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Balancing Act: Kirkwood, California

Balancing Act: Kirkwood, California

Features
posted: 11/08/1999

Old Dick Reuter is just about the only person who can lay claim to feeling crowded in Kirkwood, Calif. Only 135 people live there. Some call it a ski town, but in reality it's a small cluster of buildings at the base of a serious ski area at the end of a road that wends its way through nearly a million acres of National Forest and Wilderness. This expanse of protected land surrounds Kirkwood the way a sea encompasses a small island. With few exceptions, it's a stretch of high country that remains nearly as wild as when Kit Carson traversed it in 1848. Streams of Mormon immigrants and Gold Rushers followed Carson, and later came a trickle of sheepherders and fishermen, but no one save an innkeeper named Zachary Kirkwood stayed. Kirkwood's roadhouse, built in 1864, still stands (and serves great breakfasts) at the mouth of the magnificent, U-shaped valley that bears his name. Down the center of the U spreads a stunning alpine meadow, elevation 7,800 feet, rimmed on three sides by a 10,000-foot ridgeline, flanks covered by robust pine forests, barren heights punctuated by pinnacles of stone. As recently as 1972, when Dick Reuter moved to Kirkwood, the pristine basin contained exactly one habitable home.

For Reuter—who remains lean and strong at 76—the way nature dominated Kirkwood was a welcome change. The tall mountainman had been working at Squaw Valley for 17 years and already there was too much bustle. "When I get around a lot of people I get uncomfortable," he explains. "There were too many people at Squaw."

Reuter, then 49 and Squaw's mountain manager, moved his wife and four children 67 miles across the Sierra Nevada from the glamour of the Olympic Valley into an unheated plywood building, where he took over the arduous task of transforming a rugged swath of Sierra terrain into a ski area with allure. He had been hired by Kirkwood Meadows Corporation, led by northern California businessmen Bud Klein, a financier with a hunger for skiing who'd spent the preceding five years surveying land, negotiating with the Forest Service, making peace with objecting environmentalists—including an agreement that prohibits development of Kirkwood's pristine meadow—and pulling together financing.

When Klein's group lured Reuter on board as Kirkwood's mountain manager, it was because there was a heap of hard labor to be done, and Reuter, who'd used skis to set winter trap lines on California's Mt. Lassen after serving in World War II, was just the guy for the job.

"All these trails here were cleared by a few of us," Reuter remembers. "It was pioneer work, and I loved it." Meanwhile Reuter's wife, Jean, began teaching school in an old trailer, where the Reuter kids accounted for half the student body. When she was done teaching reading, writing and 'rithmetic, the former Bay Area beauty queen was busy keeping bears out of the living room and cooking family meals on an old camp stove. It's worth repeating that it was 1972.

Valley life has changed considerably since then, but Kirkwood continues to provide peaceful sanctuary from the frenzy of the modern world. In part, it's because the region remains California's least populous; the three counties of which Kirkwood is a part together possess an average density of one person per 184.5 acres. Instead of people there are broad red cliffs and hulking granite spires, spacious virgin meadows and snow-glutted alpine bowls. In winter, Kirkwood's resident population swells to a whopping 250, of which the resort employs 80 percent, a fraction of the 700 employees required to keep Kirkwood's 12 lifts and 2,300 kick-ass acres open for leisure pleasure. The resort maxes out at 7,000 skiers and snowboarders only two or three times a year, when one of Kirkwood's famous, 5-foot-deep powder days coincides with a national holiday. With rare exception, it's an equation that still adds up to spaciousness and solitude.

Ironically, it's an equation that also detracts most from Kirkwood's financialuccess. Located 45 minutes from Lake Tahoe's South Shore, it is a skier's mountain that has stayed off most resort-goers' radars. As a result, Kirkwood has never generated the kind of revenues needed to build a competitive resort infrastructure. There are condominiums and homes, one general store, one gift shop and a few places to grab a bite or a drink, but even now the basin can accommodate only 2,100 bodies overnight. The eateries here generate food that is sometimes tasty, but sometimes barely passable. And nightlife at this end-of-the-road resort almost always comes down to what's on TV.

