Supes vote to support MMSA land trade

Fesko: ‘Rusty, all eyes are on you’

Mammoth Mountain Ski Area CEO Rusty Gregory finally got a green light to move ahead on a proposed land trade bill he said is vital to MMSA’s future after the Mono County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to send a letter of support for the bill to Congress.

The vote signaled that the supervisors have bought much of Gregory’s argument that the proposed land trade, which would put federal land at the base of Main Lodge into MMSA ownership, will benefit not only MMSA, but the rest of the county.

Gregory has argued in the past that modernizing Mammoth Mountain Inn and developing the adjoining property will bring hundreds of millions of dollars more into MMSA’s coffers. He has pledged to use some of the gains from the modernization not only for MMSA’s benefit, but to revitalize June Mountain Ski Area as a family friendly ski area. He has also pledged to put a significant effort toward marketing and promoting Mono County as a whole.

This is a new way of doing business for Mammoth Mountain, he has said. But he has been buffeted by a lack of trust from the supervisors and June Lake community members alike, after he abruptly announced he would close June Mountain last winter.

As of this week, the balance of trust appears to be swinging in his direction.

The letter, sponsored by June Lake’s supervisor, Tim Alpers, includes conditions for the support, but makes a clear statement in support of the land trade as a necessary tool for Mammoth Mountain’s growth and competitiveness—and hence, June Mountain’s success as well.

In fact, Alpers has been working for the past several months toward trying to reconcile a sometimes divided June Lake to get behind a plan for a “recreational corridor” that will include not just the two ski areas (operated and leveraged as a unit,) but also for much of the county to be marketed and branded as a whole recreational complex.

Part of that, he said, will require the land trade, since MMSA is the driving force behind Mammoth’s economy, and the property taxes raised from Mammoth in turn provide about 80 percent of the services that the county provides to the rest of its residents.

On Tuesday, it was clear Alpers—and Gregory—had been mostly successful.

Speaking to a mostly supportive audience, including many of the new management team for both MMSA and June Mountain whom Gregory introduced, Alpers said the two ski areas have a much better chance of competing for skiers if they are operated together.

“There is a definition of faith, a belief in things yet unseen,” Alpers said, addressing the issue of the June Lake community’s lack of trust in Mammoth Mountain.

“We have not seen the whole thing, all of what Mammoth Mountain will do, but I met the (new) staff (last) Friday, I’ve had a chance to meet and listen to the others today. I’m convinced that the follow-through in June Mountain will happen … and I really believe two complimentary ski areas are the way to go,” he said.

Other supervisors agreed, although not without wariness.

“From an economic standpoint allowing Rusty Gregory to have access to the land, so he can control it … it does make sense,” said Supervisor Tim Fesko. “Rusty, all eyes are on you.”

Some members of a local group that have opposed the land trade, the Committee to Revitalize June Lake, were at the Tuesday board meeting. The group has been successful in slowing progress on the bill in Congress this year, according to Gregory.

This time, their voices were a small minority, although they spoke with passion and conviction.

“Please, just give us six months to see if Mammoth Mountain comes through on its promises and pulls a permit (to build a new lift on June Mountain as Gregory promised for 2014),” said Patti Heinrich.

Supervisor Fred Stump defended the group’s right to petition Congress—and he also defended the supervisor’s right to take the time to consider all sides of the issue, rather than rubber-stamping Gregory’s request earlier this spring for a letter of support for the land trade.

“Citizens do have the right to contact their Congressmen, and we have the right to be deliberate in our consideration,” Stump said.

Gregory addressed the trust issue directly.

“It’s not surprising we have the acrimony,” Gregory said. “These have been very difficult times and I will forever be a marked man (after closing June Mountain last winter) … One thing we needed to do was to reverse the trend of operating it as a unique area … and we realized we needed to give June Mountain significantly more resources.

“It’s not like it is as simple as writing another check,” he said.

Rather, he said, it is about leveraging the full force of MMSA’s marketing and financial power in order to market both mountains together to capture dwindling resources in a very competitive market.

“We want the two to be thought of as the same breath, essentially,” he said.

Gregory has been trying to get a parcel of U.S. Inyo National Forest land that lies under the aging Mammoth Mountain Inn into MMSA ownership for the better part of a decade, a process that requires an act of Congress.

Although the land trade bill has the support of the forest service, much of Mammoth Lakes, and passed the U.S. House last year, the ski area’s efforts have been slowed several times.

The most recent time was due to a group of June Lake community activists who have urged the supervisors and members of Congress to oppose the bill until Gregory makes tangible progress on investing in June Mountain Ski Area.

Due at least in part to pressure from the group, Rep. Paul Cook (R-Yucca Valley), the county’s U.S. House representative, recently announced that he was putting a hold on the bill in the House Natural Resources Committee.

Alpers said after the meeting that he believes the land trade bill now has a good chance to get through Congress soon, perhaps even this year.

“This is the kind of information they have been waiting for,” he said. “They need a sign from us that we are mostly united on this and that is what they have now.”