Longform

The Big Steep

Page 3 of 6

Back in the '70s, as one former "lift rat" confesses, the ski patrols and the lift attendants used to sneak off into the woods to smoke dope.

That's as gone as the snows of yesteryear.
The walkie-talkie pinned to the suspenders of Boyle's ski bibs crackles to life and a managerial sort in the main lodge orders him down for his mandatory drug test. It's a stipulation of the area's use permit with the U.S. Forest Service that the area's employees be drug-free; after all, they are giving first aid and operating heavy equipment.

Boyle grumbles about the indignity of having to drop everything to go pee in a jar, but he shifts gears anyway, points his skis toward the lodge and rockets back into the late 1990s.

A Fire Sale on Ice
Fifty-three percent of the skiers at Arizona Snowbowl drive up from metropolitan Phoenix--29 percent come from northern Arizona and the rest from elsewhere in Arizona and from California--and so it is not surprising that the man who heads the limited partnership that owns the resort is a Scottsdale businessman.

Eric Borowsky, 57, has a brandy-smooth voice and gray-haired good looks that recall the actor John Forsythe. He owns a pair of Valley companies that buy and sell and broker sales of apartment complexes. In 1992, he learned that Snowbowl, then called Fairfield Snow Bowl, was for sale.

"It was strictly an accident," he says. "I was looking at a [real estate] catalogue. We were actually looking at a hotel in San Diego that was going to be auctioned. And to my surprise, the Snowbowl was in the catalogue. I didn't even know it was for sale, and I'm fairly active in the Arizona real estate market."

Fairfield Communities, Inc., which owned hotels and resorts across the country, had filed Chapter 11, and was auctioning the property for a minimum bid of $4 million, a fire-sale price.

As ski-industry journalist Peter Shelton quips, "Four million is one chair lift at Vail--a relatively short one."

Borowsky had been a skier for most of his life and he had a second home in the Flagstaff area, and so he was familiar with the resort and intrigued that it was for sale. His research told him that the mountain got an average of 250 inches of snow and 125,000 skiers each year. Then he put together a limited partnership, raised $1.8 million as a down payment and financed the rest. He claims that the venture has been so profitable that he expects to retire the debt within the next two years. Between 1993 and 1995, according to Forest Service records, the resort reported sales of between $4.8 million and $5.8 million annually, and even last year, the worst snow year on record, it still grossed nearly $2.3 million.

"We don't buy anything unless it's a moneymaker," Borowsky says. "We looked at this as a business that had a very high return on investment and for the first three years the numbers were exactly right. And even in the fourth year, which would be called a disaster from a skiing standpoint, the business operated at break-even. This is going to be another excellent year."

Had Borowsky been in the ski business already, he might have turned the page of the real estate catalogue.

While Arizona Snowbowl was up for sale, bigger companies had come to take a look and turned away, uninterested, partly because it was clear that the Snowbowl would always look like skiing 30 years ago. Never mind the high altitude, the usually reliable snow and the ready labor source in Flagstaff, especially among the university students.

There was no room for expansion into the surrounding snow fields and no real estate to sell off aside from a scant 80 acres seven miles down the access road, and no chance of snowmaking because there's no water to make it with.

The national trend in the ski-area industry is toward consolidation. Vail built Beaver Creek, right up the road in Colorado, and then roared across Vail Pass to gobble up Keystone, which had already swallowed Breckenridge and Arapahoe Basin.

The trend is hardly limited to the megaresorts. Boyne in Michigan bought Big Sky, Montana; Brighton, Utah; and Crystal Mountain, Washington. Sun Valley, Idaho, owns Snow Basin, Utah. A former owner of Vail is buying areas in Washington and California and Wyoming. A ski-area operator in Maine has been systematically buying up resorts in New England.

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Michael Kiefer