Locals Wary, Hopeful After Vail Buys Crested Butte

Photo: Crested Butte Mountain Resorts
The Silver Queen Express Lift carries skiiers and riders to the top of Crested Butte Mountain Resort in southern Colorado in December 2016.

Crested Butte Mountain Resort, the family-owned economic backbone of the "last great Colorado ski town," has been purchased by corporate behemoth Vail Resorts, Inc.

The company will purchase the ski resort in Gunnison County and two other resorts in the American Northeast from the Mueller family for $82 million, according to a press release.

"Wow. Wow," said Crested Butte Mayor Jim Schmidt, who was not aware of the sale when contacted by CPR News. "I don't know why nobody called me." 

Reached again after he had reviewed details of the deal, Schmidt said it was not a complete surprise. Rumors of a sale had circulated through the town of 1,600 for months, he said. 

"It does feel like we're all of a sudden Avery Brewing or Left Hand ... Brewing being bought up by Budweiser," said Schmidt, referring to two still-independent brewers in Colorado.

Schmidt said he moved to Crested Butte in 1976 when there were only two paved streets in town. In the early 80s, Schmidt said, the ski area ran an advertising campaign with the slogan, "Thank God we are not Aspen or Vail." 

"That's the irony of this sale," he said.

Schmidt worries the town could lose some of its character after Vail moves in, as locals in Whistler say happened there after the industry giant purchased the iconic Canadian ski resort a few years ago. 

But the mayor has hopes Vail will help the town tackle affordable housing issues, much as the company has done elsewhere. The average home price in Crested Butte is $1.3 million, Schmidt said. 

"It's pretty hard for people to move here," he said. "And affordable, workforce housing is the key to keeping a community a community."

Business Owner Sees Opportunity

Kevin Hartigan, co-owner of The Last Steep, a bar and grill on Crested Butte's main drag, has high hopes for the arrival of Vail. He expects to see a boost in business and hopes to see investment in the ski area's base (Vail says it will pour $35 million into its new holdings over the next two years).

But he shares Schmidt's concerns over affordable housing. He said he doesn't have people "banging on the door looking for work" anymore because the cost of living is so high. He hopes Vail will bankroll employee and affordable housing to take some pressure off the rental market. 

Hartigan believes Vail's purchase will jumpstart needed change in the town. As much as some people would like Crested Butte to stay as quaint as it is now, he said, that's not possible. 

"We can't just be this small little crusty town forever if we want to have people that still live here," Hartigan said.

More Variety For Passholders, Vail Says

Vail will also provide $155 million so the Mueller's company, Triple Peaks, LLC, can pay off leases that all three resorts have with yet another firm, Ski Resort Holdings, LLC. Separately, Vail will purchase Stevens Pass Resort in Washington for $67 million.

"We care deeply about the legacy of these resorts, and have absolute confidence in Vail Resorts to celebrate what makes them so special, while also providing long-term stability for the communities," Tim Mueller, president of Triple Peaks, said in a statement.

Once regulators sign off on the sale, Vail will own five ski resorts in Colorado: Crested Butte, Vail, Beaver Creek, Keystone and Breckenridge. Epic Pass holders will have access to close to 20 North American resorts, including Crested Butte, next season. 

The acquisitions will add "even more variety and choice for all of our pass holders and guests," Rob Katz, chairman and chief executive officer of Vail Resorts, said in a statement.

Vail's multi-million dollar purchases are the latest in an industry that continues to consolidate. Their main competitor, the newly formed Alterra Mountain Company, sells the Ikon Pass. That gives skiers and snowboarders access to more than 20 resorts in North America.