Crested Butte on the Brink

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Crested Butte on the Brink 0204

Think of it as a $50 million gamble, the sort of wager that might get the attention of even the highest Las Vegas roller on Super Bowl Sunday. That's the amount—give or take a mil—Tim and Diane Mueller recently bet that they can work their Vermont mountain magic on the snowcapped peaks of a puzzling Colorado resort.

The place is Crested Butte, a mountain that comes with an unmatched bundle of excitement, beauty, historic intrigue—and fiscal nightmares. Late last year, perhaps appropriately on the cusp of Halloween, the Muellers agreed to buy the southern Colorado resort everybody loves but hardly anyone takes the trouble to visit.Why Crested Butte has struggled so mightily during the past half-decade remains a mystery. Tumbling trails and chutes make this one of the fabled centers of American adventure skiing, a place that hosts all the major extreme events, yet still has plenty left over for Mom and Pop.

Crested Butte's skiing pedigree holds up to scrutiny. A glance from anywhere on the mountain reveals a panorama of tall peaks sculpted from Cool Whip. Its 12,162-foot elevation is stout, its 2,775-foot vertical solid. The 14 lifts that crisscross the mountain's 1,058 acres are effective, if not exactly pampering. The terrain mix is a nearly perfect 44 percent intermediate, 43 percent advanced/expert. To complete the picture, just a few minutes away there's a movie-set-quaint 1890s mining town turned National Historic District twinkling an invitation to fine dining and community shops. With the possible exception of Telluride, no place on the continent offers this particular mix of small-town charm and big-terrain appeal.

Now, with new owners taking charge, the Crested Butte riddle has a new twist. Can the Mueller formula that's worked wonders at Okemo, Vt., and Mount Sunapee, N.H., translate to the big mountains—and the even bigger rivalries of the rough-and-tumble Rocky Mountain ski industry?

If anyone can solve the Crested Butte enigma, it might just be the Muellers, who bring a down-home management style to a resort that takes an almost defiant pride in its independent, small-town atmosphere and likes to call itself "The Last Great Ski Town." "We're a family company with a reputation for blending with the community," Tim Mueller says.

The Muellers invigorated Okemo from an obscure, even destitute backwater resort into the second most popular winter sports destination in Vermont. When the Muellers took over in 1982, Okemo was struggling to attract 90,000 skiers. The 2003 tally showed 604,000 visits amid a flurry of lodging and commercial development that promises to push the needle even higher.

While Tim Mueller emphasizes that turning Okemo around was more about "the attitude of the employees and improving customer service" than anything else, several innovative programs showed that he also looks to nontraditional methods to fill his lifts. For instance, Mueller started discounting prices for teenagers and offered a Sunday Solution lift ticket "that allowed you to ski cheap Sunday mornings, then get back to New York early."

"Our vision was for constant improvement and working with what we had rather than dumping large amounts of money into the place," he says, which is a philosophy he intends to transplant to Colorado.

By contrast, the recent history of Crested Butte is a case study in disappointment. From a peak of 550,000 skier visits in 1998, the score sheet read just 336,000 in 2002, a 35-percent free fall that set off alarm bells in both Mount Crested Butte (the resort itself) at the mountain's base, and the 120-year-old town of Crested Butte, a few miles downslope. The resort was in deep trouble, and the Calloway family—owners since 1970—was quickly accumulating a mountain of debt that extended even to U.S. Forest Service fees for lease of the land.

Why did Crested Butte go downhill?

Part of the problem was the family's management style. When Howard "Bo" Calloway, a U.S. Senator fm Georgia, joined brother-in-law Ralph Walton in purchasing the sleepy resort, they began more than three decades of family control that welcomed little outside influence, even from local community and business leaders. In the last few years the Calloways had started to release their grip: In 2001, the family sold the 261-room Marriott hotel to Club Med; last spring, the 242-room Sheraton hotel was turned over to creditors.

