Copper’s new owner dusts off its love of the outdoors

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— The village was built and is owned by another company. The condos are developed and sold. The ski hill is an island in a state dominated by the biggest resort companies in the country. The mountain must battle an ingrained season-pass war that has prices hovering at 1970 levels.

So what compelled Utah’s Powdr Corp. to spend $107 million for Copper Mountain?

“This is the most competitive ski market in the world, but it’s also the best skiing in the world, and you take the good with the bad,” said John Cumming, the 42-year-old skiing chieftain of Powdr, which added Copper to its now eight-resort stable in December.

The vowel-challenged Powdr has quietly become a growing force in the nation’s ski industry, accumulating in the past 15 years a diverse collection of ski areas in every skiable region of the country. Its purchase of Copper from a debt-choked Intrawest marked its first push into Colorado. The deal included 463,000 square feet of developed commercial space and 426 acres of vacant and improved land, totaling 73 parcels. It didn’t include a large swath of Copper’s village, which Intrawest sold to Florida real-estate investment trust CNL Income Properties in 2004.

‘Not our core business’

Although Copper has several entitlements to develop empty land, Powdr is not pondering a big real-estate play.

“That’s not our core business. It’s definitely not our skill set to be developers,” Cumming said. “We know the real estate here is very valuable, and over time, we will do what we can to make sure it is developed in a way that accentuates the skiing.”

That skiing-first strategy finds Powdr still standing in the current economic downturn. While the collapse of the vacation real-estate market has hobbled resort-development companies such as Intrawest, which is shedding properties to pay down the debt of its hedge-fund parent, Powdr is spending.

A decade ago, as skyrocketing resort-home values and demand fueled a village-building binge, Powdr was easily overlooked. It had ski-only hills like Alpine Meadows, Boreal and Soda Springs in California. It picked up Oregon’s Mount Bachelor in 2001 and the Las Vegas Ski & Snowboard Resort in 2003. Powdr has kept pumping money into on-mountain upgrades at its Utah home base and flagship Park City Mountain Resort.

Today, that approach makes Powdr look particularly sage. And it’s winning early fans at Copper.

“Powdr seems to be more of a resort operator than a developer, and that is refreshing. Intrawest was so focused on making money from development,” said longtime Copper resident Tom Malmgren, owner of Carbonate Real Estate.

Powdr was founded in 1994 by Ian Cumming, a Utah entrepreneur who climbed to the Forbes 400 list by buying distressed properties. John Cumming shares both his father’s eye for a good deal and his notorious aversion to the media. He declined to be photographed saying, “I don’t really have any need to have anybody have a clue who Powdr is. It doesn’t serve our purpose for me to be a recognizable figure.”

Cumming has a fiery devotion to the outdoors. He co-founded the expedition-quality clothing and gear company Mountain Hardwear and, before becoming a resort executive, he traveled the globe climbing big mountains as a guide for venerable Rainier Mountaineering.

He’s been skiing at Copper since he attended the University of Colorado in the late 1980s, where he majored in French. After only a few months of studying Copper, he isn’t ready to discuss specific plans for upgrades or overhauls, but Cumming said he never had plans for big changes. Whatever happens, he said, will make the skiing at Copper better.

Emphasis on skiing

Polishing the ski experience is part of what he calls his “investment in the mountain lifestyle.”

“It absolutely enhances human beings being in the hills, especially in the wintertime,” said Cumming, who lives in Park City. “It’s idealistic as can be, but it’s true. It’s where my passion lies. I became me in the mountains, my family grew up in the mountains together and my children are growing up in the mountains.”

Skiing has played a formative role in Cumming’s life, and it is ingrained in Powdr.

The company’s chief operating officer, Herwig Demschar, was Alpine director for the Salt Lake City Olympics and a former coach of the U.S. women’s Alpine team. Cumming’s wife, Kristi Terzian Cumming, is a former Olympic racer.

Replacing the corporate vibe with a skiing vibe is good for Copper, said 14-year Copper resident Frank Inserra.

“Intrawest came in and got rid of the local mom-and-pop stores and restaurants and brought in their own. They built fast and furious, and it lowered everyone’s property values,” Inserra said. “These new guys are skiers. They are going to turn us back to Copper’s roots, which are all about a great ski hill.”

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