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Ski area saviors eye Steamboat

Tim and Dianne Mueller are credited with breathing life back into Okemo, Vt.

— Tim Mueller owns a piece of a couple of golf courses, but in many ways he was out of his element Friday afternoon tooling around Okemo Valley Golf Course in Vermont with a group of friends.

“This is only the third time I’ve golfed this year,” Mueller said. “In fact, I’ve never golfed at Catamount.”

The khakis and polo shirt Mueller was wearing on the links Friday were an exception to the rule. He is as likely to be wearing faded denims. And you’d be more apt to find him fly fishing or stalking an elk than pursuing white golf balls around a manicured course.

“I was out there (in Steamboat), a few weeks ago during archery season,” Mueller said. His elk hunt was successful; he bagged a five-by-six bull.

According to sources close to the negotiations, Tim and his wife, Diane, (they pronounce their last name “Muller” not “Mewler”) are among four finalists in the running to purchase the Steamboat Ski Area. They are the owners of Okemo Mountain ski resort near Ludlow, Vt., and are partners in Catamount Ranch & Club just south of Steamboat Springs.

According to sources close to the ski area sale, none of the other finalists two of which are investment banking firms have experience owning and operating ski areas.

When the Muellers first came to the Yampa Valley in 1996, they had just purchased a Lake Catamount project that was proposed to be very different from what is now Catamount Ranch & Club. The original plans for Lake Catamount, which never came to pass, included a major ski area on 3,200 acres of national forest, a 36-hole golf course and 3,756 residential units.

Although the Muellers came here to build that resort, the project morphed into a real estate development of just large estates and a golf course several miles closer to Steamboat, with no ski area at all.

When Cordillera, a Vail development company, became the managing partner, the Muellers remained partners, but stepped back from daily involvement.

Returning to Steamboat

Now, Tim and Diane Mueller are showing an interest in increasing their business involvement in Steamboat in a large way. The asking price for Steamboat and perhaps the Steamboat Grand Hotel, hasn’t been made public, but it will certainly be more than nine figures.

Understandably, Tim Mueller hasn’t discussed how he would finance the purchase of Steamboat. But he did tell the Pilot & Today he would plan on accomplishing some major capital improvements in the first two or three years of ownership. He also said that it’s a possibility that he would bring other investors into the ownership group.

When Tim and Diane Mueller purchased Okemo Mountain ski area in Vermont in the early 1980s, it was a struggling resort that counted just 75,000 skier days annually. Gradually, they built it up until it hosted more than 590,000 skier visits last winter. Okemo has accomplished that growth even though it is just down the highway from giant Killington.

Ironically, Killington is the centerpiece of American Skiing Company’s flock of New England ski areas, and now, the Muellers are seeking to purchase Steamboat from ASC.

Nick Schoewe of Steamboat Springs is among the partners in Catamount. Currently, his business activities include running a closely held investment fund with a group of partners from Chicago.

Schoewe did not know the Muellers until they became partners in Catamount. They were introduced to one another by a mutual acquaintance and another Vermont man, Lyman Orton.

Schoewe has witnessed Tim Mueller in action at Okemo and approves of what he has seen.

“Tim isn’t pretentious at all,” Schoewe said. “At the same time, he’s a very astute businessman. He’s very good at knowing what his market is and what his customers want.”

Making it in Vermont

Mueller said he began his business life with a degree in American studies, and a contracting firm that built roads and homes in Vermont. He and his wife are not Vermont natives; Diane grew up on Long Island, and Tim’s family moved from Cincinnati to Denver, then to Long Island during his high school years.

Tim moved to the Virgin Islands from Vermont to help his future father-in-law build condominiums, and that project eventually grew into a resort.

He returned to Vermont and acquired Okemo when it was struggling. He says he was not wealthy at the time.

“We begged, borrowed and leveraged everything we had when we came back to Vermont,” Mueller said. “And we’ve put everything we made back into Okemo.”

Any wealth the couple has acquired, Tim says, has come about since they bought the ski area.

