Why Squaw is fucked. (Click here to see how to un-fuck it.)

By Andrew J. Pridgen

Before we jump feet first into the water theme park and the specifics of the Squaw redevelopment plan which they all but burnt the edges of to make it look like an old treasure map like you did for a 5th grade project, let’s get a few things straight about KSL Capital Partners/Squaw Valley USA’s planned development.

  1. Squaw parent company KSL does not give a fuck whether you like them or their plans. KSL is a private equity firm. What they do is purchase poorly managed or undervalued (or sometimes both) resort properties—and find the quickest way to develop, repurpose and turn a profit. Think of them as house flippers. KSL knows the playbook to take the structure down to the studs, spiff it up and sell it to the bigger enterprise that doesn’t want to mess with pulling out the carpet or moving the gas line for a new range. Does a lot of the quirky, fun, crazy personality of the surroundings get stripped out in the process? Ab-so-fucking-lutely. That’s the point. The people KSL puts in charge don’t give a FUCK. They really don’t. Beyond C-level, KSL really doesn’t give a fuck about people who work for them either, (though that’s nothing new to Squaw employees). They don’t give a fuck about the places. And they certainly don’t give a fuck about the environment or community affected. Why? They’re a big corporation charged with one thing: making a shitton of money off property. And big corporations charged with making a shitton of money off property don’t see people as people or places as places. Those things are simply lines on a spreadsheet or assets they can use to do the work they need to do to get the project through and sold to the highest bidder(s). If people are anything to KSL, they’re hindrances (see: the 350 who submitted comments on the Draft EIR—nearly all of whom oppose the project.) KSL and its top surrogates do it for the paycheck. They aren’t wired to care, but more importantly, caring—about you or about the land—is not in their charter.
  2. KSL’s portfolio includes $4 billion in vacation spot assets. Squaw/Alpine-East West Partners is currently the only mountain property on their roster (interestingly, and much to their chagrin, those assets are not listed in the ‘realized control-oriented investments’ = #corporatespeak for shit we flipped then got paid muthafuckas.) In fact, Squaw’s parent-parent company is real-estate investment firm CNL Properties which picked up KSL’s resort wing in 2004 in a $2.4 billion deal that at the time included the Grand Wailea in Maui, Hawaii; the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix; and La Quinta PGA West in Palm Springs, Calif. Even if they didn’t have much experience above sea level, KSL can still sniff a bargain—at any altitude. Ergo, they started coming in and picking up troubled Basin ski properties during mid-’00s recession. Businesses they snapped up included East West Partners, Squaw and Alpine Meadows.
  3. Squaw is out of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s footprint so the countless community forums and six-figure consulting fees that softly smother every Tahoe development this side of a dog run doesn’t apply here. KSL knew they were getting a tear-down when they purchased Squaw from the Cushings in 2010. What helped make the deal look tremendously sweet was the fact that the only government entity standing in the way of mega-development was Placer County, which as an agency is not staffed or armed to analyze this size development. A 3,800-page EIR is roughly three times the size of War and Peace and would take all of the planners and attorneys (and Tolstoy scholars) available to a state or federal agency to make sense of. Asking a rural California county, already victimized by post-recession cutbacks to fend off a multi-billion-dollar enterprise, is untenable. KSL knew this to be the crux of their investment, and slamming through the improvements would be a matter of outspending and outlasting local government.
  4. KSL’s acquisition of Squaw from the Cushing family was an immediate mandate by the company to expand the footprint of the resort at the base of the hill. And that mandate hasn’t changed. It’s not even in their misperceptions doc. (<-read this in your best Julia Child accent next time you’re at a party…people will fucking dig it.) In fact, six years in and they’re already 36 months past industry standard initial time-to-profitability deadlines. How do we know this applies to KSL? 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.”
  5. The business at hand for KSL 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. This project, audacious as it may seem, is going to take another 25 years—beyond approval—to complete. But as soon as plans are vetted and approved, the selling can start. While KSL points out construction is not continuous over the next quarter century (true) the mission is to sell the plans to as many developers that bite which likely will mean: 1) projects half-finished 2) projects not being built to spec/corners cut and 3) much more opportunity for absentee ownership/management and the infighting that ensues creeping into Olympic Valley.
  6. NOBODY in place at KSL knows how the actual appeal of Squaw works or why it’s good or why it’s bad. Nor do they bother with even tacit acknowledgement that the acreage at the foot of Granite Chief could be one of the state’s, if not the country’s, biggest and most-necessary public-private restoration projects in history. They don’t need to. Or they don’t think they need to. They just need to follow the connect-the-dots to profitability (or in this case perceived profitability) so they can move it down the assembly line and let it be someone else’s problem. They’re not creating anything. They’re actually destroying…well, something. The problem is, nobody knows how long the local environment or economy can bear the burden of companies like this. Maybe another 20-30 years. Maybe a lot fewer. The landscape of how a visitor spends his vacation dollar in the mountains and, more importantly, who that visitor is is also changing dramatically—in time with the changes to the climate and environment and the way we view dated political modalities in this country. One thing we do know: Eventually this shit storm of greed and deception catches up and while everybody will forget who KSL and its surrogates are, nobody will forget what they do.
  7. If one could summarize a 3,800-page document it’s that the plan shows KSL has run out of ideas. What that means is it manifests the worst of yesterday’s trends in mountain architecture and infrastructure—one that ignores the landscape beyond showcasing the backdrop through a handful of carefully placed sheets of plate glass in the worst way possible. And one that apparently has no idea what the demographic of tomorrow’s skier will be. (More on that here.)
  8. Actual plan? Well, there’s some interesting and likely crazy illegal stuff about building heights and returning melted parking lot snow into the Squaw Creek aquifer…but the real crux of what’s going to happen is in the Village at Squaw’s Specific Draft Plan section 8-2:

Utilities:

Master Draining Study, TBD

Water Master Plan, TBD

Sanitary Sewer Master Plan, TBD

Dry Utilities Master Plan, TBD

Fiscal:

Fiscal Analysis, TBD

Other:

Landscape Master Plan, TBD

Implementation Policies and Procedures Manual, TBD

There is, however, a parking master plan. So at least there’s a place to put your car while everything else is getting figured out.

…So that’s it. That’s what KSL is proposing to do and how they’ll do it. Back to the house flipper analogy: You know when those people in those house shows just go in and you’re like, oh those built-ins are nice or those counters have a little character or why not leave that pink tile in the bathroom alone. And instead, it’s just like, nope—fucking claw hammer. And then after they’re done it looks like a fucking Courtyard by Marriott lobby breakfast station. That is what Squaw will be.

The problem is nothing KSL is proposing to build plays off of Squaw’s root appeal. And it never will. Shoehorning a 108-feet-tall, 90,000-square-foot “mountain adventure center” (including, yes: the water theme park) or throwing down a ridiculously inconvenient gondola between Squaw and Alpine or trying to evoke the 1960 Winter Olympics is as fucking callow as it is an inaccurate answer.

KSL’s current spin on the Gordon Gecko greed-is-good mantra won’t save Squaw, or the masses who love it, from its own machinations. If executed to current spec, the plan certainly will guarantee the community, the environment, the patrons and probably the host company—will all lose.

But greed could factor into a sustainable solution.

What is it? Click here.

Andrew J. Pridgen is the author of “Burgundy Upholstery Sky”.

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