A mountain of news

Colorado-based Alterra Mountain Company announces plan to purchase Schweitzer

By Zach Hagadone and Ben Olson
Reader Staff

Sandpoint experienced one of its biggest news days in decades June 1, when Denver-based snowsports goliath Alterra Mountain Company announced it had moved to acquire Schweitzer for an undisclosed sum, making the area’s signature ski resort one of 17 year-round mountain properties owned by the company in the U.S. and Canada. The deal is pending regulatory approvals and other conditions, and expected to close later in 2023. 

Schweitzer President and CEO Tom Chasse, who has led the mountain since 2006, explained in a statement posted June 1 to Facebook that the acquisition follows the decision by Seattle-based MKM Trust — which has been the owner/developer of Schweitzer for the past 18 years — to sell its resort operations and Mountain Utility Company while retaining non-ski operations and real estate holdings, including future real estate development.

“Since the early 2000s, MKM Trust has been instrumental in Schweitzer becoming one of the region’s top ski destinations, investing over $100 million in capital to help fortify itself as a premier destination in the Pacific Northwest,” Chasse wrote.  

The Schweitzer Bowl at Schweitzer, as seen from an aerial drone. Schweitzer courtesy photo.

“With room for growth and plans for future expansion and development, MKM’s decision to exit the mountain resort business puts Schweitzer in a favorable position to begin a new chapter with Alterra at the helm,” he added.

Schweitzer’s association with Alterra dates back to 2021, when the resort became an Ikon Pass partner, giving pass holders access to a number of other Alterra-owned destinations throughout North America. News of the purchase made waves across the ski industry, with observers noting that Alterra taking over Schweitzer “will reverberate across the megapass wars,” according to an article posted June 1 on stormskiing.com, referring to the long-running competition between Alterra and fellow Colorado-based resort conglomerate Vail Resorts, which through their Ikon and Epic passes, respectively, have “effectively turned the ski industry into a duopoly,” Powder Magazine reported in 2018.

In separate statements, both Chasse and Alterra officials assured passholders that no changes to the Ikon Pass are in the offing at this time for the 2023-’24 winter season, and Schweitzer Communications Manager Taylor Prather told the Reader in an interview June 5 that the mountain looks at daily lift ticket prices each year depending on the number of skier visits and budgetary goals, and so hasn’t released lift ticket prices for 2023-’24 yet. Meanwhile, no immediate changes are in the works for lifetime passes, either.

“As far as it goes right now, lifetime passes will be honored,” Prather said. “This won’t change, whether you’ve received it or are racking up the years to receive the lifetime pass, the access remains the same … We know the news [of the sale] came the day after season pass buy-in, so we understand there are probably a lot of concerns that came along with that, but as it is right now, nothing changes with our Schweitzer season passes. If you’re an Ikon passholder, you’re going to have that same five-day and seven-day access as you did last season and seasons prior.”

What’s next?

According to Prather, Schweitzer’s many projects will continue once the Alterra deal closes, including the Schweitzer Creek Village, which is the name of the mountain’s new arrival zone, as well as its workforce housing developments.

Prather said that the Musical Chairs lift has already been decommissioned and removed, and crews are working on replacing it with a high-speed quad lift to be named Creekside. Schweitzer will install a skier access bridge downhill from the former loading zone of Musical Chairs, which will provide entry to the new parking and staging area, as well as the village.

“For next season, the new lift will be ready,” Prather said.

With the creation of the new arrival zone at Schweitzer, which will be accessible near the roundabout before the village, Prather said another 1,400 parking spaces will be added.

“For now, existing parking lots will stay as is,” she said. “Obviously one of the pinch points as far as guest experience is concerned, driving up the road and running out of parking is not an ideal start to your ski day, and so that is our primary focus, to be able to add parking.”

Next season, those parking at the Lakeview and Gateway lots will be able to access the village by walking up the hill, as usual, but those parking at the lower Fall Line Lot will instead ski over the access bridge and catch the high-speed quad up to the village.