Diane Mueller is known at Okemo and in Ludlow for her willingness to roll up her sleeves and pitch in, even if it means working in the cafeteria line. She ran the sign-building department at one time, and was involved closely in employee training. Diane served on the school board in Chester, where the Muellers live, for many years, and currently is vice chair of the Vermont board of education. She was named “Vermont Citizen of the Year” in 2001 by the Vermont Chamber of Commerce.

Sources in central Vermont say many regard the Muellers as economic saviors; Ludlow lost a GE plant in the past, and with it jobs. The success of Okemo is seen by many as vital to the economy.

Pros and cons

Conversely, before the Muellers assumed control of Okemo, it was run by a board, and there are still people in the community who served on that board and harbor resentments.

Others are unhappy with the additional growth being represented by a proposed expansion of Okemo called Jackson Gore. It would add 450 homes, a base village, 16 new trails, 55 acres of glades and five lifts to the resort.

The project has undergone extensive review by the Vermont Environmental Board, which is scrutinizing it down to the number of trees that can be removed for trail construction.

More fractious have been discussions about zoning changes on the local Planning Board. Jackson Gore has been in the planning stages for more than three years, and at times both Okemo detractors and Okemo employees have served on the board.

The volume of ski traffic on Sundays in Ludlow has become a contentious issue as well as in some surrounding villages. Central Vermont is served by two east/west highways. The two-lane highways go through the center of small Vermont villages, and the highways weren’t really built for the traffic generated by almost 600,000 annual skier visits.

The intensity of the debate over traffic was ratcheted up a notch last winter when a cop directing ski traffic in one of the nearby villages was struck by a car and injured.

The middle of controversy

Mueller has responded to the controversy over Jackson Gore by creating a fund that would dedicate a portion of future lift ticket sales to building community infrastructure.

The Ludlow Enterprise Fund will accrue from a formula that sets aside 20 cents from every lift ticket sold up to 400,000 skier visits a year, and 46 cents from every lift ticket sold after the 400,000-visit threshold. Mueller estimates the fund would generate a minimum of $80,000 a year for Ludlow.

Town officials in Ludlow say the fund could help acquire a new police station, a new ambulance, a new municipal recreation area with tennis courts, playgrounds and a skating rink, and additional sidewalks.

Mueller says he’s kept his sense of humor about the lengthy process of getting Jackson Gore approved. He has written letters to the editor of the nearby Rutland Herald about the zoning debates, and newspaper readers have written back to take him to task on some of the fine points. Okemo employees have also defended him in the letters to the editor column of the local paper.

Okemo employee and Ludlow resident Joyce Washburn wrote that her town has become a better place since the Muellers arrived.

“I have been a longtime employee of Okemo Mountain, since 1969 (32 years),” Washburn said. “I worked here before Tim and Diane Mueller became the owners in 1982 and have seen Okemo become the success it is today.

“I have seen many managers come and go. Tim and Diane brought new blood and new ideas to Okemo, but they did not do this overnight. They are here daily, working alongside us. You may have seen Diane serving soup in the cafeteria on our busy days. Tim and Diane are not phantom owners. They are here, brought their family up in Chester, and are involved in all aspects of our state, not just the ski industry.”

A show of support

Schoewe said the Muellers have inspired intense loyalty among their employees by creating a working environment where managers and rank and file employees aren’t afraid to give their own opinions to their bosses. He thinks they would be good for Steamboat.

Without discussing the Muellers’ financial wherewithal, to both purchase the Steamboat Ski Area and invest in its future, Schoewe said Tim Mueller is a savvy businessman who wouldn’t make the mistake of acquiring Steamboat and then finding himself unable to help it grow.

“Deals are deals and who knows how this one will turn out. It would be a great thing if he could acquire (Steamboat),” Schoewe said. “Okemo is really a tremendous success story. It’s a wonderful family-owned business story. The story doesn’t get much better than that.

“That’s why I’ve rooted for him and supported him in his efforts to buy Steamboat.”

To reach Tom Ross call 871-4210

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com


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