In fact, the region remains so sparsely populated that no utility company has yet found profitable cause to pump in power. Everything in Kirkwood's virgin valley—from the lifts to the old-style Tahoe cabins to the handful of sprawling new luxury homes—gets its juice from the 4,200 kilowatt diesel-powered electric plant hidden behind Kirkwood's employee bunkhouse and operated by the ski area itself. On days when the resort is maxed, the power plant nears its capacity. Convincing a utility company to service the area is one of Kirkwood's biggest challenges as it enters an era of expansion.

All of which makes the cutting-edge fiber-optic cable that now wends its way more than 40 miles from Pine Grove, Calif., through newly dug trenches alongside the wagon wheel ruts of the Mormon Emigrant Trail that much more worthy of note. The fiber-optic cable wires all of Kirkwood—especially, but not only, its gleaming new luxury condominium developments and its plushly appointed real estate sales office—into the ultimate connection to cyberspace. Pretty high tech for a Sierra shangri-la.

The man behind the master plan is getting heckled, but he's handling it well. In fact, Kirkwood President Tim Cohee is downright used to it. On a Saturday evening at the peak of ski season the wiry, tanned 44-year-old sits in a cozy circle of Southwest-style easy-chairs in the spanking-new $13 million Lodge at Kirkwood, addressing a dozen prospective real estate buyers from California's Silicon Valley.

Most of those attending Cohee's faux fireside chat are serious shoppers with money to spend. Like Anna Fijewski and George Szwagrsyk, they are hard-working, seriously smart, dual-income couples from the high-tech world, seeking what might best be called a lifestyle enhancement—and a good investment—in the purchase of a second home.

George and Anna have shopped for real estate in Wyoming, Montana and Colorado, with an eye on their eventual retirement. They've narrowed their search to ski areas, looking closely at real estate in Keystone, Breckenridge and Squaw Valley. They know that new mountain villages are being built at three other resorts in the Sierra. They listen attentively to Cohee's pitch.

Step by step, referring to charts and maps and models, Cohee talks the high techsters through every step of Kirkwood's $250-million, 15-year redevelopment plan. He thoroughly describes premium real estate projects, the array of as-yet-unbuilt resort amenities (a charming mountain village, a picturesque ice rink, a distinctive community rec center) and the $25 million in mountain upgrades (a mountaintop restaurant, a gondola and other new or improved lifts) and then back again to real estate. His main pitch: What Kirkwood lacks, it will have soon. And what it already offers is a package found nowhere else: Slopeside living in a hassle-free environment, easily accessible to Bay Area buyers via Kirkwood's ace in the hole, California Highway 88, a sparsely traveled road. Oh, and let's not forget the awesome skiing, exquisite scenery and the friendly, small-town vibe.

Since 1995, $50 million in new real estate has been sold in the valley (though more than 60 percent was sold by private developers, not by Kirkwood itself). Approved master plans call for 6,556 beds in the valley, up from the current 2,100. "About a third of all developed land will be high-density, multi-family, slopeside accommodations that will end up in the rental program—timeshare or quartershare or residents' club," explains Cohee. "As warm beds are built, skier days will increase." That increase, in turn, will finance ongoing upgrades of the resort's facilities. The sustainability here hinges, as it does at all expanding resorts, on keeping the resort's traditional user group on board while attracting destination visitors who keep rental units occupied year round. To that end, a new snowboard center and children's center have already been built. And the first phase of the Mountain Village is underway.

Through the plate-glass window behind Cohee rise the steel girders of Kirkwood's new Mountain Club, a luxurious quarter-share condo complex located mere steps from Chairs 10 and 11, two of Kirkwood's three most popular lifts. Mountain Club ownership includes the services of an exclusive concierge, who will, before your arrival, stock your cupboards with your desired foods and have your high-end demo skis rented, tuned and waiting in your locker.

Until now, Kirkwood has been the kind of place where it's not uncommon for diehards to pull their old VW camper vans into the parking lot, park for a few days and eat their van-cooked meals on lawn chairs perched in the snow. Kirkwood is also a place with, as yet, no high-speed lifts. Its existing on-mountain facilities consist of picnic tables clustered around a sandwich hut and a jerry-rigged outdoor grill. This Mountain Club business is a very different kind of thing than Kirkwood has seen up to now.

