Waterville Valley returns to local ownership

The Sununu family is leading a group of local investors that has completed the purchase of Waterville Valley Ski Area from California-based Booth Creek Resorts.

The Oct. 12 transaction – the sale price was not disclosed but investors indicated it was less than $12 million – included Waterville Valley Ski Area, Waterville Valley Nordic Center, Waterville Valley Conference Center and Town Square.

Chris Sununu, a former environmental engineer who works with two of his brothers in a business consulting firm, is heading up the efforts and will serve as Waterville Valley Ski Resort’s new chief executive.

His brother, former U.S. Sen. John E. Sununu, will serve as chairman of the board of the new Waterville Valley Holdings.

Sununu’s father, former Gov. John H. Sununu, who also was former President George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff, was among the investors.

“Our vision for Waterville Valley puts the family vacation experience as a top priority,” said Chris Sununu, 35, who was elected to a seat on the state’s Executive Council. “My family has been coming to Waterville Valley for 30 years and several of us have homes there. We want to preserve what is so special about Waterville Valley and at the same time begin to invest in the mountain to ensure the best possible skiing experience.”

Both the former governor and John E. Sununu have homes in Waterville Valley.

Bob Fries, former vice president and general manager, will return as the new president.

Since leaving Waterville Valley in 1992, Fries has managed several resorts including property in Breckenridge, Colo., Stratton, Vt., and at the Olympic Authority in Lake Placid, N.Y.

“Our team is coming in with some tremendous long-term plans to make Waterville Valley the premier resort destination in New England,” said Fries.

Tom Gross, local resident and current owner and operator of the White Mountain Athletic Club, will also be joining the executive team to manage the group’s interests in the valley itself.

“We’ll do whatever it takes to bring that magic back and give the vacationer and day skier what they expect and deserve,” said Gross. “Waterville Valley will be a great experience with great value.”

Decreasing visits

The resort was originally developed in 1965 by Olympic skier Tom Corcoran on the 4,000-foot Mount Tecumseh in the White Mountain National Forest.

Because the ski area has one of the state’s highest elevations, it has hosted 11 World Cup competitions from the 1960s to the 1990s.

In the last several decades Waterville Valley has seen the number of visitors decline by nearly half.

In 1992, some 300,000 skier visits were reported, with visits dropping to just under 170,000 this past winter.

Today, Waterville Valley has 52 trails on 255 acres, and 12 lifts.

Some $500,000 worth of upgrades have been announced for the 2010-2011 season including increased snowmaking, a new grooming cat, base lodge improvements and expanded ski and snowboard rentals.

The ski area and associated properties employs 50 permanent staff and up to 500 seasonal workers.

Waterville Valley was the last of three New Hampshire ski areas to be sold by Booth Creek in less than four years.

Booth Creek sold its stake in Loon Mountain in 2007 and sold Cranmore Mountain Resort in June.

It still owns the Northstar-at-Tahoe and Sierra-at-Tahoe resorts in California.

“I’m a firm believer that Waterville can return to being the premier resort in New England,” said Sununu.

Opening day is scheduled for Nov. 20.