In 2002, amid such dire circumstances, the Calloways tapped a surprising source in 2002 to help sell the resort. John Norton—the resort's former marketing guru who had been abruptly dismissed in 1991—was brought back as president and CEO. Norton had always been a popular figure in Crested Butte, and his job seemed direct enough: Get the community pulling in the same harness and paint a happy face for a sale. The former proved the easier task. "John brought us energy, vision—whatever active words you can think of," says Mount Crested Butte Mayor Woodie Sprouse.

Given the resort's cash shortage, Norton chose guest services as a focus in his first season, using a new spirit to reverse the rancor between mountain and town. He also gave a quick facelift to the company's three mountain restaurants, rolled out under-utilized grooming machines and waited for the telephone to ring.

Two primary suitors emerged—the Muellers and a Texas consortium headed by football hall-of-famer Roger Staubach. Since a high percentage of the resort's visitors mosey up from the Lone Star State, the Texas bid appeared a natural. But the Muellers demonstrated the same tenacity in their winning bid that made them a success story at Okemo as well as at Sunapee, where skier visits have more than doubled (to 275,000) in just five years.

Tim Mueller sees a similar opportunity in the Rockies: "There's tremendous potential here with a fine mountain and the unique town of Crested Butte. I see this as a fit with our other two resorts because of the people and the town."

At the end of the Calloway reign, the mounting tension between management and the community had produced bad vibrations that seeped into nearly every aspect of the resort's operation. "Everything the Calloways tried to do, the environmental activists said no. I think they finally just gave up and let things slide," says Murray Wais, co-owner of Matchstick Productions, an adventure film company that has found its home, and much of its footage, at Crested Butte for the past 11 years.

The result was a relentless peeling of paint from the resort's infrastructure as well as from its soul, a cumulative malaise whose effects were well documented at the turnstiles. Disappointed by lackluster service and maintenance, many skiers and boarders simply never returned.

The Muellers' main task now becomes to spruce the place up, to add excitement both on the slopes and throughout a neglected base village. "The base area is a chance to create something special, like working at an easel," says Tim Mueller, perhaps thinking back to the transformation of tired Okemo into a New England showpiece. "It's a hodgepodge, but there's still open land, and we have the opportunity for a partnership with Mount Crested Butte. The town wants to make things better."

Asked about his initial focus, Mueller plays it close to the parka. "The first thing we're going to do is decide what we're going to do. There'll be the obvious, such as catching up on the deferred maintenance."

Mueller brightens when the conversation turns to the mountain itself—and its reputation as one of the great extreme experiences in the U.S. Crested Butte has hosted the Winter X Games and continues to host the U.S. Extreme Freesking Championships and U.S. Extreme Boarderfest. "There's no reason to cut ropes at C.B.," Matchstick partner Steve Winter says. "All the best extreme stuff is inbounds. There's no other place like it in Colorado."

The steeps and powder make for good photo shoots, but Mueller knows profits depend upon more gentle endeavors. "There's been an overemphasis on the extreme," he says. "We also have good beginner and intermediate terrain. Crested Butte should be marketed more as a family place."

From Paradise Bowl, beneath the cockscomb mountain that gives the resort its name, the best intermediate runs spill down the center of the mountain in a flurry of trails whose names reflect the area's mining history: Forest Queen, Ruby Chief, Canaan. This blue theme spills over into the East River complex, where the Treasury connection forms one of the superb intermediate trails in all of skiing. Beginner terrain on the front side is expansive and gentle enough to comfort nervous novices.

The top of the trail map is slathered heavily in black ink, mostly with the double-diamond imprint that inspires many of the nation's top freeskiing competitors to call this home.

To further balance the mountain's offerings, Mueller will try to revive the longstanding plans for Mt. Snodgrass, an adjacent territory whose largely advanced-intermediate tilt could fill an important niche in the resort's overall ski mix.

That proposed expansion became a flashpoint for Crested Butte's growth-wary environmental community and, ultimately, the shipwreck rock in the community's relationship with the Calloways. Whether Norton and the Muellers can turn this tide will tell the future of the resort.

