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Ski-nomics: The Business of Ski Resorts in a Future with Less Snow

While some resorts are struggling, Vail group is expanding and insulating itself

Jeremy Miller

On a recent winter weekend, Kirkwood's slopes had bare patches.

What a difference a season makes at one laid-back California ski area known for deep powder, sweeping bowls and short lift lines.

Kirkwood Mountain Resort, located 35 miles southwest of the glittering mega resorts of Lake Tahoe, is well off its average of 500 inches of snow per year (and a far cry from last year’s record-setting 748 inches). This weekend’s North Face Masters big mountain snowboard competition has been postponed because of lack of snow on the area’s high cirques. And last Wednesday, the resort was bought for $18 million by Colorado-based Vail Resorts.

Kirkwood’s purchase by Vail, a company whose aggressive expansion and intensive development at its other ski areas (including Tahoe resorts Heavenly and Northstar) may portend multi-million dollar ski chalets, luxury boutiques and high-speed gondolas — all things the remote Kirkwood has eschewed in its 40 years of operation.

But according to some industry watchers, Vail’s business model may offer economic insulation from a changing climate, as California’s mountain snowpack is projected to decline by as much as 25% by mid-century.

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