Vail buys Kirkwood, reactions split |

Vail buys Kirkwood, reactions split

by Adam Jensen

Add Kirkwood Mountain Resort to Vail Resorts’ growing list of Lake Tahoe-area ski resorts.

The Colorado-based company announced Wednesday that it has agreed to buy Kirkwood for about $18 million.

Effective immediately, Heavenly Mountain Resort and Northstar California season passholders have access to Kirkwood. Kirkwood pass holders will be able to ski and ride Heavenly and Northstar.

Michael Dalzell, vice president of sales and marketing for Kirkwood, said the deal has been in the works for a few months and is good news for the business community.

“It made good financial sense to sell,” Dalzell said Wednesday. “It’s no secret that Kirkwood has been looking for a buyer for a number of years now.”

Vail is purchasing the ski resort, as well as selected commercial development opportunities in the Mountain Village at Kirkwood, according to a Wednesday statement. Kirkwood’s shareholders will retain 100 percent of the remaining real estate development parcels in the Kirkwood base area.

The sale, which is waiting for the transfer of the U.S. Forest Service Permit, is expected to close in three to four weeks.

The resort’s big lines and big snow totals are unique among the region’s mountains, and its acquisition will add “a totally different experience” to Vail’s portfolio in the area, said Blaise Carrig, co-president of Vail Resorts.

Online reactions to the announcement have been split, with some people bemoaning the corporation’s purchase and saying Kirkwood will never be the same. The possibility of crowding at the resort was on the minds of some, while others said they thought the change in ownership will bring much-needed improvements to the resort. Many wondered about specific pass and ticket options, and whether lift ticket prices will jump.

“I’ve got mixed emotions,” said professional skier Josh Daiek, who calls Kirkwood home. “I think there’s going to be some really good things that happen. But I’m also a little apprehensive about what’s going to happen to the core of Kirkwood.”

Daiek’s sister, professional snowboarder Rose Marie Daiek, had similar feelings about Wednesday’s announcement.

“I think Kirkwood needs a sugar daddy,” Rose Marie Daiek said. “But I love it for being kind of hoopty, kind of small. I hope it doesn’t blow up.”

“I just really hope that the Kirkwood family that’s been working there for years and years is taken care of, that’s a big concern.”

Kirkwood’s Chief Executive Officer David Likins and Chief Financial Officer Nathan Whaley will no longer be in management positions, but will still be involved in resort and development, as well as real estate, Dalzell said.

Carrig and Casey Blann, vice president of mountain operations at Heavenly, are expected to lead Kirkwood during the transition.

“The rest is still up in the air in terms of VPs,” Dalzell said. “It’s still too early to tell.”

Despite changes in upper management at the resort, Carrig said he expects Vail to retain existing Kirkwood employees.

“The employees here are looking at it as an opportunity to grow and develop their careers here,” Dalzell said. “We have a lot of talented young people here, and it opens things up for them.”

Vail is an appropriate buyer for Kirkwood because its core values and business model made sense at the resort, according to the spokesman. It brings capital and infrastructure improvement, as well as best practices to the table, Dalzell said.

“It’s exciting for Kirkwood,” he said. “We’re getting a lot of comments from people who don’t want us to be like Northstar or Heavenly, but we’re going to stay true to who we are – big snow, big mountain experience with passionate people. We’re going to remain core to what Kirkwood is all about.”

“I think it’s fantastic news for the local community,” he added. “Vail is a major player and they’re going to add significant value to Kirkwood Resort, as well as the whole Tahoe region.”

Andy Wirth, CEO of Squaw Valley Ski Holdings, also said he thought the acquisition would be good for the region as a whole.

Plans for season pass options are expected to be announced mid-March. Heavenly spokesman Russ Pecoraro said he “didn’t foresee any huge price changes at Kirkwood.”

“The reason we bought Kirkwood is because it is unique and special,” Pecoraro said.

Vail officials expect to review the resort’s existing plans before moving forward with any development at the resort, Carrig said, noting the company operated Northstar California for more than a year before announcing any investment plans. Vail bought the North Lake Tahoe-area resort in October 2010.

“I think I like the (Kirkwood) master plan,” Carrig said. “It’s just a matter of what to do when.”

Power problems have long been a concern at the resort, especially following a 2010 fire that destroyed the Kirkwood Valley’s previous power plant. The resort sits between two passes and is not connected to the power grid.

Carrig said he was confident a new, diesel-fired power plant that will come online shortly will be a viable power source for the resort long-term. Plans to connect the valley to the grid will still be the responsibility of Kirkwood Meadows Public Utility District, Carrig said.

He said he expected to ease any concerns from long-time Kirkwood skiers resulting from the purchase as the resort moves forward.

“I think the proof will be in the pudding, and I think we’ll prove it,” Carrig said. He declined to say whether Vail is interested in purchasing any other resorts in the region, but said the company is “growth-minded.”

“You never know where that takes us,” Carrig said.

Tribune editor Trisha Leonard, Tribune reporter Dylan Silver and Sierra Sun’s Kevin MacMillan contributed to this story.