"The public perception is that your whole focus is on real estate," complains a tall, bespectacled man in the back of the room. He sounds angry. Cohee leans forward on the edge of his chair, nods and looks the guy in the eye. "The public perception is that not enough is going back into the lifts," the man continues. "Real estate is fine but you're forgetting that the whole draw is the mountain. It's like if you're running a country club and you let the golf course go to hell to build up the homes around it. Pretty soon the draw is gone."

"You're right," says Cohee.

The guy seems taken aback. He licks his lips. "I would urge you to upgrade the lifts," he says.

"You're absolutely right," replies Cohee. "Absolutely right, and we will." He points again to a large color-rendering of the mountain, tracing again with his finger Kirkwood's proposed lift upgrades, the first of which, pending U.S. Forest Service approval, will be built this coming summer. "Selling and building the real estate finances the on-mountain improvements," explains Cohee. "It isn't happening as fast as everyone wants it to, but it is happening. One of the criticisms we often get is why don't you do it the way American Skiing Company is doing it, or the way Intrawest is doing it? Why don't you build the mountain and then sell the real estate? But we're not going to get too far in debt. Any money we've made is back in this place already."

Most ski-resort presidents leave real estate sales to the real estate sales staff and front-line complaints to guest relations, but Cohee is an intensely passionate hands-on kind of guy. He's the kind of man who works 80 hours a week and still shows up at the ski race starting gate or soccer field sidelines when any of his five sons is in the game. He's a wunderkind of ski marketing whose first outing in the ski industry in the early Eighties took Snow Summit, Calif., from a lean 300,000 skier days per year in drought years to a consistent count nearing 500,000, regardless of weather. He is, in fact, the kind of guy whose force of personality and nimble brain might just be enough to give Kirkwood the critical momentum it needs to become the resort it has been trying to become since 1972. If he handles flack well, it's because he's used to it.

In 1993, Cohee was hired away from Sunday River, Maine, to help save a sinking ship. Drought years, California's recessii-family, slopeside accommodations that will end up in the rental program—timeshare or quartershare or residents' club," explains Cohee. "As warm beds are built, skier days will increase." That increase, in turn, will finance ongoing upgrades of the resort's facilities. The sustainability here hinges, as it does at all expanding resorts, on keeping the resort's traditional user group on board while attracting destination visitors who keep rental units occupied year round. To that end, a new snowboard center and children's center have already been built. And the first phase of the Mountain Village is underway.

Through the plate-glass window behind Cohee rise the steel girders of Kirkwood's new Mountain Club, a luxurious quarter-share condo complex located mere steps from Chairs 10 and 11, two of Kirkwood's three most popular lifts. Mountain Club ownership includes the services of an exclusive concierge, who will, before your arrival, stock your cupboards with your desired foods and have your high-end demo skis rented, tuned and waiting in your locker.

Until now, Kirkwood has been the kind of place where it's not uncommon for diehards to pull their old VW camper vans into the parking lot, park for a few days and eat their van-cooked meals on lawn chairs perched in the snow. Kirkwood is also a place with, as yet, no high-speed lifts. Its existing on-mountain facilities consist of picnic tables clustered around a sandwich hut and a jerry-rigged outdoor grill. This Mountain Club business is a very different kind of thing than Kirkwood has seen up to now.

"The public perception is that your whole focus is on real estate," complains a tall, bespectacled man in the back of the room. He sounds angry. Cohee leans forward on the edge of his chair, nods and looks the guy in the eye. "The public perception is that not enough is going back into the lifts," the man continues. "Real estate is fine but you're forgetting that the whole draw is the mountain. It's like if you're running a country club and you let the golf course go to hell to build up the homes around it. Pretty soon the draw is gone."

"You're right," says Cohee.

The guy seems taken aback. He licks his lips. "I would urge you to upgrade the lifts," he says.

"You're absolutely right," replies Cohee. "Absolutely right, and we will." He points again to a large color-rendering of the mountain, tracing again with his finger Kirkwood's proposed lift upgrades, the first of which, pending U.S. Forest Service approval, will be built this coming summer. "Selling and building the real estate finances the on-mountain improvements," explains Cohee. "It isn't happening as fast as everyone wants it to, but it is happening. One of the criticisms we often get is why don't you do it the way American Skiing Company is doing it, or the way Intrawest is doing it? Why don't you build the mountain and then sell the real estate? But we're not going to get too far in debt. Any money we've made is back in this place already."

