Steamboat Springs let out a collective sigh of relief Thursday when Intrawest officially sealed the deal to buy the Steamboat Ski Area.
And why not? Given what happened in 2002 - when American Skiing Co. reneged on an agreement to sell the ski area on closing day, it's hard to blame the community for being a little leery.
We have said it before - Intrawest is the kind of buyer the community hoped for. It has a proven track record in the ski industry, owning or operating 11 successful ski resorts in North America. Contrast that with ASC, a company that was just a year old and on the front end of a rapid expansion when it bought Steamboat in 1997.
The biggest complaint about ASC has been that, because of its overwhelming debt, the company could not invest in the ski area to the level necessary to keep it competitive with North America's top resorts. On the surface, it seems that should not be a problem for Intrawest, which was purchased last year by Fortress Investment Group LLC. Fortress is a New York-based private equity firm that manages some $26 billion in assets.
Any doubts that Intrawest has access to money was erased in the moments after the closing when Ski Corp. President Chris Diamond, who historically has been reserved in such remarks, said as much.
"I think it will be the same kind of operations," Diamond said. "That's the good news, but the added good news is we're going to have more resources across the board, and one of those resources is financial."
That's what Steamboat has wanted to hear.
Still, the real proof of what kind of owner Intrawest - and by extension, Fortress - is will be determined in the years to come.
As we noted when the sale was announced, it's hard to imagine Intrawest swooping in and raising salaries, adding staff and improving health insurance benefits for Ski Corp. employees. Similarly, it's unrealistic to think Intrawest is going to invest millions in on-mountain improvements while simultaneously slashing lift ticket and season pass prices.
We are glad to hear that some kind of combination pass involving skier days at Steamboat, Copper Mountain and Winter Park is at least being considered.
But long-term, the true measure of Intrawest as an owner will be determined by how smart the company is at investing in and marketing our mountain. ASC struggled to raise skier numbers appreciably in its 10 years of ownership. That's because ASC wasn't in position to appreciably improve the experience of skiing in Steamboat from one year to the next.
Lift upgrades, new terrain, expanded snowmaking and new and better on-mountain facilities, we think, will determine Intrawest's success. So will continuing those things ASC did well, such as selling Steamboat's unique image and building the community's airline program.
Officials with Intrawest, known as a base-area developer, said the company bought Steamboat for its ski operations rather than its real estate. At this point, that's fine. With the Urban Renewal Authority in place and other development projects progressing, there is enough private development already ongoing to significantly remake our base area. And it is clear the real estate market has responded favorably to the news of Intrawest's ownership.
The bottom line is there is a sense of optimism about this deal, a sense that Intrawest is the right buyer and that Steamboat is poised to go to the next level as a destination resort. We hope time shows there was good reason for such optimism.