First tracks

The lifts don’t start running until Saturday, but early snow and the promise of first turns drew skiers uphill on foot this week. These tracks are on Spruce Peak at Stowe.

Sugarbush Resort in Warren kicks off its 61st year of skiing this weekend, and its first year under ownership by a major Colorado corporation that has been buying up resorts all over the country — and, no, it’s not Vail.

Colorado-based Alterra Mountain Co. announced the purchase of the two-peaked Mad River Valley resort last Wednesday.

The new Sugarbush leadership team — including President Win Smith, who is staying on at the resort — held a community forum at Lincoln Peak Wednesday evening after press deadline.

According to resort spokesman John Bleh, the event was taped by Mad River Valley Television as well as the resort, and will be able to viewed on the Sugarbush Facebook page and

Lincoln Peak will open at 8 a.m. on Saturday, with the more remote Mount Ellen scheduled to open about a month later on Dec. 21, the first calendar day of winter.

In addition to its regular pass offerings, Sugarbush is part of Alterra’s Ikon Pass, which allows pass holders limited access to Sugarbush this year — most likely full access next season, Bleh said — as well as 41 resorts that are part of the Alterra family.

Bleh said Sugarbush “just came off a record year and didn’t really need to sell,” but the future of the ski industry can’t be gleaned by dwelling on last year’s snowfall totals, and it was prudent to jump at the offer.

“Recent events in the ski industry and the challenge of rising costs posed both by climate change and by doing business in Vermont have convinced me a new owner is need to ensure a sustainable future for Sugarbush,” Smith said.

Bleh said this year will look just like any other year at Sugarbush, and any changes will be incremental.

“No sweeping changes in the pipeline. Things should remain the same,” Bleh said this week.

The last day to buy an Ikon Pass is Dec. 12.

The Valley’s other mountain, the au naturel Mad River Glen, is scheduled to open Dec. 14, but since the resort doesn’t make its own snow, that’ll be dependent on how much falls in the next few weeks and how much of the current snowpack sticks around.

More for the money

Sugarbush president Win Smith will stay on with the company. He described the sale by Summit Ventures, of which Smith owns more than 90 percent, as bittersweet and similar to the emotions he felt at his daughter’s wedding: a tear in his eye and a lump in his throat, but confident the resort would be well treated.

“While things will not be the same, I am excited about this next stage,” Smith told employees. “And I’m comforted knowing we’re not going to say goodbye.”

Smith said all 165 year-round employees will be kept on. The resort also employs as many as 1,000 people daily during the ski season.

Terms of the deal are confidential. Smith and investors bought Sugarbush in 2001 from the American Skiing Co.

He said the recent acquisition of Peak Resorts by Vail Resorts was “the tipping point” in deciding to sell. That deal closed in September and allowed the company to offer a large number of resorts to its Epic Pass holders.

“They’re damned good for the consumer,” Smith said in an interview last Wednesday, noting it was difficult to compete offering a season pass at one place, Sugarbush, for about the same price as passes that offer access to multiple resorts.

Smith noted Alterra would be bringing additional resources to continue to make improvements. It will also continue to support local community efforts, he said, including the program that allows some students to ski free one afternoon.

Since 2001, Sugarbush has invested $74 million in mountain improvements, including seven new lifts, significant upgrades to its snowmaking system, the revitalization of the Lincoln Peak area, as well as construction of a hotel and other units.

About $20 million of the money was raised through EB-5 funds from foreign investors, according to Smith.

The ski area boasts 111 trails and 4,000 acres of skiable terrain.

Smith, 70, a Wall Street executive before buying the resort 18 years ago, said he has “no plans to retire to a gated golf community in Florida” and hopes to maintain his record of skiing 100 days per year.

“It’s emotional,” he said, “but it’s the right thing to do.”

VTDigger contributed to this report.

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