The Fifth Age: A Brief History of Bear Valley’s Owners, from the Cub Reporter
This November 2023 Dept. of Mountainuity essay is reprinted with permission from The Cub Reporter, the monthly newspaper for Bear Valley. The Cub Reporter is written and edited by Eric Jung, who is also the author of Bulls, Bears, and Highway Fares: A History of Bear Valley, Alpine County, California and a BVRI board member. Scroll down for how to subscribe to the Cub Reporter.
If you like endings, The Lord of the Rings is for you. It has four: the fall of Sauron, the crowning of Aragorn, the Scouring of the Shire, and the departure of Frodo, Gandalf, and Bilbo with the Elves. At his coronation, Aragorn announces that the Age of Man has begun. The Elves and Wizards are leaving, taking their hocus-pocus with them.
Bear Valley is entering its Fifth Age – the Age of Managers, those being Karl Kapuscinski and Tim Cohee who bought out Skyline. If Skyline had any wizards or hocus-pocus, we never saw them. No elves left because they were never here. There was a definite dearth of magic.
Bear Valley really started with the construction of the ski area. Until then, it was a summer-only plot. Founder Harvey Blood retired to Angels Camp half the year. The Old Subdivision was a modest gaggle of little cabins with septic tanks and propane refrigerators and lights. They were boarded up half the year.
The First Age, the Age of Orvis, started with the creation of the ski area and the New Subdivision. Skiing was transitioning from an exclusive sport of the rich who could afford a trip to Sun Valley or Aspen, to an accessible option for the middle class. It was fueled by the return of soldiers from Europe, where people like Art Schimke in the legendary 10th Mountain Division brought back tales of extreme fun. And it was fueled by the country’s Baby Boom, with increasing wealth and population.
Bruce Orvis was a skier. The Schimke family were skiers who helped Bruce frame the new resort. His team included some ski area management talent, but was predominantly visionaries, developers like Dave McTaggart, and local businessmen.
Maury Rasmussen was a logger and lumber mill operator who brought progressive thinking, impeccable business sense, and mechanical expertise.
Bruce made a decision he would regret. He made the Development Company in the village a separate company from the ski hill. It was rooted in the high regard and friendship between Bruce and Maury, and it worked for a while.
There was a family atmosphere. Bruce spent a lot of time here, and his kids grew up with the blooming of the new town. Maury and his sons Dennis and Clayton all had homes here.
From the start of the ski area in 1967 through the 1970’s, the sheer demographics and novelty of skiing guaranteed a profitable ski area. All you had to do was open the ticket window and turn on the lifts and you got a 10% or greater increase in skier days every year.
There were problems on the development side in town though. Lot leases had to be turned into sales. Club Med tried out the Lodge, which Bruce hoped they would buy, and decided it didn’t fit their model, with nothing much to do in the off seasons.
Then Maury died. As his son Clayton says, “Things would have been different if Maury were still around”. Dennis took over. As development in town floundered, the Mountain, which might have helped there in the ’70s, was losing traction.
The wave of Baby Boomers peaked in 1983 (read Downill Slide for more information about the demographics of the ski industry). More ski areas popped up and started competing for each other’s customers. An arms race began, with better lifts and more amenities at other areas.
The Mountain tried to correct Bruce’s mistake by buying the Lodge and putting the whole resort under one management. It didn’t work. Lack of capital caught up with Bear Valley.
Thus began the Second Age, the Age of Bottomley. Jim Bottomley was a most successful seller of beer. His sons Tim and Eric grew up skiing in Bear Valley. Jim bought the ski area, although he wanted no part of the town.
Jim was a bighearted man who worked his way up from poverty to great success. He charged into the new ski business with confidence and enthusiasm. Within a year, he stopped coming to most meetings. He was not used to a business where he was bedeviled by rules and rulers. From being answerable only to the customer who wanted more beer, he went to having to genuflect to the Forest Service, the County, CalTrans.
He retreated and left the running of the ski area to Tim and Eric. No experienced ski area management was brought in, while the numbers of skiers went down. The area retained a local flavor. They made improvements on the hill, with snowmaking and a couple better lifts. The Day Lodge was expanded. But the financial picture didn’t improve.
Meanwhile down in the village, the picture was changing. The Old Guard, middle class homeowners from Stockton, were being replaced by upper class Silicon Valleyites with more money. Employees moved to Arnold as housing in town shrank.
The occupancy rate in town went down, as richer owners didn’t come up to their BV homes until Music Festival.
Thus began the Third Age, the Age of Dundee. They bought out the Bottomleys. Dundee was a Canadian development company which backed into the ski business while trying to do real estate. They were a little better than absentee owners, with two of their managers spending most of their time here.
Their tenure was short. The realities of demographics, maintenance of an aging ski area, difficulty of getting real estate development going, had them looking for the exit.
The Bear Valley Mountain Co-op formed and tried to buy them out, but fell a little short financially. They were still trying when Dundee found a buyer with more horsepower.
Thus began the Fourth Age, the Age of Skyline. Skyline was a bigger Canadian development company with several resorts in their portfolio. They said all the right things when they introduced themselves to the community. Hopes were high.
Then Skyline’s true nature came out. They are a bottom line company, run by bean counters in Toronto. After a short honeymoon with the village, they tried to grab the Co-op’s funds and became unfriendly.
They got over that and reverted to an attitude of benign neglect. They sent down a young middle manager who excelled in flakspeak but fell short on administration, hampered by a short leash from Toronto and a meager budget. He left after a year or so, and we never saw another Dundee executive in town again – well, maybe a couple short visits.
It became clear that Bear Valley wasn’t the favored item in their portfolio. The General Store was pared down to a convenience store. The Creekside restaurant was often closed to the public in favor of group bookings. The pizza parlor had a disaster which shut it down. It stayed closed for the whole ski season as Skyline dickered with the insurance company over reimbursement. Employees got harder to find, and the Mountain ran short occasionally.
Thus begins the Fifth Age, the Age of Managers. Kapuscinski and Cohee negotiated for months with Skyline, who began with an inflated idea of the value of their Bear Valley holdings. With the prospect of another killer winter looming, Skyline finally did the right thing and sold.
There is more reason for hope this time, although we could be excused for being gun shy after the disappointments of previous Ages. Tim and Karl are proven ski industry experts, with good reviews from their other areas like Dodge Ridge and China Peak.
All hail our new Managers!
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