Most ski-resort presidents leave real estate sales to the real estate sales staff and front-line complaints to guest relations, but Cohee is an intensely passionate hands-on kind of guy. He's the kind of man who works 80 hours a week and still shows up at the ski race starting gate or soccer field sidelines when any of his five sons is in the game. He's a wunderkind of ski marketing whose first outing in the ski industry in the early Eighties took Snow Summit, Calif., from a lean 300,000 skier days per year in drought years to a consistent count nearing 500,000, regardless of weather. He is, in fact, the kind of guy whose force of personality and nimble brain might just be enough to give Kirkwood the critical momentum it needs to become the resort it has been trying to become since 1972. If he handles flack well, it's because he's used to it.

In 1993, Cohee was hired away from Sunday River, Maine, to help save a sinking ship. Drought years, California's recession and the always difficult economics of snow farming had taken their toll. Kirkwood's basic facilities, from bathrooms to snowcats, were in desperate need of maintenance. Skier days were down from the break-even level of 300,000 to a low 200,000 a year. Season-pass sales had dropped to a measly 600 per year. Real estate sales were nil. Forget about making serious upgrades to keep pace with the new standard being set by conglomerates; it seemed unlikely Kirkwood could even stay on the map. It was more than $10 million in the hole, and most of its original investors wanted out.

Cohee's first task was restructuring Kirkwood's debt and finding a substantial new infusion of capital. In 1994, Kirkwood Associates Inc. filed for consensual bankruptcy under California's Chapter 11, which allowed it to reduce some debt obligations and reorganize the rest. At the same time Cohee brought in a new ownership group led by the team behind Telluride—Charles Cobb, Ron Allred and Jim Wells (collectively referred to as Telski). New preferred- and common stock was issued, and a plan was made to capitalize on Kirkwood's most underutilized asset—its real estate—to generate the funds to build the resort that would generate enough cash flow to stay competitive and thrive. In 1997, Chuck Cobb became Kirkwood's majority owner, but the basic plan remains the same: Keep Kirkwood's old school happy while bringing in a new pool of users, which in turn generates the money that allows Kirkwood to keep building and growing its business.

"Kirkwood is not expanding," Cohee explains. "Kirkwood is completing its original master plan. We have approval for 6,556 beds. Those numbers were in the original 1972 plan."

To make that plan work in the 21st century, Cohee is doing what a true marketing pro does best: identifying the existing qualities that make his product uniquely great and then getting the message to the right market. The skiing part is easy. Some have called Kirkwood a little Squaw Valley without the crowds. Others have compared it to Grand Targhee, for its spaciousness and lack of attitude. It's an exhilarating, wide-open place to ski, and the layout of the mountain makes it easy to explore. Its beginner and intermediate runs, such as Chair 7's Hole 'N' Wall and Chair 4's Happiness Is, are wide and true to the fall line. Mellow experts enjoy long, groomed steeps such as Comet. But Kirkwood's piece de resistance is its off-piste terrain, which ranges from spacious and relaxed in the big basin off the backside's Chair 4 to steep and technical in the chutes that drop off the ridgeline between Thimble Peak and Glove Rock. There's even a heart-shaped chute, with a mandatory air entrance and a mandatory air exit.

The part about Kirkwood's ineffable magic is not so easy to convey. The effect of the place is powerfully peaceful, and those who love it often can't put their finger exactly on why. Cohee thinks it's because Kirkwood delivers what most of modern society—including many high-speed ski areas—lack: a respite from the usual pace. He's convinced that the isolated, pristine setting will become ever more precious. California's population is predicted to be 40 million people by the year 2005. At Kirkwood, the cap on development will only help. "At the end of the day, this is all there is going to be," notes Cohee. "The resort developers are committed to providing a quality of life that will remain forever protected."

"All our lots are sold on snowshoes," notes local real estate agent Susan Conner. "The people who are buying are smart, and they're buying for the future."

If the wilderness setting is precious, its connectivity is key. With Volcano Communications stepping up to the plate and wiring the valley to cyberspace, Cohee's finally got an equation that adds up. He has easy access to the high-tech community via Highway 88, and he has the fiber-optic connection that enables such buyers to telecommute. The challenge is not over, but the possibilitty of Kirkwood's ceasing to exist is gone.

