This story by Aaron Calvin first appeared in the Stowe Reporter on June 8.
Last week’s news of secret plans for a gondola-style lift that would connect Smugglers’ Notch Resort and Stowe Mountain Resort that have been in development for years prompted immediate reaction and some consternation from skiers and snowboarders.
As reported exclusively by the newspaper, Smugglers’ Notch first began to explore the possibility of developing a lift six years ago in the autumn of 2017, just months after Vail Resorts’ purchase of Stowe Mountain operations.
Since then, the two resorts have made inroads with the Agency of Natural Resources toward the possible construction of an approximately 2,600-foot-long lift between Smugglers’ Notch’s Sterling Mountain and Stowe’s Spruce Peak.
Some winter recreationists welcomed the possibility of a partnership that would allow an ease of travel between the northern and southern sides of the mountain range, and greater accessibility between two resorts that are currently only traversable through a dormant backcountry path known as Snuffy’s trail.
A more vocal contingent has aired concerns that a partnership between corporate-controlled Stowe and its upper-crust aesthetics might threaten the more laid-back, family friendly Smugglers’ culture, and that this partnership might indicate Vail’s intention to buy up Smugglers’ to create a Sterling Range-spanning megaresort.
“It might sound dramatic, but I, along with thousands of others, are worried that an interconnecting gondola between the two resorts could be the first domino to fall,” wrote Matt Lorelli at ski and ride industry magazine Powder, articulating many of the fears shared by the Smugglers’ Notch faithful that this may be the first step to irrevocable change in the resort’s character.
Vail Resorts has previously used a connector lift to bring together formerly separate properties it has purchased, like the lift built in 2015 that brought together the formerly separate Park City and Canyons resorts in Utah. The corporation has also partnered with outside resorts to offer joint tickets — Skiarena Andermutt-Sedrun and neighboring Disentis ski resort in Switzerland.
In the aftermath of last week’s news, Smugglers’ Notch immediately reached out to its season pass holders, employees and other relevant parties to alert them to the news. The resort had planned to announce the connector lift when it was further along in its development and had requested confidential status that would have shielded documents concerning its development from public records requests, which the Agency of Natural Resources denied prior to the newspaper obtaining them.
Cart before the horse?
Sitting in his office in the double-wide trailer on the resort’s village operations campus that functions as the resort’s executive suite — before he was scheduled to address his employees for the start of the summer season — Smugglers’ Notch owner and general manager Bill Stritzler opened up about the planned lift, tempered speculation concerning a Vail acquisition and contemplated his legacy at the resort he has shepherded into the 21st century.
Since the news broke, Stritzler has found himself inundated by questions and advice from all sides, and though he and the resort sought to keep the plans under wraps, once they were out in the open, he said he welcomed the ability to continue its planning with public input.
“Some people are reacting like we would be upset by the information being out in the public. That’s actually not true,” Stritzler said. “It’s giving us an opportunity to understand what the public’s issues are going to be very early in the game, so that’s actually a benefit.”
Many of the questions raised by the connector lift simply can’t be answered yet, like questions regarding how access to the lift would be managed, or how much it would cost or how Vail’s Epic pass, which allows access to all 37 of the resorts it owns worldwide, would factor. The details have yet to be discussed because of how uncertain the plans are, with both Smugglers’ Notch and Vail agreeing that attempting to hammer out the administrative details before state approval would be putting the cart before the horse.
There’s the question of what this lift, which will require tree removal and revegetation, might mean for the environment and the high altitude forest. The Agency of Natural Resources will be the ultimate arbiter of whether or not its construction is acceptable, but Stritzler and his partners at Stowe Mountain and Vail believe the 164 acres of land they’re offering up for preservation in exchange for less than an acre of development is “more than worth it.”
Stritzler sees the region around Sterling Pond as not pristine wilderness but “one of the most heavily trafficked areas today in the entire state of Vermont’s forest system.”
“There’s a small group inside the company, four or five of us, who really are personally committed to protecting the environment. It’s hard for people to believe, but I always tell people, if you give me my choice, I’d rather be talking to you standing in the middle of the river with my fly rod,” Stritzler said.