Mueller believes his route to acceptance will prove less difficult than that of his predecessors, in part because of a new realization that everyone's livelihood—mountain and town—is linked. "I think the community is eager for a new ownership they can work with," he says.To know Mueller's dream for Crested Butte, one need only look a couple of thousand miles to the east at Okemo. "We've shown we can grow skier visits. That's one of the things we've been able to do. But we don't want to fall into the bigger-is-better syndrome," he says.

Mueller, in fact, sees Crested Butte's relatively small size as a selling point, not a detraction. "You don't have to be a huge megaresort to offer a good ski vacation," Mueller says, perhaps cocking an eye toward the behemoths of Aspen and Vail just over the hill. "We'll stick to who we are and what we do best."

In a region with fewer people (1,529) than elk, far from any metro area, the resort depends almost exclusively on destination vacationers, a difficult sell in a time of diminished air travel. Illustrating a new cooperation, county leaders passed a lodging tax boost that assures continued jet service to the Gunnison airport, winter and summer, along with regular shuttles to the resort, a 40-minute ride.

How quickly the resort turns the corner will depend on the financial commitment of the Muellers—a lingering question in the community, given the shallow pockets of the previous ownership.

After several years of declining business and neglected upkeep, Tim Mueller realizes that money needs to be spent to help turn Crested Butte around. However, changing skiers' perception of the place from an extreme paradise to a family-friendly resort might be the biggest gamble of all.

Check out the slideshow below for more pictures and descriptions of Crested Butte.nd upon more gentle endeavors. "There's been an overemphasis on the extreme," he says. "We also have good beginner and intermediate terrain. Crested Butte should be marketed more as a family place."

From Paradise Bowl, beneath the cockscomb mountain that gives the resort its name, the best intermediate runs spill down the center of the mountain in a flurry of trails whose names reflect the area's mining history: Forest Queen, Ruby Chief, Canaan. This blue theme spills over into the East River complex, where the Treasury connection forms one of the superb intermediate trails in all of skiing. Beginner terrain on the front side is expansive and gentle enough to comfort nervous novices.

The top of the trail map is slathered heavily in black ink, mostly with the double-diamond imprint that inspires many of the nation's top freeskiing competitors to call this home.

To further balance the mountain's offerings, Mueller will try to revive the longstanding plans for Mt. Snodgrass, an adjacent territory whose largely advanced-intermediate tilt could fill an important niche in the resort's overall ski mix.

That proposed expansion became a flashpoint for Crested Butte's growth-wary environmental community and, ultimately, the shipwreck rock in the community's relationship with the Calloways. Whether Norton and the Muellers can turn this tide will tell the future of the resort.

Mueller believes his route to acceptance will prove less difficult than that of his predecessors, in part because of a new realization that everyone's livelihood—mountain and town—is linked. "I think the community is eager for a new ownership they can work with," he says.To know Mueller's dream for Crested Butte, one need only look a couple of thousand miles to the east at Okemo. "We've shown we can grow skier visits. That's one of the things we've been able to do. But we don't want to fall into the bigger-is-better syndrome," he says.

Mueller, in fact, sees Crested Butte's relatively small size as a selling point, not a detraction. "You don't have to be a huge megaresort to offer a good ski vacation," Mueller says, perhaps cocking an eye toward the behemoths of Aspen and Vail just over the hill. "We'll stick to who we are and what we do best."

In a region with fewer people (1,529) than elk, far from any metro area, the resort depends almost exclusively on destination vacationers, a difficult sell in a time of diminished air travel. Illustrating a new cooperation, county leaders passed a lodging tax boost that assures continued jet service to the Gunnison airport, winter and summer, along with regular shuttles to the resort, a 40-minute ride.

How quickly the resort turns the corner will depend on the financial commitment of the Muellers—a lingering question in the community, given the shallow pockets of the previous ownership.

After several years of declining business and neglected upkeep, Tim Mueller realizes that money needs to be spent to help turn Crested Butte around. However, changing skiers' perception of the place from an extreme paradise to a family-friendly resort might be the biggest gamble of all.

Check out the slideshow below for more pictures and descriptions of Crested Butte.

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