the Friday of Presidents’ Day weekend.
Squaw is out of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s footprint so the countless community forums and six-figure consulting fees that smother softly every Tahoe development this side of a dog run with the fluffed pillow of brackish bureaucratic backwash is no longer the angry mulleted closer snarling in the way.
That leaves the disgruntled NIMBYish self-anointed steward of the land who doesn’t mind all the dense old-growth forest that’s been clear cut and dismantled by generations before him (see: the entire Tahoe Basin, pay particular attention to the East Shore) but does, in fact, mind deeply rolling up to a giant Wells Fargo-looking branch office of Alpine grossness blocking his views of Granite Chief.
KSL Capital Partners, the Denver Colorado-based equity firm which houses almost $4 billion in vacation spot assets, picked up troubled Basin ski bargains during the mid-’00s downturn including East West Partners, Squaw and Alpine Meadows, leaving most of the day-to-day to San Francisco-based development firm JMA.
KSL’s acquisition of Squaw from the Cushing family in 2010 was an immediate mandate by the company to expand the footprint of the resort at the base of the hill.
How do we know this?
Um, because it’s ON THEIR WEBSITE: “The firm’s investment philosophy is to seek to generate attractive rates of return for its investors by improving the operating performance of its portfolio companies rather than relying on financial engineering.” And, “Additionally, we strive to capitalize a business appropriately to position it for future growth.”
The business at hand in Olympic Valley is quadrupling the amount of beds with 1,200 new units on 83 acres by razing the current parking lot, locker room, Children’s World, the Olympic Village area and the Olympic House.
To be clear, KSL didn’t buy Squaw because dawn patrol queuing at KT on a pow day is super fun or because a board member’s goal is to make it halfway across the pond smoking a spliff and pounding a Pibbr tall boy whilst wearing a Tinky Winky costume during the Cushing Crossing or because the capital partners all get together once a year with McConkey stickers slapped on their dome protectors and take down Light Towers for CR.
They bought it to (again, click the Investment Strategy tab on the private equity firm’s website)…make money.
Squaw president and CEO Andy Wirth is not your friend and not your bro who just happened to become a major figure in the local ski biz.
Andy Wirth didn’t get his mitts on a first-edition of Squallywood, pack up his Vermont-plated Outback and live on ramen and coke for three years because Squaw was the life for him.
Andy Wirth is a corporate shill who works for a private equity firm dedicated to investments in the travel and leisure businesses.
Andy Wirth was strategically placed in the community for a few years to earn the public’s trust before revealing the master plan.
Like a tracked out Red Dog, he will hit it and quit it.
Where will he eventually go? Probably Whistler. On Dec. 3, 2012 KSL acquired a controlling interest in BC’s big gun by gobbling up troubled Intrawest’s nine-million-plus shares in conjunction with a restructuring of the company’s refinancing. As a result of the sale by Intrawest, KSL ousted a bunch of Interwest brass and replaced them with company cronies Eric Resnick and Peter McDermott.
Intrawest, it should be noted, is the “inventor” of Skiealestate and responsible for plopping down villages with Pita Pits in places like Whistler, Mammoth and Squaw — the blueprint for today’s proposed development under the Funitel.
Intrawest also went broke in the mid-’00s at the onset of the Great Recession and was bought out in the winter of 2006 by, you guessed it, a hedge fund appropriately named Pirate Capital.
Pirate is a $2 billion firm run by former Goldman Sachs number gnasher Thomas Hudson (not a skier). He started buying shares of Intrawest in May, 2005 when they traded below $20 and as the stock prices climbed, so did Pirate’s position until they took a controlling stake in the firm.
Companies like Pirate and KSL care for schralping the gnar about as much as Lloyd and Harry cared about Mary Swanson’s money. Yes folks, hedge funds and private equity firms have as much to do with the sport as the oil painting and bronze statue shops in their village retail spaces.
You can rest assured the master plan for KSL’s Squaw has never been to make money off you, The Bro, as you poach your roommate’s Silver Pass or work part time at Squaw Kids so you can make turns and kick it at the Chammy. You are not the end consumer. You are the nuisance that proves the rule. Because you will eventually accept the development and still tweet about the stoke. #newvillageisnthalfbad
And they will be right, again.
Squaw only turns in the black because of the shadow cast by a huge rock the majority of its visitors would just as soon strip mine and turn into their counter top. Squaw
potentially makes money because it’s the most dramatic setting of any ski resort in North America.
A resort which also happens to be in the backyard of the Silicon Valley.
…And all that money from said Valley has been pumping into Utah, Colorado, BC and Jackson Hole for far too long — at least that’s the quarter billion dollar bet KSL is willing to make.
Some still plug their ears and go lalala and simply want the good ol’ days to return by doing the gross hark back to the heyday of Cushing-run Squaw.
