Five reasons the Copper Mountain sale is a good thing

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There's not a lot of new news about the proposed sale of Copper Mountain from Intrawest to Powdr Corp beyond the press release I reported on Tuesday, but it looks like a done deal, pending U.S. Forest Service approval, with sale price speculation in the $100 million-plus range. The initial buzz among skiers and snowboarders here in Colorado is that it's all probably a good thing.

While we wait for more details, let's go ahead and speculate wildly: I hereby offer 5 reasons why the sale to Powdr Corp is probably for the best:

1. Intrawest got too big for its britches. Intrawest picked up both Copper and Whistler in a package deal for $192 million in 1996, then dumped a bunch more money into rebuilding pretty much the entire base area before it was stymied by the Summit County Board of Commissioners in 2004: The company had planned to go even bigger, adding another 1,155 residential units and more than 150,000 square feet of commercial space at the base.

For local skiers and snowboarders, and longtime Copper Mountain fans (like myself), it all felt like too much misplaced emphasis. Whatever happened to that initial promise of $26 million for new lifts, anyway? It turns out the locals' hunch was spot on: Intrawest was bleeding money the whole time, with estimated debts to the tune of $2 billion, and has been spinning off some of its less profitable resorts this year to compensate. Now we're left with a pretty sweet modern base area at Copper Mountain and an incoming new owner who places more emphasis on the ski experience itself than on real estate deals.

Anyone who's ever ridden at Killington, Pico, Mount Bachelor, or Park City Mountain knows that Powdr Corp strikes a better balance on those fronts than Intrawest, and we're looking forward to seeing how it unfolds here in Colorado.

2. Treehuggers, rejoice! As I previously reported here, Copper Mountain received a failing grade this year -- the worst grade in Colorado, in fact -- on the Ski Area Citizens' Coalition Environmental Scorecard, with zero marks for failure to protect endangered species habitat (Intrawest's trails and facilities improvements were determined "likely to adversely affect determinations for Colorado pikeminnow, bonytail chub, humpback chub, razorback sucker, and lynx or their habitats"), permanent removal and disturbance of wetlands and old growth forests, and excessive snowmaking activities and increased water diversion from Ten Mile Creek.

By contrast, two of Powdr Corp's resorts made the SACC Top 10: Park City Mountain at No. 4 (behind Aspen, Buttermilk, and Sundance) and Mount Bachelor at No. 8. Powdr Corp also received a Green Power Leadership Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2008, and won a 2008 Clif Bar Silver Eagle Award for Excellence in Energy Conservation. Come out, come out, wherever you are, bonytail chubs!

3. The local season pass game could use a little shake-up. The first question on everybody's mind with yesterday's announcement was answered immediately: Yes, Copper Mountain will be honoring all Rocky Mountain Superpass products for the 2009-2010 season.

Beyond that there are more questions than answers: How will Powdr Corp compete with the Vail Resorts' Summit Pass, Colorado Pass, and Epic Pass deals? Will Powdr Corp maintain an alliance with Intrawest to continue selling co-branded passes to Copper/Winter Park/Steamboat? Are Intrawest's interests in Winter Park and Steamboat also up for grabs? Will they offer a heavily discounted Copper-only pass to try to compete, Lone Ranger-style? Build alliances with other ski resorts? Broker a deal to get in on the Colorado Pass somehow? I'll wait for better information before I pass judgment, but I'm awfully curious to see how it all shakes out: Could be good for local skiers and snowboarders, potentially shaking up some longstanding monopolies in longstanding need of a good shaking.

4. Athletes first.
Critics concerned that Intrawest was, first and foremost, in the tourism business -- and not the ski and snowboard industry -- can take heart in Powdr Corp's athlete roster and athlete program at Park City Mountain: Ever heard of Shaun White, Tanner Hall, or Torah Bright? They're all on the Park City All Star team, along with Erin Comstock, Marc Frank Montoya, Torstein Horgmo, Scotty Arnold, Aaron Biitner, Stevie Bell, Drew Fuller, and Ashley Battersby, and for good reason: Powdr Corp hosts world class pro events at Park City Mountain, Mount Bachelor, and Killington, and has a reputation for maintaining some of the best superpipes and terrain parks in the biz. The pipe and parks at Copper should be in good hands, especially assuming the partnership with Woodward at Copper will continue under the new ownership.

Expect increased emphasis on the actual ski experience, and look for on-mountain improvements to take precedence over base-area amenities once Powdr Corp takes over.

5. Resort company versus mountain lifestyle company.
Whatever Intrawest and its resorts might have once been, the fact is that it was taken over by Fortress Investment Group in 2006 and is now hemorrhaging money. In other words, from an investment standpoint, it's a bad investment. Lift ticket and season pass prices at Copper shot up immediately after Fortress came into the picture, and the actual on-mountain ski experience hasn't improved much since. Let's face it: Copper is never going to be able to compete with Vail or Breckenridge as a resort destination.

But as a year-round mountain lifestyle destination? That's a different story, and Powdr Corp seems better equipped to approach it as such. The official word from CEO John Cumming is promising: "We believe that the mountain terrain is our greatest asset and are always looking at ways to enhance it for our guests. As one of the largest ski areas in Summit County, Copper Mountain is a perfect addition to the Powdr Corp family." 

As we wait to see how it all unfolds, we'll take brief solace in the Powdr Corp mission statement: "We are passionate about the mountain lifestyle in which we live, work and play and we are taking action today to preserve and enhance this mountain experience for generations to come." Can I get an amen on that?

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