New ski area owners bring capital, hope

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— Shannon Rose has never met Tim and Diane Mueller, and she doesn't know anything about them.

But she does know the Vermont couple knows how to run a ski resort.

Before Rose moved from New Jersey to Steamboat Springs four years ago, she made several trips to the Okemo Mountain ski area near Ludlow, Vt.

The Muellers purchased the struggling Vermont ski resort 19 years ago and turned it into a thriving business.

When she lived in the East, Rose said, Okemo Mountain offered the best skiing experience.

"Okemo is a great resort," she said. "It's just a great mountain."

The Muellers' ski area, she said, earned the respect of its visitors.

Now they will have a chance to earn Steamboat's respect.

Tim and Diane Mueller announced Friday their intent to purchase the Steamboat Ski Area from American Skiing Co. for $94.1 million.

They reached an agreement with several investors both in and outside of Steamboat to make the purchase and formed Triple Peaks LLC to operate Steamboat, Okemo Mountain and Mount Sunapee Resort in New Hampshire.

Tim Mueller serves as the company's president and CEO, while his wife serves as the vice president.

They are looking to close the deal on the Steamboat Ski Area by the middle of March.

"I'm really excited about these people coming in," Rose said. "It definitely is positive change for the better."

People who know Mount Werner best share Rose's confidence that the Muellers will bring a refreshing difference to the ski area while holding to the values that made it successful in the first place.

Andy Karolczek, who works on the mountain year-round, has closely followed the events leading up to the sale.

New ownership, he said, means greater autonomy for his place of work, Steamboat Ski and Sport, which should now have more leeway in ordering equipment.

He appreciates being able to put faces to new owners rather than dealing with a big corporation.

News of the change in ownership comes at a time when the ski resort needs some new life and some cash flow, said ski instructor Rob Grieve.

"Someone with some money needs to come in," he said.

He said he was hopeful that attention would be paid to improvements to the mountain, especially some of the ski lifts.

The Muellers say they have built in $10 million in capital into Steamboat for the first two years of ownership.

Some employees said they hope the boost in capital will mean a boost in morale as well.

Katherine Gayer, now in her 18th year as a ski instructor at the ski area, said morale has been low and the switch in ownership took a long time coming.

She optimistically scanned the front page of the newspaper every morning, she said, for news of a ski area sale.

When she heard the news of Friday's announcement, Gayer greeted it with enthusiasm and expectation about what the change of ownership would mean.

The Muellers, she said, have been applauded for their commitment to preserving the local image of a ski area and its traditional relationship with the community.

"Everything was so positive that you just felt it would go back to how we were before with the community," she said.

Hondo Weiss-Richmond moved from Massachusetts to Steamboat to work a winter on Mount Werner.

ASC maintains a large presence in New England, he said, but he never received a negative impression of the company.

Employees, however, have expressed support for the sale, Weiss-Richmond said.

"It seems fine to me this year with ASC running it, but I'm sure the new people will do great, too," he said.

If youthful optimism is worth anything, then Tim and Diane Mueller have a wealth of support on their side.

Ashley Gamble and Lauren Weaver, both 17, said they were hopeful new ownership would not let locals down a second time.

When ASC came to Steamboat Springs, Gamble said, much of Steamboat anticipated new changes but were disappointed when what they expected did not materialize.

A town the size of Steamboat needs a closer relationship with the owners of the town's lifeblood of its ski area, they said.

The Muellers will hopefully take away the image of a corporation running the ski resort, Weaver said, and bring a more personal feel to the operation of the mountain.

"The locals are glad to see a change," Gamble said.

"Everyone's hoping it's a change for the better."

To reach Danie Harrelson call 871-4208

or e-mail dharrelson@steamboatpilot.com

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