They won’t listen to us. Now it is time to make them hear us where it counts: The bottom line.
We live in the unfortunate time of magical-thinking-meets-sensationalism, Of trolling. Of doing the exact wrong thing when we should be doing the right thing. Of taking the easy way out. Over the last few weeks America has begun to wake up to what that means on a national level and, unfortunately, residents of the Lake Tahoe Basin are congruously beginning to see what that physically looks like on at the base of their most famous mountain.
Tuesday, Placer County Supervisors predictably voted 4-1 in favor of a development that looks like Fresno sneezed all over a meadow to be the future of Squaw Valley. They denied, and sometimes admonished, the singular voice of the only one among them who lives in the Tahoe Basin. You all know the story by now: Private equity firm buys local ski hill from original family ownership. They play nice for about a half season, promising immediate improvements to the mountain, which didn’t really happen, while they install their own leadership team. The leadership team spends the first offseason doing the rounds at Rotary breakfasts and with the local media and sticks to the playbook of colloquialisms they have picked up. And finally, when things seem OK, they begin to dump development plans and run as if they are UPS drivers delivering boxes of feces to your doorstep.
There are, oftentimes, knee jerks from the community at-large. Small protests, maybe even a start-up nonprofit. Bumper sticker activism. But usually that fades. They are not funded properly and it is difficult to keep up the momentum. People have families and jobs and…lives. Time spent holding forth against The Man takes away energy, notably, from the things that matter most.
The situation with Squaw Valley USA, however, is a significantly different one, for a pair of reasons:
- KSL Capital Partners is a private equity firm, but they’re not necessarily the BIGGEST swinging private equity dick in the room. Most smaller (under $10 billion in management) firms have ties or backing from bigger, Batman villain-sounding partners like Bain Capital or The Blackstone Group or Warburg Pincus. Admittedly, I do not know who is on the KSL board’s friends and family plan, but because of the mostly amateurish way they have run the campaign in Squaw thus far—including but not limited to the mouthpieces they have put in place and, frankly, the mail order architect castoff plans (which really, are absurd) they have presented—this company, which mostly specializes in golf courses in the southwest and southeast that draw Golfer Guy pharm sales rep out on the weekends, touts $3.5 billion under management. This number, while accurate, is also predicated on the economy staying robust—especially in highly volatile real estate markets in overdeveloped and first-to-fall centers in the US. More importantly, KSL’s portfolio lives and dies by disposable income. Without further evidence of financial backing, KSL has what one would call all their eggs in a basket that seems to be rotted from the bottom.
- The Keep Squaw True movement and its sponsoring non-profit, Sierra Watch, is currently assembling a significant war chest to fight KSL. This includes individual gifts and bigger donations mostly coming from Bay Area-based financiers, politicians and CEOs. Again, it is difficult to gauge levels of interest and involvement, but there are a handful of big names who are potential difference-makers in the fight: Larry Page and Sergey Brin (Google), Marc Benioff (Salesforce), Jeff Weiner (LinkedIn), Gary Erickson (Clif Bar), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Gavin Newsom (California’s Lt. Governor/PlumpJack), Kamala Harris (California Attorney General/Senator-elect) and Nancy Pelosi (Minority Leader of the US House of Representatives) all have direct ties to Lake Tahoe. Whether they own property or businesses, have hosted company retreats there, are outspoken about the importance of the region’s preservation in public, supported Basin-area environmental causes (League to Save Lake Tahoe/Sierra Club)—or in the case of Erickson, show shoe raced against me—in the recent past, there are plenty of concerned eyes watching closely as the KSL development takes shape. Nearly every individual in this group of game-changers could single-handedly take down a KSL. In a sense, the Colorado-based firm has chosen the wrong octagon to start a fight.
However, and this is the big kicker: All the above name-drops are very careful about image and reputation both in public and private. For as much as they have in staggering amounts of wealth and pull to throw at a cause, they navigate in an intricate ecosystem where perception is everything. To align with something in public does not always mean they are for it, and vice-versa. Also, the continued vanishing of of the middleclassenus caucasilatus skieralis is not issue no. 1 when it comes to ginning up public sympathies. So it has to be, and should be, environment, environment, environment.
Which brings us to—well, us.
It is time to boycott Squaw. Period. Take our dollars and walk away.
It really is that simple.