At buildout Kirkwood will be more populated than Dick Reuter would enjoy, but it's still likely to provide a taste of that "tonic of wildness" Henry David Thoreau said we all need.

And that means that for smart shoppers like George and Anna, Kirkwood is looking like an excellent investment.

Near Carson Pass, under a nearly full moon, a black bull bear lumbers around the mountainside. Nearby, in the rustic warmth of the historic 135-year-old Kirkwood Inn, Dick and Jean Reuter cozy up to the fireplace and talk about their lives. Behind the Kirkwood meadow, in the moonlight under Red Cliffs, the swing-shift operator at the Kirkwood power plant watches The Three Stooges on a flickering TV. In the quiet den in a brand new home in East Meadows, a retiree basks in the glow of his computer screen as he manages his investments via the Internet. Past, present, future and eternal rattle around the alpine basin in a weird kind of harmony.

It's a lot more crowded here than when Dick Reuter first arrived, but it's home now, and he doesn't intend to leave. Reuter says he's been "stalking up and down these hills for a lot of years" and he has no plans to stop. The hunting and fishing are still good and, of course, there's the skiing. He goes out on the mountain a few times a week to ski laps on The Reut, the lift that bears his name. He's proud of the resort he helped build, and his eyes light up with interest when he hears about what's coming next. He and Jean got a good laugh when the fiber-optic cable went in, though. For months during the trench-digging, the power kept being shut down. It reminded Dick and Jean of the early days, when the new diesel plant was still working out its glitches and their power often cut out unexpectedly. Volcano may have been laying the pipeline to the future, but for the Reuters it was like going back in time.and the always difficult economics of snow farming had taken their toll. Kirkwood's basic facilities, from bathrooms to snowcats, were in desperate need of maintenance. Skier days were down from the break-even level of 300,000 to a low 200,000 a year. Season-pass sales had dropped to a measly 600 per year. Real estate sales were nil. Forget about making serious upgrades to keep pace with the new standard being set by conglomerates; it seemed unlikely Kirkwood could even stay on the map. It was more than $10 million in the hole, and most of its original investors wanted out.

Cohee's first task was restructuring Kirkwood's debt and finding a substantial new infusion of capital. In 1994, Kirkwood Associates Inc. filed for consensual bankruptcy under California's Chapter 11, which allowed it to reduce some debt obligations and reorganize the rest. At the same time Cohee brought in a new ownership group led by the team behind Telluride—Charles Cobb, Ron Allred and Jim Wells (collectively referred to as Telski). New preferred- and common stock was issued, and a plan was made to capitalize on Kirkwood's most underutilized asset—its real estate—to generate the funds to build the resort that would generate enough cash flow to stay competitive and thrive. In 1997, Chuck Cobb became Kirkwood's majority owner, but the basic plan remains the same: Keep Kirkwood's old school happy while bringing in a new pool of users, which in turn generates the money that allows Kirkwood to keep building and growing its business.

"Kirkwood is not expanding," Cohee explains. "Kirkwood is completing its original master plan. We have approval for 6,556 beds. Those numbers were in the original 1972 plan."

To make that plan work in the 21st century, Cohee is doing what a true marketing pro does best: identifying the existing qualities that make his product uniquely great and then getting the message to the right market. The skiing part is easy. Some have called Kirkwood a little Squaw Valley without the crowds. Others have compared it to Grand Targhee, for its spaciousness and lack of attitude. It's an exhilarating, wide-open place to ski, and the layout of the mountain makes it easy to explore. Its beginner and intermediate runs, such as Chair 7's Hole 'N' Wall and Chair 4's Happiness Is, are wide and true to the fall line. Mellow experts enjoy long, groomed steeps such as Comet. But Kirkwood's piece de resistance is its off-piste terrain, which ranges from spacious and relaxed in the big basin off the backside's Chair 4 to steep and technical in the chutes that drop off the ridgeline between Thimble Peak and Glove Rock. There's even a heart-shaped chute, with a mandatory air entrance and a mandatory air exit.