Summer operations will begin on Schweitzer starting Friday, June 16, with the first event being Community Day on Father’s Day, Sunday, June 18 from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. The lifts will be open, food and drink vendors will be on site, as well as arts and crafts and plenty of village activities. One hundred percent of proceeds from $10 lift tickets will benefit the Bonner County Human Rights Task Force.

“Not much is expected to change,” Prather said. “This is the beginning of a transition and the deal hasn’t been closed yet. As we navigate that, we want to stay in touch with our community and our stakeholders to understand what their concerns are.  … This is going to be an ongoing process and big change for everybody, but we’ll navigate it the best we can. We’re always open to answering questions and addressing concerns.”

Chasse will remain as president and CEO of Schweitzer, continuing his role overseeing daily operations and future capital improvement plans, including the buildout of the Schweitzer Creek Village base area, which will eventually feature a new day lodge “and other skier amenities,” according to Alterra. 

In Chasse’s statement, he underscored that, “Alterra intends to keep our entire Schweitzer team in place and is committed to retaining our mission, our values, our brand, and our unique and funky culture.”

Prather agreed: “Alterra’s focus is not on development; it’s very much on the ski experience. There’s obviously going to be some element of change and growth, but that’s already what’s been happening at Schweitzer under MKM over the last 20 years.”

Who is Alterra?

For being a relative newcomer on the destination mountain scene, Alterra Mountain Company has grown ferociously since its creation as a joint venture between Denver-based KSL Capital Partners and Chicago-based Henry Crown and Company — the former being majority owner. 

Alterra had its origins when KSL and Crown purchased publicly traded Intrawest Resorts for $1.5 billion in April 2017, which brought with it ownership of Steamboat and Winter Park Resort in Colorado, as well as Tremblant in Quebec, Canada; Blue Mountain in Ontario, Canada; Snowshoe in West Virginia; Stratton in Vermont; and heliskiing company Canadian Mountain Holidays. 

That same month, the joint venture acquired Big Bear, Mammoth and June Mountain, all in California — according to a 2019 profile by “Denver’s Mile High Magazine” 5280, those purchases alone represented “three of the six most popular ski areas in the country.”

Four months later, in August 2017, KSL and Crown bought Deer Valley, in Utah, and in January 2018 unveiled the Alterra Mountain Company brand, merging the assets of Intrawest with Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows Ski Resort. 

Today, Alterra’s portfolio also encompasses Palisades Tahoe and Snow Valley in California, Sugarbush in Vermont and Crystal Mountain in Washington.

As 5280 magazine put it in a November 2019 article, “Alterra has moved swiftly and decisively over the past 24 months to compete with Vail, making a point to snatch up some of the country’s most popular resorts … For riders, it essentially creates a duopoly in the American ski industry, though Alterra has been reticent to remind people of a key difference between the two: management. Unlike Vail, Alterra insists that it hasn’t — and won’t — alter its properties to match a corporate identity, instead allowing them to operate similar to how they had before the ownership change.”

Jared Smith has served as president and CEO of Alterra since August 2022, having been with the company since 2021, leading its Resort Division. Smith came to Alterra after more than 15 years at Live Nation Entertainment, where he served as president and global chairman of Ticketmaster.

If that sounds like a lot of heavy-hitters behind Alterra, that’s because it is. And the scale and scope of the company is even bigger than that.

Powder Magazine summed up the deep well of capital behind Alterra as the product of “a private equity company and one of America’s wealthiest families.”

Majority owner KSL is a behemoth in the global travel and leisure industry, making equity, private credit and tactical opportunity investments in a staggering number of hotels, resorts, marinas, hospitality groups, health and fitness clubs, resort real estate development firms, convention centers, aviation companies and a constellation of other categories.

KSL’s investments reach from as nearby as the Hayden Lake Marina (via Southern Marinas) in North Idaho and the Davenport Hotel in Spokane (via Davidson Hospitality Group), to as far afield as resort and hotel chains with dozens of properties in places like the Maldives and Thailand; the Netherlands; the U.K.; France, Switzerland and Spain; Australia, Canada and New Zealand; Mexico; and across the U.S. from Hawaii to the Florida Keys.

