Vermont's first snowstorm brought with it a flurry of ski news: Alterra Mountain Company has purchased Sugarbush Resort, the Warren ski area once known as "Mascara Mountain."
Terms of the sale, announced Wednesday, weren't disclosed. It comes two years after Alterra first broke into Vermont with its purchase of Stratton Mountain Resort. The Colorado company now owns 15 mountains in North America.
Win Smith, Sugarbush's owner since 2001, said in an interview that he had turned down several previous offers to sell the resort, taking pride in keeping the ski area “fiercely” independent. But even as he comes off a “record” year, he worried that the trend of consolidation will only make it harder for independent resorts to compete. Vail and its multi-resort Epic Pass, for instance, staked its claim to the state in 2017 when it paid $50 million for Stowe Mountain Resort. The company bought Mount Snow in Dover and several other New England ski areas in a deal earlier this year.
Sugarbush partnered with Alterra last year with that in mind, joining the Ikon Pass system, which gives patrons access to all of the larger company’s respective resorts. But Smith said he wasn’t confident the partnership would continue on the same terms, and he knew that Alterra could eventually decide that it owns enough mountains.
“You kind of have to strike when the iron’s hot,” said Smith, a former Merrill Lynch executive.
Business calculations aside, Smith likened the sale to walking his daughter down the aisle at her wedding. He described the metaphor in an open letter he emailed to the Sugarbush community with the subject line, "Changing but not saying goodbye."
“I have tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat knowing that I am about to give away someone I have raised and loved,” Smith wrote.
Smith's letter noted that Sugarbush was thought to be “unprofitable” when he and some investors purchased it in 2001. Since then, the resort has invested $74 million in mountain improvements, including seven new ski lifts, upgrades to its snowmaking system and the revitalization of the Lincoln Peak base area.
“Until now, I had not laid out a succession plan and identified who would be the best future custodian of Sugarbush,” Smith wrote. “Most importantly, I needed to find someone who would care for Sugarbush as we have and as our entire Sugarbush community would expect.”
The deal is subject to regulatory approval and is expected to close in the first quarter of 2020, Alterra said in a press release announcing the deal Wednesday. The company said it planned to unveil some terms of the deal once it has closed. Meantime, Alterra said that Sugarbush’s Ikon passes will provide the same access this winter.
Adam Greshin, a part owner of Sugarbush, said he was pleased to see the resort find a home with a company that “guards the unique brand of each of its resorts.”
“Alterra has made its mark by purchasing good, quality resorts and allowing them to deliver what makes them special,” said Greshin, a former state lawmaker who worked at the resort full time until Gov. Phil Scott named him finance commissioner in 2017.
Moving Sugarbush under the Alterra umbrella will allow the mountain to save money by taking advantage of the larger corporation’s resources, Smith said. And while he also expects the new owners will share some insights into the ski industry, he didn’t expect them to “micromanage” or “parachute” into the resort.
“They want our whole team to stay in place,” Smith said. That includes himself: Smith plans to continue serving as president of the mountain for the “foreseeable future.”
When he first purchased the place, Smith, the subject of a 2014 Seven Days profile, had planned to be an absentee owner but eventually changed his mind. “I decided I really wanted to put my own imprint on it,” he said at the time. “That’s when I decided to move here full time and make this a second career.”
Since then, Smith has become well known for his hands-on approach; he's often found scanning passes or mingling at one of the resort bars après ski. He didn’t expect the sale to change much of his day-to-day routine.
The biggest change, he said, will be that for the first time in nearly two decades, he will have a boss.
“I just have to learn how to be an employee again,” Smith said.