Rusty Gregory says he knows what one of Mammoth’s problem is, and that it is he himself.
In a carefully crafted speech in front of the Town Council on Wednesday night, the CEO of Mammoth Mountain Ski Area made good on his promise, made early in the week, to step into the murky, tempestuous waters of town politics.
He also promised to throw the weight of the Eastern Sierra’s biggest economic engine—the ski area—into the town’s effort to survive its daunting, short-term financial obstacles, creating in the end a solid growth cycle.
Gregory, often glib in public settings, appeared to be dead-on serious this time.
“I am an impediment to the growth and prosperity of our resort community,” he began.
Twelve minutes later, at the end of the speech, Gregory intoned, “We have to fundamentally change, and the Mountain will fundamentally change, I promise you that.”
With those two statements acting as bookends, Gregory castigated the Town Council as well as Mammoth’s townspeople, arguing that it in the town’s character—its “gene pool,” as he put it— that has put the town in a cycle of economic stagnation.
“I came here 34 years ago to learn how to ski. Like many, I stayed around, maybe too long, and I stay because Mammoth was a place that I could do what I wanted, when I wanted, how I wanted, for the purposes that I wanted.
“We have a gene pool that’s made up of a lot of those kinds of people, which is what makes Mammoth a very interesting place to live. It also makes it a very difficult community to lead because you’re full of a gene pool that wants to do things when they want to do it and how they want to do it, and they have very strong opinions.
“There are a lot of people who stay where they grew up, not that they’re followers—they do radically idiosyncratic things as well—but to come to a difficult, harsh environment like Mammoth, do your business, raise your kids, try to build institutions that are strong and stable, that’s one hell of a challenge.
“The kind of people it takes to do that are people like us, who have very strong opinions. But I can tell you that as I’ve gotten older and have more responsibility—I came here to have fun and to pay for it by being a lift operator—and I am where I am today, rightly or wrongly, but I still hold to those basic ideas. Holding to that is part of what has contributed … to the circumstances of Mammoth Lakes today.”
The only way out of the town’s $29.5 million, 23-year judgment against it, he said, is to grow as a cohesive community, with a shared vision, and to put aside the individualistic habits that Mammoth has fostered since its beginning.
“When you have a significant obligation that’s going to last for a long time [the judgment], one that probably doesn’t make sense to pay off early if you do the time/value of money calculations, from a finance standpoint, that obligation is only going to feel like a lesser obligation if we can create the resources to minimize it,” Gregory said.
“The only way to create the resources to minimize it is to bring more people to the town of Mammoth Lakes, because whether we like it or not, whether we want to diversify or not, the business of the Town of Mammoth Lakes, the economics of Town of Mammoth Lakes, are dramatically influenced by tourism.
“I’m not sure how many of us here just want to survive. Just surviving is no small feat here, given what we’ve faced the last several years. I don’t think that’s our objective, even though that may seem out of reach to many of us these days.
“After a few years of drought, after financial meltdowns, and after all of the things that we’ve faced, survival seems like a pretty lofty goal at this point.
“But the way I’m thinking, and the way that I’ve acted and the way that I’ve been running the company, has been an impediment to the very things that we need to do to fix the problem, which is to grow.”
Using resorts such as Vail and Northstar (Tahoe) as examples, Gregory rhetorically asked,
“Why do other places have the things that they do, and we still seem to be working on making our flush toilets work?
“I don’t know what it is, but I can tell you that I’m part of that problem. It’s because I want to do it my way, when I want to do it, how I want to do it. And now I run a big company and I have a lot of clout to back up that attitude, and I need to change that attitude, and I covet to you tonight in front of the Town Council and the community, I’ll do that in a very big way and I’ll talk about that in ways that I think other people can get behind.”
Gregory declined to get into specifics, saying the timing isn’t right, given the town’s current re-structuring efforts to meet the first wave of settlement payments.
Rather, he painted in broad brushstrokes a future that is sustainable and cooperative.
“I know that if I think about it differently, we can figure out a way to pool our vision by creating it together and really working through it. There’s not going to be a free lunch. We’re going to have to argue through the politics and without having the government as a proxy for doing it, and then beating them up for doing it, when we can’t figure out how to do it as a group.”
In ending, Gregory laid out some big promises.
“The Mountain will be different, and I mean very different. We won’t compete with the rest of you. We will follow behind the collective … vision, with commitment, with resources committed to it.”