New Waterville owners eye local touch
WATERVILLE VALLEY, N.H. — There are plenty of sad, old literary admonitions about the passage of time: “You can’t go home again’’; “You’re only young once’’; “There are no second acts in American lives.’’
Then there are people who take these old saws head on and try to prove them wrong. Meet Chris and John Sununu Jr., Bob Fries, and Tom Gross — guys who are determined to go back again to the glory days of a classic New England ski area, Waterville Valley in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest.
Established some 45 years ago by Olympic ski racer Tom Corcoran, Waterville Valley became a nearly instant hit, especially among Bostonians who had relatively quick and easy access.
With a steady menu of top-level international ski races (World Cup circuit), and with friends such as Bobby Kennedy and a high-profile celebrity event — Wednesday’s Child established annually by WBZ anchor Jack Williams — Waterville Valley rose quickly to one of the top glamour ski resorts of New England.
It came at a time when skiing itself was enjoying glamour status after a decade of its greatest growth spurt in the US. And for some 30 years, Tom Corcoran’s ski company seemed to have found a winning and invincible formula — high altitude (4,000 feet), strong snowmaking to reinforce the natural cover, good and varied terrain, and that irreducible quality: location, location, location.
Tied to the Boston area by Route 93, Waterville Valley was an easy two-hour cruise. The seven-mile access road became a spread for quaint inns and restaurants, serving only as an enticement to what lay ahead.
“It was just magical,’’ said Gross, new president of Valley Operations who remembers childhood trips from his home in Manchester to Waterville Valley. “There was such mystique to Waterville Valley in those days. To go there with my parents was like Christmas. There was nothing else like it anywhere, certainly not in New England.’’
Gross, who came to live in the valley after college in 1975, invested in several local businesses, then in October joined a team of New Hampshire investors who insist that the way back to the resort’s glory years is through local ownership, rather than large corporate ownership.
“There was one point when the people running Waterville Valley were all in California,’’ said Gross, referring to Booth Creek Resorts, with headquarters in Truckee, Calif.
After months of trying to put together investment and management structure, the Sununu group completed the purchase Oct. 13 for a price just under $12 million.
The new owners took over a resort that had seen its visitor rate drop by half over the decades. In 1992, Waterville boasted a very healthy 300,000 skier visits; last season that number dropped to just below 170,000.
“Those numbers speak for themselves,’’ Gross said. “When you have a Sunapee and Bretton Woods kicking your butt, it’s just not good. It’s time to change the approach.’’
Under Corcoran’s watch, Waterville Valley played host to 11 World Cup competitions, the last one in 1991, won by New England Olympian Julie Parisien. Italian legend Alberto Tomba also won technical races there in 1991, and stars such as Tamara McKinney and Andreas Wenzel made numerous appearances.
What happened to Corcoran at Waterville is not an uncommon story of the early 1990s. He had begun work on a $35 million expansion plan in 1989, which included the Golden Eagle Hotel. But when the banking system crisis hit, Corcoran’s loan was called in and he was forced to sell assets. Gross’s group bought the athletic and tennis facility, but the big prize — the ski area sitting on leased land from the US Forest Service — was picked off in 1995 by Les Otten’s
Under heavy scrutiny for anti-trust activities, ASC was forced to sell Waterville Valley to Booth Creek Resorts. “Once that change happened, and Corcoran was forced out,’’ Gross said, “the big boys would do a little fly-by now and then, but when Tom lost Waterville Valley, the personal touch was gone. The whole vibe changed.’’
Turning things around involves short- and long-range planning, said Fries, who served as general manager of Waterville for 19 years before leaving in 1992. Now back as president and GM of the ski area, Fries said everything from a new gondola to remodeled bathrooms to the price of soft drinks is under discussion. The object? “Getting back to the personal touch,’’ he said.
One of Fries’s first moves was to rehire former ski school guru Josef Jung. Also, the cafeteria will be remodeled as a New England country store, and more snow guns and groomers will appear.
“With Booth Creek,’’ Fries said, “only the bottom line drove operating systems. We’re going to be more about customer responsiveness — that’s what was lost here.’’
Chris Sununu credits Gross with pushing the deal to its conclusion.
The watchword, said Sununu, is local control. “I kind of tied my hands financially,’’ he said. “I could have gone to New York City [for investors] but we are insisting on local control.’’
Said Gross, “We could not have hand-picked a better owner for this than the Sununu family. They have a passion for Waterville, and to me that’s what makes a ski area a success.’’