Good old Squaw Valley ranks right up there in the American consciousness with Shirley Temple, the Liberty Bell and, possibly, even deep-dish apple pie. Mention Squaw Valley and people identify immediately with that lofty, clean California setting where, back in 1960, the U.S. staged the best Winter Olympics ever held. The valley was big enough to contain everybody, yet small enough to keep the events intimate and no Winter Games since then has approached that same happy community of nations. It was great fun while it lasted, but the years since have grown progressively more troubled. And now—sentiment, memories and all—the old place is up for sale.
Shoppers for scenic high-mountain real estate already know all the attractions. Squaw Valley: majestic ski resort of vast slopes and meadows, 5,350 acres from ridge to ridge in the Sierra Nevada. Great location near major West Coast population centers. Good roads. Roughly $27 million spent on improvements since valley was developed 22 years ago. Specializes in sunshine (well, most of the time) and super skiing. For further details, contact the anxious seller, the State of California. Bring money.
So much for selling points. It is the rest of the deal that is unsettling. For, technically, not all of the valley is available. Two huge chunks of the place are for sale, like pieces of a snowy crazy quilt—a 330-acre patch including the old Olympic Village and extending up the slopes of Papoose Peak, and an 890-acre block on the western ski slopes. With this land the buyer also will get such gadgets as two ski lifts (out of 26 at Squaw Valley), a hotel, a restaurant and a famous old skating arena, Olympic size of course. But in between the two patches of land runs a snarled network of ownership and leases, and a situation further strained by uneasy landlord-tenant relationships, charges and countercharges of mismanagement and unsafe ski lifts, personality clashes, even theft. Squaw Valley has just concluded one of its more troubled seasons since the Olympians packed up their memories and went home.
A key figure in the current drama is Alec Cushing, now 57, the patrician Easterner who came to the valley 22 years ago, made it fashionable, then sold the International Olympic Committee and California (in that order) on hosting the Games. Cushing and his Squaw Valley Development Co. own eight acres spotted in the valley and another 1,200 acres on the mountainsides; the rest he leases from the state, with the leases good for 17 more years. It is Cushing, more than anyone else, who is responsible for the resort's genteel, shabby-snobbish charm.
Another major role is being played by William A. Newsom Sr., also an old-timer, whose Squaw Valley Improvement Corp. leases the Olympic Village hotel, restaurant, movie house and that grand old Blyth Olympic Ice Arena, also until 1988. And that is where California comes in: the state is owner of its own sizable properties, landlord of a lot more and—after losing a total of $3.3 million in the last 11 years—California wants out.
Cushing, he of the faded blue jeans and bandana knotted carelessly at the throat, is understandably upset by the proposed sale. "What would you bid to lose $300,000 a year on a property?" he asked last week. He has allowed that he doesn't want to sell his own holdings, but would study "any reasonable offer." Cushing also feels that the valley can be restored to its Olympic eminence despite the dizzying season just ended: one skier was killed in a fall, one ski lift was derailed, an accountant was accused of embezzlement, the chief security officer tried to rob a couple of lodge guests and the state filed suit charging unsafe lift operations, right during the Christmas holiday rush. Another low point came Feb. 28 when Mountain Operations Manager Hans Burkhart quit, asserting that "everyone knows the lifts there are pieces of junk. They're all falling apart and there's no money available for improvements." Cushing promptly sued Burkhart for conversion of funds; Burkhart then countersued for back Wages.
The crisis has been coming on for a long time. Ever since those golden old days when California invested so heavily in physical equipment and facilities at Squaw Valley—then settled back expecting the revenues to roll in—there have been conflicts on how to run the area. Take the case of KT-22, the 8,200-foot mountain that provided a lively downhill racecourse for the Olympians and has long been a favorite ski run. On Feb. 3 of this season, a ski school student, Mrs. Dianna Leonard, 40, slipped from a catwalk on a high KT-22 saddle and fell to her death. It was the second fatality from that area. This sort of thing is agonizing to any ski resort, since danger and thrilling skiing always go together; whether or not an area should be closed can be a matter of icy semantics. Cushing refused to close the saddle, maintaining, "There are plenty of people who can handle the saddle under any conditions and the skier has to be his own judge. We've got some of the best skiers in the world here and we're not going to try to tell them what to do."
There were other safety hassles as well. One of the lifts rebuilt for the 1970-1971 season was the Gold Coast—a double chair running from mid-mountain toward Emigrant Ridge. Along came the busy Christmas season and it was ordered closed by state indictment, which charged that the lift was unsafe; that case is still in process. Then another lift budgeted for a $14,740 improvement program was derailed on Feb. 5 and eight skiers were injured; one of them still remains partially paralyzed. In the ensuing argument over how to repair the damage, Burkhart quit, claiming his advice on safety measures was rejected. Cushing maintained that Burkhart had squandered more than $636,000 given him to improve the lifts; Burkhart countered that the figure was more like $60,000 and that, furthermore, he was owed back wages.
About the time Cushing was replacing Burkhart he also was looking for a new Squaw Valley security chief. It seems the former chief protector had rudely surprised a couple of guests Feb. 25 by appearing in their room and rifling through their belongings, warning them when they awakened to protest, "Be quiet or I'll blow your brains out." Turns out the security chief was a paroled armed robber; he was promptly returned to jail. A few weeks ago another lodge employee was charged with making off with $18,000 in daily deposits. Considering these difficulties, the power failure that hung up the new aerial tram for an hour Dec. 22 was a mere annoyance.
All this served as a stormy backdrop to the sale last week, and then California added one more unique twist to the deal. In order to make the prospect more attractive to a potential buyer, the state recently had traded off some land with the U.S. Forest Service to assemble its 1,220 acres. This action—if the sale does not come off satisfactorily—serves to put California farther into Squaw Valley rather than all the way out. But the state "had a mandate from the legislature to get out," as Cushing says, and so the patchwork deal went on the market with a call for sealed bids.