Wealthy East Coast hedge fund owner will take ownership pending stockholder approval
SANTA FE – Some are calling it the end of an era.
Taos Ski Valley, the jewel of New Mexico’s ski areas, is being sold to a wealthy owner of a New York hedge fund firm, Louis M. Bacon, according to a Wednesday announcement.
Although the resort, which has been family-owned and run since its founding by the late Ernie Blake in 1955, will have a new owner, much of its management will remain the same, according to Chris Stagg, Taos Ski Valley Inc.’s vice president for marketing.
“We were struggling with how we could make the investments we needed to do based on ticket sales,” he said of reasons for the sale. The area received U.S. Forest Service approval in 2012 for expansion plans to add lifts that will increase its lift-served skiable terrain by 60 percent and to improve base area amenities.
The company also had plans to build condominiums in the valley.
Stagg’s wife, Wendy, is the daughter of the area’s quirky founder, and his son Mickey is the current CEO. Blake founded the area, known for its challenging double black diamond runs and its terrain, some of which is accessible only by hiking, after he discovered what he thought was the perfect place for a resort while scouting the area by air from a small plane. Blake’s widow, Rhoda, is 95.
The sale is subject to stockholder approval, which could happen in January, said Stagg. The ski area has about 100 stockholders but is not publicly traded on the stock exchange, he said.
The new owner is no stranger to the ski area.
Bacon, owner and founder of Moore Capital Management, has worked with the ski area for about five years on real estate development, said Stagg. Bacon also has a company called Belvedere Property Management.
He is heavily involved in the conservation and protection of natural resources abroad and in the United States, including donating easements to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect 167,000 acres in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, according to Bacon’s website and other sources.
“This purchase … brings investment to the table and allows us to go forward with development,” Stagg said.
The ski area is known as one of the best in the West. It usually gets more than 300 inches of snow a year and handles about 250,000 skier days annually. But it has struggled to keep pace with some of the bigger, glitzier Colorado resorts. Taos Ski Valley’s 1,294 acres is comparable to some of the smaller Colorado areas.
Some longtime Taos residents were not overjoyed when contacted Wednesday about the sale, but others remained upbeat.
Steve White is a chef at the area’s iconic Hotel St. Bernard, locally known as “the big dog.” He started working there and skiing at the resort in 1961.
“It looked like they were turning it into a Vail or an Aspen. I think they got some of the expansion they wanted in the ski area from the Forest Service; a lot of locals weren’t happy about that,” White said.
One of the lifts that were approved would take skiers to the top of the 12,481-foot Kachina Peak, a run that locals cherish because it involves at least a 40-minute hike. Taos has a vertical drop of 2,612 feet, which would increase to 3,274 feet with the addition of the Kachina lift.
Evan Blish, who moved to Taos in the mid-1970s, is an expert skier and the bar manager at the St. Bernard, as well as a local real estate agent. He said he had heard rumors of the sale for months.
“It’s fascinating, actually,” Blish said of the news. “Just the implications are huge. We’ve had this private enclave, and it’s all going to change.”
Blish said he understood that new owner Bacon “came as a skier a couple of decades ago” and befriended locals.
White cooked for a camping outing that Bacon attended several years ago in the valley. “I basically camped out with him; he seemed like a really nice guy,” White said.
Bacon issued a statement Wednesday on the sale: “This is an iconic ski area both because of its expansive mountain and the first-class team of professionals who manage it. I have enjoyed spending time in and around Taos Ski Valley for years and know how much people cherish its world-class skiing, which is why I am so honored that Mickey asked me to continue his family’s work.”
Also in a statement Wednesday, Mickey Blake said, “We believe Louis is the right person to ensure a viable future for the ski valley and that his ownership will be beneficial to our employees, Taos residents and guests.”
The selling price for the ski area will not be disclosed, Stagg said.
Future of projects
The area’s “management all stays the same,” he said. Mickey Blake remains on the board of directors, but Gordon Briner, current chief operations manager, will take over Blake’s position as CEO and Stagg will remain as a vice president.
Bacon owns land in the valley across from the Thunderbird Lodge and in the Kachina Village, said Stagg.
Adriana Blake, Ernie’s granddaughter, who has known about the impending sale for a while, had mixed emotions Wednesday.
“I think it’s good; I think it’s good for the valley but a little bit sad for us who grew up here,” said Blake, 43. “A little bit bittersweet but overall a really good thing.” This season is her 31st working in the valley, where she is the administration manager.
The Forest Service’s approval of the master plan included two new lifts: the Kachina Peak lift and one to the West Basin, which includes many double black diamond runs such as the Oster, Zdardski and Tequila Chutes. It also allows for the replacement of the area’s two, old two-seater chairlifts.
“Those projects are all approved; they (the new owners) can do them or not do them,” said Blake.
Also approved by the Forest Service is a Base Area Redevelopment Plan, which calls for the replacement of the old building that houses the rental shop and ticket office, said Blake.
New condos are also part of the redevelopment plan, but plan approvals are pending, said Adriana Blake.
The Village Master Plan, an overall plan for the core area, was unanimously approved last spring by the village of Taos Ski Valley, Mickey Blake said in his statement. The village is its own governmental entity and separate from Taos Ski Valley Inc.
As the word of the sale echoed around the valley in this close-knit community, it provided much for bar manager Blish to ponder. “I think it’s a good thing for the Blake family and a good thing for all of us, really.”
But Blish also considered the wealth behind Bacon, who is on the Forbes magazine list of the 400 richest in America. There have been efforts for years to expand the Taos Municipal Airport and possibly attract commercial flights where now only private planes land.
“I wonder who they (the new owners) will be catering to.” he said.