Then there is the larger question of what this connector lift might signal in terms of a Vail acquisition of the resort.
Back in 2017, just weeks before Vail’s purchase of Stowe Mountain operations and with rumors swirling, Stritzler called anything being said about a possible deal between Smugglers’ and Vail — in the parlance of the time — “fake news.”
Now, looking back, Stritzler admits that he had one or two inquiries from Vail, but no full-blown discussions concerning the purchase of all or part of Smugglers’ Notch resort, and since then, there’s been an understanding between the two parties that the topic is off the table.
“I can say to you that there’s absolutely no wink or written understanding between the two businesses as to what the relationship will be in the future. With or without a successful lift, we just kind of agreed to not talk about it,” Stritzler said.
Vail spokesperson Courtney DiFiore last week declined to comment on the plans and indicated that the team at Smugglers’ Notch would handle the response.
Stritzler sees the connecting lift as insurance for the future. Since he proudly refused interest in selling six years and one global pandemic ago, Smugglers’ Notch has found itself among the last and perhaps the largest of the privately held ski resorts in Vermont. The singularity and vulnerability of that position weighs on him.
“When I leave it behind, this has got to be sustainable. I wouldn’t want to know that something terrible happened to Smugglers’ after devoting so much of my life and the many people around me devoting their lives to what we have today,” Stritzler said. “So the real challenge is, how do we keep the things that people love about Smugglers’ and remain a sustainable business in today’s new world? It’s a brand new world out there for a business like ours. So, what are the alternatives? Well, one of the alternatives is to find a way that makes us bigger than we are, because we’re competing with all these huge, extremely well-funded businesses, and we’re just a little guy here.”
Stritzler recognized that there are concerns about how a Stowe-connected Smugglers’ might affect the character of Jeffersonville and Cambridge, which has avoided the luxury development of its neighbor to the south, but he also said that the resort is accountable to its international clientele of annual visitors and season pass holders, not to mention its condominium and timeshare owners, which he said the resort needs to help compete against the burgeoning short-term rental market.
The tightening of the Cambridge housing market forced the resort to house international workers employed during the ski season in dorms at the Vermont State University campus in Johnson this past winter.
There’s the increasing cost of the capital expenses required at the resort’s sprawling village and the cost of maintenance to their decades-old snow-making equipment. Stritzler said the resort would like to increase its capacity to make snow when it’s cold in order to provide a bulwark against the yo-yoing temperatures that marred most of the recent ski season and will likely increase in intensity as the climate changes.
He also pushed back on the idea that Smugglers’ and Vail aren’t a culture fit.
“I spent a lot of time not only doing research, but also talking to people about the Vail Corporation, and the relationship of the Stowe business to the parent,” Stritzler said. “Not surprisingly for me, but probably for others, if you read what they say about themselves, and what their beliefs are, they’re very much in concert with who we are, with their commitment to the environment, and visible examples of what they do to show their environmental commitment, and their commitment to diversity.”
After all, Smugglers’ is not a stranger to partnerships that suit its needs. Following the recession of 2008, the resort brought in Club Wyndham, a segment of the corporate hotel franchisor, to help market and manage their timeshare operation in an age where enthusiasm for that ownership model has declined.
Increasingly, Stritzler’s focus on the resort, which he has managed since 1987 and owned outright since 1996, and its future is tied up with a sense of his own personal legacy. At 85, he said he feels as General Douglas MacArthur did as he prepared to exit the public stage: an old soldier who will not burn out but fade away.
He’s noticed that the Smugglers’ leaders in charge of the day-to-day operations resort are increasingly turning to the resort’s president and his daughter, Lisa Howe, for direction, and he’s determined not to leave her with a “car wreck” but a viable business that can survive in the age of corporately owned skiing.
“I think the question for Smugglers’ is not whether or not we have to change — we have to change if we want to be sustainable long term — but rather, how can we manage that change in a way that works for the people who have been loyal to us for so long? That’s really important,” he said. “I’m hoping we’ll see whether this works. I’m hoping I can get some direction actually from the people who ski here and work here.”
Disclosure: Aaron Calvin’s partner works for Smugglers’ Notch Resort.