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Vail promises residents, activists stewardship of Mount Sunapee

  • More than a hundred people packed into the main lodge at Sunapee ski area to weigh in on a proposal from Vail Resorts to take over the mountain. ETHAN DeWITT / Monitor staff

  • Tim and Diane Mueller (center) give farewell remarks at a public information session at Sunapee ski area. The 20-year owners are hoping to sell the mountain’s operating rights to Vail Resorts this year. ETHAN DeWITT / Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Wednesday, July 25, 2018

It took little time for the Vail Resorts representative to rattle off the benefits the company could provide if it took over Sunapee ski area.

The company has donated millions to charities, donated tens of thousands of hours of community service, kept afloat its 14 ski areas despite the challenges of a shifting climate and committed itself to robust sustainability goals, Vail representative Pat Campbell explained to the 100 or so people in the audience.

But to attendees of a public information session on the proposed lease transfer, the focus was less on what the mammoth resort company could bring to the table and more on what it could preserve.

For 20 years, the state-owned Mount Sunapee has been leased out to two people seen as integral to its present success: Tim and Diane Mueller. The two entered into an extensive lease agreement with New Hampshire in 1998 and worked to turn the humble ski operation into a prominent resort, while bolstering its relations with the community.

Now, as the state begins a review process of Vail’s proposal to take over Sunapee, the couple’s legacy on everything from development to environmental stewardship has taken center stage. Residents urged Vail to continue the effort.

“Stewardship does not end at the leased boundary of Mount Sunapee State Park,” said Steve Russell, president of the Friends of Mount Sunapee, an organization devoted to preserving the area.

“At Mount Sunapee, now is the time to restore public trust, protect the park’s natural heritage, and permanently preserve the ecological landscape of statewide importance,” Russell added.

The meeting came out of a surprise development earlier in the year. In June, the Muellers and Vail jointly announced a proposal for the mammoth resort to buy three ski areas, including Okemo in Vermont and Sunapee, and to pay $82 million for the management rights and $155 million to pay off all leases. The transfer, if approved by the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, would give Vail full control of the lease and its operation, something even the Muellers did not have in recent years.

Even though the deal is not done, the state has limited ability to turn it down. Attorney General Gordon MacDonald promised a “robust and thorough process” in vetting whether the proposal meets the lease’s standards. And he said a separate public hearing would be made once the review was complete and the department or resources made its decision, likely by Oct. 1.

Addressing residents’ anxiety, Campbell, president of the mountain division for Vail Resorts, said the company would do what it had done at its other resorts: make the skiing and community a higher priority than the land and real estate. And she said there were no plans to initiate development on the recently acquired West Bowl area, a longtime worry of the surrounding community.

“That is not our focus and interest at this time,” Campbell said. “We’re really excited to get in, understand the resort, operate the best that we can today, and down the road, if we consider doing an expansion, we will have a very robust dialogue at that time.”

More than anything, Vail wants to be a good neighbor, Campbell said.

“This is our first experience in New Hampshire, we’re new here, but already we’ve had a lot of conversations and want to acknowledge that we really recognize this is a very special place,” she said.

Many in the room appeared supportive.

“Candidly, Vail is a dream partner, positioned to continue the excellence that the Muellers have so reliably provided over the past 20 years,” said Hess Gates of Sunapee. “Decision makers: This should be an easy decision.”

For their part, the Muellers praised the would-be managers. But the event was as much a farewell opportunity as it was an information session. And gripping the microphone, her voice breaking, Diane Mueller acknowledged that.

“We have been blessed working with the best group of people out there,” she said. “And we would not have gotten that call from Vail if it was not for the efforts of the people in this room who have made Mount Sunapee what it is today.”

The crowd applauded loudly.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)