Cali’s Bear Valley could go way of Vermont’s Mad River Glen

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Skiers of all stripes who love their local hill are forming a cooperative to jointly purchase Bear Valley Mountain Resort. Photo by Matt Hansen/Powder

What do the Green Bay Packers have in common with a tiny ski area in California? Aside from playing in the cold, if investors have their way, Bear Valley Mountain could soon join the Cheeseheads by sharing co-op ownership status.

"The mountain is having challenges and the owners are trying to sell it," says former Mountain Hardwear and Timbuktu CEO Mike Wallenfells, who has a house in Bear Valley and has been skiing it for years. "We've formed a cooperative that hopes to take over the mountain and make a uniquely locally owned and operated community mountain … think Mad River Glen in Vermont."

As first reported in a story by GrindTV affiliate Powder magazine, Mad River Glen is the only other resort in the country currently owned by a co-op, which has proven a successful model. Wallenfells’ group—headed by Bear Valley second homeowner Steve Troyer, whose father is longtime friends with Mad River's former owner—is hoping to emulate the Eastern approach out West. "We're closely matching their process and template," adds Wallenfells, interim board member for the newly formed Bear Valley Mountain Cooperative. "We're in the process of making our initial offer for the mountain, village, and lodge."

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Potential shareholders of Bear Valley Mountain Resort include folks who have been skiing these trails for more than two decades. Image courtesy Bear Valley Mountain Resort

Bear Valley Ski Resort first opened as Mt. Reba Ski Bowl in 1967 and quickly became a top-notch destination by the early '70s. In 1991 it changed its name to Bear Valley Mountain Resort, and was then purchased in 2005 by a Dundee Bear Management (which owns Colorado's Arapahoe Basin) and California investment partners TBI and Radar. After putting its first big condo development on the market in 2008, right before the market crashed, plans stalled. Over the next four years they got approval to put in a new Bear Valley Lodge, but have now decided to sell. After a potential sale fell through last fall, Troyer met with the community about creating the co-op alternative.

The resort, which is the closest major ski resort to the San Francisco area, currently has about 3,000 season-ticket holders and sees 120,000 skier days per season. Many longtime guests also relish its side- and backcountry terrain.

Here's how it will work: California residents or businesses can buy one share each for $2,500, which gives purchasers the right to vote, receive member benefits, and have a say in how the mountain and village are operated. This amount can be paid up front or over 36 months at $70/month with a $100 initial payment. Owners can also sell their shares back to the cooperative. An additional $300 annual fee can be applied to owners' season-pass purchases (which cost $300) and also gives owners free skier days for friends and family, discounts on services and merchandise, and the potential for dividends.
"We involved the local community from the beginning," says Wallenfells, adding that the co-op's bylaws have a cap of 4,000 members. "Our goal is to make this a sustainable operation, not a large profit-making machine."

Wallenfells and other co-op organizers feel there are enough passionate fans of Bear Valley that they'll be able to achieve the membership goal. If the co-op doesn't end up buying the resort, owners will be refunded their investment. "We thought that 4,000 members was a comfortable enough number to get enough capital to make the purchase, overcome some of the resort's deferred-maintenance needs, and have reserves for future development," Wallenfells says.

And the co-op program is the perfect ownership solution, he adds. "Just like Mad River, Bear Valley has a good pool of devoted skiers and riders who are very passionate about the mountain," Wallenfells says. "A lot of people have been skiing here for more than 20 years. They understand it, know what makes it unique, and aren't going to try and turn it into something else.

"And the best thing is that the collective owners will get to decide its future," he concludes. "Every owner has a vote at the table and all decisions can be decided by the people who use it most. With a lot of other ownership structures, potential profits are often destined for someplace else."

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