The part about Kirkwood's ineffable magic is not so easy to convey. The effect of the place is powerfully peaceful, and those who love it often can't put their finger exactly on why. Cohee thinks it's because Kirkwood delivers what most of modern society—including many high-speed ski areas—lack: a respite from the usual pace. He's convinced that the isolated, pristine setting will become ever more precious. California's population is predicted to be 40 million people by the year 2005. At Kirkwood, the cap on development will only help. "At the end of the day, this is all there is going to be," notes Cohee. "The resort developers are committed to providing a quality of life that will remain forever protected."

"All our lots are sold on snowshoes," notes local real estate agent Susan Conner. "The people who are buying are smart, and they're buying for the future."

If the wilderness setting is precious, its connectivity is key. With Volcano Communications stepping up to the plate and wiring the valley to cyberspace, Cohee's finally got an equation that adds up. He has easy access to the high-tech community via Highway 88, and he has the fiber-optic connection that enables such buyers to telecommute. The challenge is not over, but the possibility of Kirkwood's ceasing to exist is gone.

At buildout Kirkwood will be more populated than Dick Reuter would enjoy, but it's still likely to provide a taste of that "tonic of wildness" Henry David Thoreau said we all need.

And that means that for smart shoppers like George and Anna, Kirkwood is looking like an excellent investment.

Near Carson Pass, under a nearly full moon, a black bull bear lumbers around the mountainside. Nearby, in the rustic warmth of the historic 135-year-old Kirkwood Inn, Dick and Jean Reuter cozy up to the fireplace and talk about their lives. Behind the Kirkwood meadow, in the moonlight under Red Cliffs, the swing-shift operator at the Kirkwood power plant watches The Three Stooges on a flickering TV. In the quiet den in a brand new home in East Meadows, a retiree basks in the glow of his computer screen as he manages his investments via the Internet. Past, present, future and eternal rattle around the alpine basin in a weird kind of harmony.

It's a lot more crowded here than when Dick Reuter first arrived, but it's home now, and he doesn't intend to leave. Reuter says he's been "stalking up and down these hills for a lot of years" and he has no plans to stop. The hunting and fishing are still good and, of course, there's the skiing. He goes out on the mountain a few times a week to ski laps on The Reut, the lift that bears his name. He's proud of the resort he helped build, and his eyes light up with interest when he hears about what's coming next. He and Jean got a good laugh when the fiber-optic cable went in, though. For months during the trench-digging, the power kept being shut down. It reminded Dick and Jean of the early days, when the new diesel plant was still working out its glitches and their power often cut out unexpectedly. Volcano may have been laying the pipeline to the future, but for the Reuters it was like going back in time.ssibility of Kirkwood's ceasing to exist is gone.

At buildout Kirkwood will be more populated than Dick Reuter would enjoy, but it's still likely to provide a taste of that "tonic of wildness" Henry David Thoreau said we all need.

And that means that for smart shoppers like George and Anna, Kirkwood is looking like an excellent investment.

Near Carson Pass, under a nearly full moon, a black bull bear lumbers around the mountainside. Nearby, in the rustic warmth of the historic 135-year-old Kirkwood Inn, Dick and Jean Reuter cozy up to the fireplace and talk about their lives. Behind the Kirkwood meadow, in the moonlight under Red Cliffs, the swing-shift operator at the Kirkwood power plant watches The Three Stooges on a flickering TV. In the quiet den in a brand new home in East Meadows, a retiree basks in the glow of his computer screen as he manages his investments via the Internet. Past, present, future and eternal rattle around the alpine basin in a weird kind of harmony.

It's a lot more crowded here than when Dick Reuter first arrived, but it's home now, and he doesn't intend to leave. Reuter says he's been "stalking up and down these hills for a lot of years" and he has no plans to stop. The hunting and fishing are still good and, of course, there's the skiing. He goes out on the mountain a few times a week to ski laps on The Reut, the lift that bears his name. He's proud of the resort he helped build, and his eyes light up with interest when he hears about what's coming next. He and Jean got a good laugh when the fiber-optic cable went in, though. For months during the trench-digging, the power kept being shut down. It reminded Dick and Jean of the early days, when the new diesel plant was still working out its glitches and their power often cut out unexpectedly. Volcano may have been laying the pipeline to the future, but for the Reuters it was like going back in time.

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