It is that simple because if KSL’s investment, which has not penciled out in their favor since acquisition in 2010 due mostly to bad winters and bad PR, continues to be a drain on them, they won’t have a choice of whether to build, much less fight a legal battle then develop. And it should be noted here that KSL has no plans or resource to construct the entirety of the Snuffleupagus-scale chalets in the first place, which is also part of the reason they have marketed it as a 25-year plan. The “capital” in the parent company’s brand is simply spread too thin at this point with regards to this project. Since KSL is a private equity firm, not a property manager, their goal is to shove plans through and move it onto the next investor (their rent money is likely wagered on The Vail Corporation to play Captain-Save-a-Ho and add Squaw as its biggest red hotel to its Lake Tahoe Monopoly board). Why has Vail not gobbled Squaw up already? Dunno. Either the resort’s immediate financial picture is worse than anticipated or Vail is waiting to see how the development plays out or winter is going away permanently—or a combination of all three.
Or maybe Vail guys don’t like the KSL guys. You would be surprised how much of these big decisions come down to little tiffs.
A boycott is not only the right thing to do, but the only thing to do. Because what it does is create a ripple. It sends a message. And anyone who’s ever watched The Godfather knows, it’s ALL about the sending of the message. Sending the message puts public figures into motion. It invigorates the press. Most of all. It speaks to people.
I understand, in the context of Squaw especially, what it means refusing to be in line, crowding and jostling and high-fiving and hugging, the morning after that first big dump at the foot of KT-22. There is a community there, a fraternity, that doesn’t exist in any other resort in the land. Old friends, new faces and people who have worked and saved and waited a lifetime to just share that. One. Moment. It transcends the billboards and the apps—and most importantly, it is an egalitarian moment. You can be the guy who makes $8/hour washing dishes and beat a VC guy from Woodside who is worth eight figures to the first chair. It is also as real as it gets. Most who have lived in the Basin long enough have a similar story to tell. “I was getting in position to get on the lift when all of a sudden my binding popped and I looked behind me…and it was McConkey.” Of course, that actually probably only happened to a handful—at best—of his besties, but you get the picture. Everyone was there. And being there is what matters.
But that was yesterday. People need to understand that. Like really, really understand that.
Squaw’s family tree roots run deep. I think the first time I realized this was in March of 2009 when Squaw patroller Andrew Entin died after being partially buried doing avalanche control work. Entin, 41, was a favorite son, good looking as hell and, if those who knew him are to be believed, one of the best, most passionate patrollers around. Squaw was his only option for work. He wanted to wear the red jacket with the black sash. The Squaw family has a certain type of reputation, like Marines, as being a cut above. And Entin certainly personified that reputation. During Entin’s memorial at the Coyote Moon Golf Course in Truckee, I witnessed a sea of patrollers in uniform linking arms. Some spoke. Some cried. Some could not speak. And it wasn’t just his immediate coworkers, but generations of them aged 22 to 82 united for their fallen. It was as moving a gathering as I’ve ever witnessed.
From liftee to snow cat driver to ski school runner, these are the folks whose livelihood depends on your patronage. And, more importantly, they have nothing do, politically and intellectually with the parent company. They are there to make Squaw Valley USA the best darn ski experience in the land. Period. …And they do a pretty good job too. These are the people KSL will tell you would be affected most by your boycott.
Do not believe them.
A boycott hurts the parent company a lot more than it could ever potentially hurt an individual. It would be self-aggrandizing and false to expect a boycott, even one that creates the desired ripple, could ever end result in the loss of a single job.
A boycott wakes the parent company up and emboldens both the patrons AND the employees. And this has been proven time and time and time again throughout history, especially in hyper-capitalist regimes. Moving your dollar elsewhere will be the single greatest statement you can make this winter.
…One of the best mornings of my life was spent with friend and former colleague Justin Broglio skiing Squaw. We happened to get the first chair on Granite Chief after it came off a hold and left the first boot tracks on the traverse up to The Attic. The first few turns feeling perilous from the ridge giving way to the relative flat of the glade below, gliding over pillows of crystalline snow. It was, in Justin’s words, “beyond awesome.” Everyone who has skied Squaw has at least a dozen similar simply beyond awesome memories. And that’s what draws us back, despite the current ownership’s refusal to hear the needs and wants of the people who it employs, the skiers who love it most and the natural surroundings that define it.
Now it’s our turn to refuse.