Let’s take a look at those times for a moment, shall we?
As bad as the specter of another vacuous village (or DeathStar II) springing up where there’s now a…parking lot, (sidenote: love that the Sierra Club is now in the business of blacktop protection in the name of preventing “irreversibl(e) harm to current aquifer water tables by over consumption”) those Cushing days were mostly lacking overlord empathy as well.
One has to go back to 1950, when Alex and Justine were said to have joined their guests for lunch on the deck in full view of the mountain run to get a warm-and-fuzzy on The First Family of Squaw
The trouble started in ‘52, when the original lodge burned down, the first of many, errrr, suspicious fires that happened during the half-century of Cushing rule; the resort had many, um, controlled burns on the property through the decades, notably most of the on-mountain facilities from the 1960 Winter Games.
From on-mountain services to the marketing department, it was no secret the Cushings liked to run the resort on a budget tighter than Julia’s DIN setting.
From the real-time adventure of finding out which lifts were “really” open that day, to the more tragic, like when three women were found dead in the resort’s parking lot in the winter of 2008, that the Cushing clan could serve up strife is a tale as old as High Camp’s carpeting.
In the case of the latter, at least two victims were employees of the resort. They died of carbon monoxide poisoning because they were sleeping in an ‘83 Olds overnight when snow from a storm blocked the tail pipe.
So if you read between the lines, the deceased weren’t provided with or couldn’t afford housing on their resort salary.
Sure, the parking lot deaths are an extreme example, but the indentured servitude that usually goes hand-in-hand with working in the ski biz was just as big a hallmark of Team Cushing as the coveted Swiss Cross patrol jacket.
That’s why in 2010, the unthinkable happened — an investment firm was welcomed with open arms to the Basin over a half-century-old family-run business.
But here’s the part that really blows: The proposed village is smeared shit on a page that tries to pass for fingerpainting.
It’s the design, stupid. Because, once more, development is going to happen, period.
In other words, this malingering mall of mediocre is what you should be complaining about to your local board, spouse, twitterfeed, rag:
Call it AT&T Park syndrome.
In 2000, owners of the San Francisco Giants had a unique opportunity in privately financing their own waterfront ballpark. They took a piece of ignored waterfront on the East side of the Bay Bridge and built a 42,000-seat complex on a nice parcel of landfill and industrial waste.
Now that stadium has given life to an entirely new part of San Francisco and features some of the best views—from any seat—in all of professional sport. It has also made the owners very rich.
The problem is, the park is about as exciting to look at as bitmapped porn from the ’80s. The ball field was designed by Populous, the cookie-cutter, stadium-in-a-box (just add waterfront) architecture firm which has also cranked out Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field, Houston’s Reliant Stadium, Minneapolis’ Target Field, New York’s Yankee Stadium and Citi Field and Cincinatti’s Great American Ballpark over the last decade and a half.
These are the Toyota Camrys of venues. Nice, comfortable, non-offensive and more tasteless than your morning office coffee.
KSL has taken a similar tack with its design of the new facility, tapping the Populous-equivalent in resort leisure and industrial design, Hart Howerton.
The firm’s Nilla Wafer-safe portfolio includes such transcendent properties as the Nashville Airport, CALpers, the Talisker Tower in Park City, the Auberge Inn & Spa in South Carolina and the Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado.
Can’t recall what any of these look like? Good, then Hart Howerton is doing its job.
You see, building buildings that elicit reaction or spark vague memory or create controversy or even simply reflect or juxtapose their surrounds…does not attract loads of visitors. At least, not unless they’re designed by Gehry, Gropius, Sullivan, Niemeyer or Aalto.
And KSL by its own definition is about protecting its investment, not creating a showpiece.
It’s nice, for a moment, to fantasize the argument over this inevitable erection of blasé at the basé of one of California’s most speciously privatized natural wonders isn’t about the Sierra Club’s talking points of ruining a “fragile, alpine ecosystem or huge carbon footprints” nor about some kind of bro-y nostalgia, reinforced by no fact and foggy memory of blower winters gone by.
It’s nice to think a unified front of concerned citizens and closed-off capitalists could put differences aside to team up for one simple goal: creating an actual beating, breathing, pulsing, thriving center of both commerce and conservatism — a scar upon the land, but a scar that nonetheless declares, “I’m the kind that adds character, like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial or the one on Harrison Ford’s chin.”
Instead we’ll get something Squaw’s never been: Boring.
The first week of February kicks off sports’ shoulder season—approximately now until tourney time/spring training. To celebrate, DPB released its Tahoe Trilogy, three stories about the current state of Lake Tahoe’s financial outlook, environmental health and planned development. To read the first part, click here. To read the second part, click here.