The Mountain Times

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Once upon a time in history: New beginnings for the Village

Editor's note: This is part 4 in a series that provides an historical perspective on the Killington Village and progress over a 44-year period.

The stockholders of S-K-I Ltd., Killington's founding/parent company, approved the sale of the company on June 10, 1996, and Les Otten's newly formed American Skiing Company (ASC) officially purchased Killington and its sister resorts on June 28.

During the period of transition, Allen Wilson returned to the area as President and Carl Spangler as VP for Planning and Development. They were two familiar faces who inspired confidence as they had worked with Otten at Sugarbush and many years at Killington (and S-K-I).

Otten's transformation of Sunday River into the East's number-two area was well known, as were his purchases of the Attitash, Sugarbush, and Cranmore ski areas. His team had made upgrades and resolved issues similar to Killington's and with an ability to get things done, including construction of 1,150 units at Sunday River, a 63-million gallon snowmaking pond at Sugarbush South plus a connecting lift between Sugarbush North and South, hopes were high that he could overcome the barriers that had stood in the way of Killington's progress.

S-K-I's Board had determined that real estate development was the wave of the future, and expectations were that Otten was going to make the commercial area or Village Center happen at Killington.

Green Lights
Otten had actually begun working on his vision for Killington before the sale was officially approved. He had instructed Carl Spangler, who had joined Killington in 1982 but left in 1993 to become his executive assistant, to work on the due diligence process and the issues that had stalled the Village and Parker's Gore projects as well as water for snowmaking. When Pico filed for bankruptcy in June 1996, Otten had also entered into talks with Pico's owners, and Spangler further explored a Killington-Pico Interconnect.

An ambitious entrepreneur, Otten was out to fulfill dreams for Killington. In a 1988 interview, he had said, "Who knows, someday I may be the person to take Pres where he needs to go."

That comment resonates for his insight that new approaches might be needed to get beyond the obstacles. In a 1997 interview, he explained how he endevoured to find out what environmentalists or other opponents wouldn't allow and accepting that "red light" while finding a way to work with them so that they understand a ski area's needs so you can get a "green light" and get something done. For Otten, it was about collaboration not confrontation.

Otten's plan was to maximize Killington's potential by: obtaining the necessary water supply for snowmaking; putting in a slopeside bed base; developing a village with hotel and conference center; providing improved service for families; and implementing a new marketing plan.

To do that, Otten set out to consummate all the agreements previously worked on by Killington but never completed.
 "If you don't get it done now, it won't happen in our lifetimes," Spangler recalled him saying in a 2008 interview. "He was very intent on having everything on the table and stressed that we needed a comprehensive resolution and gave me permission to meet with everyone."

Then Spangler had laughed as he recalled something he didn't have permission to do.

"Allen Wilson and I met with Barbara Ripley in Montpelier just before the agreement to explore the land exchange was to be announced by Governor Dean. It was the eleventh hour, and she told us she needed $375,000 to purchase 800 acres of land adjacent to Parker's Gore. Allen and I looked at each other and said, 'Yes.'

"Then, on our way back, we had to call Les to tell him what we had done. We figured we might be out of jobs.

"We told him and he screamed, 'We have a deal! You guys are going to be rich.'"

Well, history has its humor, but this does show how well meaning Otten had been for Killington.
In that exuberance (which included spending whatever it would take, unfortunately), he accomplished much: from the
Ramshead Family Center to preserving Pico as a classic ski area that never closed (as other bankrupt areas had to do); from building the Grand Hotel and Conference Center to gaining access to 500-millions gallons of water for snowmaking.

Most importantly, he set the stage for a Killington Village by an historic land swap in 1997.

In his 1997 comments on the historic land exchange, Allen Wilson noted that Governor Howard Dean summed it up well when he credited "the maturing of the environmental community and their acceptance of Vermont's need for jobs and the ski industry's contribution to the winter economy, especially in the Rutland Region where tourism plays a major role."

Wilson also spoke of "a maturity on the part of ski areas that recognizes that Vermont is what sells and that once the Vermont environment is gone, it can never be replaced."

He had added: "The true significance of the swap is that it allows the dream to go forward. We are at the beginning of being able to fulfill the vision. There is a long way to go, but with the swap accomplished the hard work to get there has paid off, and we can now draw up a master plan for a world-class destination resort. The entire region can be a true four-season destination. The beauty of Vermont coupled with the protection of that asset will work to the region's advantage, not just Killington's."

Killington Village Legacy
Spangler proceeded with new Killington Village planning, which included many hearings to gather input. Millions were spent permitting and planning as Otten set a different tone on behalf of Killington. By utilizing a collaborative approach, he let it be known that he wanted "to work cooperatively within the system" and was willing to listen to others if they would listen to Killington's needs, too.

It was the change that was needed to move Killington forward, and Otten and his team of managers had the skills, attitude, and confidence to make it happen.

"By playing by the rules," Otten said he was hopeful that he would be able to proceed with business and achieve the goals he had set for Killington. By being a good corporate citizen and giving something back to the state (Parker's Gore, more land for bears, better route for the Appalachian/Long trail, etcetera) he was optimistic that his style would "win friends rather than enemies."

This public approach was part of Otten's astute take on Killington, foreshadowed in 1988 when he noted that someone else might be needed to take Killington forward. He had been well aware that Killington was suffering from a bad environmental reputation (albeit undeserved) that was impeding the area's progress.

The result was that all groups came to the conclusion that Killington should have a "growth center' designation for its village.

Killington relinquished 2,948 acres for bear habitat and hiking trail protection in return for 1,070 acres in the Killington Basin. In the process Otten gained a "green light" for growth and development paving the way for the Village center.

But Otten had also lost control of his overleveraged company, which had grown to the largest in America - with western acquisitions ASC did almost 10 percent of U.S. skier visits. When Otten over-leveraged ASC in the booming 1990s, the banks had been only too willing to grant loans for acquisitions and real estate development.

But times changed as the weather and economy tanked. Soon loans were in default.

ASC's creditors failed to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and Killington wasn't able to make further progress after the snowmaking pond as profits left the area.

ASC shareholders had lost a bundle as did their lenders by 2001. Had the majority owner that now controlled ASC's Board (Oak Hill Partners) had patience and/or deeper pockets, the outcome for ASC and Killington might have been different. 

But they didn't - time ran out - and orders were given to sell the ski areas.

So it's understandable that some folks dislike and discredit Otten although history tells us that the Canyons, Steamboat, and Heavenly Valley were all seen as desirable properties that have done very well for new owners.
As for Killington, Otten's legacy was to make progress for the ski area and lay the foundation for a Village Center with approvals for his new Killington Village Master Plan.

That progress featured a new era of collaboration in which environmental groups and the State approved the concept of a "growth center."

At recent Act 250 hearings for SP Land Company's application, not one environmental group requested party status or showed up to object to new plans for a Village Center.

To have a region agree on a "growth center" for Killington is progress indeed. And it only took 44 years to get to this point!

Next week we'll take a look at the latest 9 years in Village patience and progress.

Tagged: Les Otten, killington, history