According to a 2023 press release, KSL has raised about $18 billion in equity, credit and tactical opportunities funds since its founding in 2005. In a 2018 press release from Alterra, that number was pegged at $8.2 billion across debt and equity funds, meaning KSL has more than doubled the value of its funds in five years.

Meanwhile, Alterra minority owner Henry Crown and Company is a privately held investment firm named for 20th-century Chicago industrialist, financier and philanthropist Henry Crown, and founded in 1959 after the Crown-held Material Service Corporation merged with General Dynamics. Forbes listed the Crowns as No. 34 among “America’s richest families” by net worth, which as recently as 2020 was $10.2 billion, according to the media outlet.

The firm has investments and interests in publicly-traded securities, real estate, investment funds and private operating companies in sectors including hotels, sports, technology, banking, transportation, oil and gas, cellular phones and home furnishings. The family co-owns the Rockefeller Center in New York with real estate company Tishman Speyer, and also has stakes in the Chicago Bulls and New York Yankees. At one point, between 1951 and 1961, Henry Crown even owned the Empire State Building.

In the press release announcing Alterra’s formation in 2018, Henry Crown and Company’s other assets were identified, including the Aspen Skiing Company, which owns and operates Snowmass, Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk mountains in Colorado, with Aspen Skiing Company described as “one of the Henry Crown and Company entities which owns Alterra Mountain Company.”

Prather, at Schweitzer, said rolling the mountain into a much broader portfolio of companies brings with it a number of advantages.

“It kind of creates an opportunity for us as Schweitzer employees to help Schweitzer become the best version of itself because it’s creating connections with industry professionals, and it’s opening some funds not only for on-mountain experiences, but also for giving back to our community, which is such a big part of what Schweitzer does,” she said.

Word on the street

Local reaction to news of the Alterra acquisition was as loud as it was varied. Facebook threads proliferated across regional social media groups, while individuals filled their own feeds with thoughts on what the sale could potentially mean not only for the mountain, but the community as a whole.

“As locals, we have to ask ourselves what is it that makes or made Schweitzer mountain the place we loved to call our home mountain? Will new ownership remove those things?” local skier Grady Swain told the Reader.

“At the end of the day, Schweitzer mountain is a business and if a business isn’t growing it is dying. With the sale I believe it will be growing,” he added. “I believe the new owners have marketing leverage to bring in an unfathomable amount of skiers.”

That may or may not be for the best, Swain said.

“In my opinion, some of my favorite things about the town of Sandpoint and the local skiers at Schweitzer mountain, historically, have been the kindness, the humility, and the love for one another exuded on a daily basis,” he said. “I have watched the marketing and growth of Sandpoint drive out many of these people while simultaneously bringing in droves of people with character nothing like this. I predict a strong likelihood of the same up on the hill.”

Lenny Hess, who has skied Schweitzer for close to 60 years, took a different view.

“Overall, the experience today is vastly improved with high-speed lifts and more accessible terrain. The word of our little secret private Idaho ski hill got out years ago, and with the addition of the Ikon Pass and now the purchase by Alterra, even more visitors will come,” he said. “The ticket prices will inevitably go up but I don’t mind since I will most likely be using the Ikon Pass at Big Sky, Alta, Jackson Hole, etc., and for a few hundred dollars more this makes it appealing since I enjoy traveling to other areas. The only constant in life is change, and we can all testify to that living in North Idaho.”

Fellow longtime Schweitzer skier and local writer Sandy Compton also noted that “things have been changing at Schweitzer since they poured the first tower base for Chair One in 1963.”

“Some people won’t like it, and many more imagine they won’t like it,” he said. “The rumor mill is running three shifts right now. All of which is really none of my business. Speculation does not equal fact. …

“The future is hard to determine,” Compton added. “It rains at Schweitzer. There are days of crud and goop and fog that horrify ‘high-society’ skiers. A day or two of nasty weather — off they go somewhere else. So, I think, for the time being, we who ride to ride, not to be part of a ‘scene,’ are still going to have the place pretty much to ourselves quite often, even though that doesn’t mean quite the same thing as it did a couple of decades ago. Except some days. 

“I wish the new regime success. The mountain operation is very important to the local economy, as it was meant to become in the beginning of things. The plan seems to be working.”

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