In the same way that Mount Rainier is our mountain, Pierce County outdoors people proudly claim Crystal Mountain as our ski sanctuary.
It’s been that way since Crystal opened in 1962, charging $4.50 per ticket to ride a pair of two-seater chairlifts.
Even earlier, actually. Ski pioneers started scouting the Cascades for a prime site in 1949, did two years of snow studies, quickly sold $852,000 in stock to 824 families, and lobbied Gov. Al Rosellini of Tacoma to push for construction of the 6-mile Crystal Mountain Boulevard access road.
The roots of groups such as the Crystal Mountain Founders Club and the Crystal Mountain Alpine Club run strong and deep, even as original members have watched their hair turn as white as Campbell Basin in January.
Against that homegrown backdrop, the news that Crystal is reverting to local ownership serves as a satisfying coda to an epic ski season that ends this weekend.
The ski area has been an asset of Michigan-based Boyne Resorts since 1997, when a majority of Crystal’s 900 shareholders agreed to sell. Last week, Boyne executive John Kircher disclosed he was swapping his shares of company stock for the company’s shares of Crystal.
As owner, Kircher will no doubt run the show with the same hands-on, knees-over-his-boots style that’s defined his 20 years as Crystal’s CEO and president. He and his wife, Kim, who leads Crystal’s ski patrol, know every crag, cirque and contour of the mountain.
Kircher, the 59-year-old son of Boyne’s cofounder, has overseen transformational upgrades at Crystal. They include a nod to the future of year-round recreation access (the opening of the high-speed gondola in 2011) and a tribute to the sublime past of backcountry skiing (the decision to open the Northway Lift as a slower-speed two-seat chair in 2007).
Best of all, he promises to raise the bar for both winter and summer amenities — mountain biking, anyone? — and says he has resources to do it.
“We handed money, over the years, back to Boyne that came at the expense of doing projects here,” Kircher told TNT outdoors writer Craig Hill. “That is no longer the case. The dollars that Crystal brings in will go back into the area.”
The transaction marks a refreshing new chapter for the ski area, and a rare moment of stability in an industry convulsed by consolidations and private equity acquisitions.
In Washington, the Summit-at-Snoqualmie and Stevens Pass were both dealt last fall from a Florida-based real-estate investment trust to a New York hedge-fund firm.
British Columbia’s sprawling Whistler-Blackcomb ski resort, located 250 miles north of Tacoma, was gobbled up last year by Vail Resorts, the largest mountain destination conglomerate in North America. And just this month, Aspen Skiing Co. teamed with a private-equity firm to take over a smaller Colorado resort operator.
Vail and Aspen are slugging it out in the ski resort equivalent of the telecom war between AT&T and Verizon. But while consumers might not mind uniformity in their phone plans, is that what they want in their ski experiences? The potential loss of mountain culture and resort distinctiveness could send things downhill fast.
There are benefits to consolidation, to be sure. Season pass holders have an expanded menu of mountains to sink their skis into. And in this unpredictable era of climate change, more capital is available as a hedge against low-snow winters.
For his part, Kircher said he’s investing $5 million in snow-making equipment at Crystal, so the worst-case scenario melts away and the future looks bright.
We wouldn’t bet against him. Before a transplant in 2008, Kircher battled liver disease and cancer while managing Crystal and two other ski areas in the region — and still skied four days a week.
As owner, he would serve his customers well to curtail fast-rising ticket prices, which have put ski trips out of reach for many families. To help skiers bypass the ticket window, he should bring back technology for direct-to-lift tickets that customers can purchase remotely, at a discount.
It’s well known that Tacoma-area folks don’t cotton to being controlled by outsiders. We’re a self-sufficient bunch who prefer local ownership, from our cable TV operation to our minor-league baseball team.
Won’t it be nice to return our ski mountain to that list?