Sizing Up Sununu's Impact on Waterville Valley

Sep 2, 2016

Republican Chris Sununu has made his experience as head of the Waterville Valley ski resort a big part of his campaign for governor. What does his time there tell us about his readiness to take the corner office in the State House?

When the Sununu family bought Waterville Valley Ski Resort back in October 2010, it was just a month until the start of the ski season. Not a lot of time for big upgrades on the slopes.

But Chris Sununu, in one of his first acts as general manager at the resort, did make one renovation a priority.

“The first thing I did was massively upgrade the bathrooms,” Sununu recalls. “Everyone was like, ‘Jeez? The bathrooms? That’s where you’re putting your money?’ And I said, yeah. Cleanliness and customer service, that’s actually our frontline issue.”

Sununu made other small but significant changes off the bat. Boosting the resort’s wedding business. Expanding its conference center. Adding more summer activities, like mountain biking.

But when it comes to some of the bigger promises he made at the outset, like adding more ski trails, progress has come slower — or barely at all.

That’s part of the challenge in running a ski area, Sununu says, especially one located in the White Mountain National Forest: Your business is at the mercy of the weather, and any major changes need approval from the U.S. Forest Service.

Locally, the stalled progress on the Green Peak Expansion has become a symbol of unfulfilled promises during Sununu's tenure at Waterville Valley Resort. While behind schedule, the expansion is now moving forward as of this week.
Credit Casey McDermott / NHPR

At the same time, some locals say Sununu talked up big plans for the resort’s revival when he took over, and they’re still waiting to see him deliver.

“I think he could’ve been doing a better job,”says Rosanna Bannock, who’s been visiting Waterville Valley for decades. She and her husband bought property in the area shortly before Sununu took over.

“I think he came in saying he was going to do all of these things in the valley,” Bannock added. “And we’ve been coming, what, over 30 years? And we don’t think we’re seeing what we thought he was going to bring.”

The Sununu family, for their part, have also been coming to Waterville Valley for decades. That’s part of the reason they decided to take it over in 2010.

While well-known in political circles, the Sununus were relative newcomers to the state’s tourism industry. Sununu, who says he came up with the business plan and financial models for his family’s purchase, acknowledges that he came into the job with a little bit of a learning curve.

“Next thing you know, I’m the CEO of Waterville Valley resort — which was kind of a shock, a little bit, because it was a hard deal to put together,” Sununu says. “All of the sudden I went from basically being an engineer, a little bit into the business consulting world, and now I’m running a ski resort, which I never anticipated. But it’s just been a great adventure.”

When they took over at Waterville, the Sununus promised to be better stewards than its previous owner: Booth Creek, an out-of-state company that managed a handful of resorts across the country.

"My family has been coming to Waterville Valley for 30 years and several of us have homes there,” Sununu said when the family first took ownership. “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.”

While the previous owners had, by many local accounts, put off a lot of maintenance and upgrades, Sununu almost immediately started talking about launching the first major expansion of the ski slopes in decades.

Today, though, that project — the Green Peak Expansion — is still just getting off the ground. It was only this past week the resort announced that the new trails were being cleared out, with the goal of opening up at least part of the expansion in time for this ski season.

A few years ago, Sununu told locals the expansion would be open by now.

The future site of the Green Peak Expansion was largely unchanged as of the middle of August. Work to clear out the new trails has started in the last week.
Credit Casey McDermott / NHPR

“I don’t think I appreciated when I saw how long it took other resorts to take, I was excited like everyone else was,” Sununu says now. “‘We’re going to get this done in three years, or four years.’ And it’s been five. It’s not like we’ve vastly exceeded where I thought we would be, necessarily.”

The hurdles that have slowed down Green Peak, like locking up financing and waiting for federal approval, are the kinds of things that usually come with projects of this scale.

Still, this promised expansion — and the stalled progress — has become a symbol for many in the Waterville Valley community who say they felt like they got their hopes up.

And along the way, the delays have also added to speculation that the resort isn’t doing as well as Sununu says publicly. At a 2014 meeting, for example, town selectmen voiced some of this anxiety about the financial health of the resort.

“On one hand, it’s a private business. On the other hand, unfortunately, it’s the lifeblood — it’s one of the key lifeblood industries of this town,” one selectman said at the time. “And, should we be asking him, hey, what’s going on up there?”

“I would rather get a clarification from him than have to answer a million rumors,” another added.

Mark Decoteau, the town manager, says this kind of discussion isn’t necessarily new since Sununu took over.

“There’s always a rumor or always somebody saying something about, you know, the mountain is doing this right, this wrong, they’re not making any money, they’re making a lot of money,” Decoteau says.

And this gets at a central issue: the relationship between Waterville Valley, the town, and Waterville Valley, the resort.

In fact, once you arrive in the area, it can be kind of hard to tell where exactly Waterville Valley — the company — ends, and Waterville Valley — the town — begins.

The town square in Waterville Valley embodies the overlapping interests of the resort and the community.
Credit Casey McDermott / NHPR

Take the town square, for one. It sits down at the bottom of the mountain, about two miles from the ski lodge. There’s a bright, white row of storefronts surrounding a big central patio, right next to a little lake with its own beachfront.

Waterville Valley, the company, actually owns the property in the town square, and leases out space to the businesses and other offices there. The town takes care of the beach. If you keep walking a few steps beyond the beach, and you’ll run into another lodge, owned by the resort.

Decoteau, the town manager, says the town’s overall operations —  on things like trash collection, emergency services, sewer systems —  are intertwined heavily with the resort.

“We interact with them on a range of issues,” Decoteau says. “On simple things like water use —  the ski area wants to make snow for their cross-country ski area down by the ice arena, as an example. We have to coordinate that.”

But it’s about more than just water use. The health of the town is largely dependent on the health of the resort.

For one, the resort and its affiliated company, Waterville Valley Holdings, are the two biggest taxpayers in the community. And many of the 400 people who live in Waterville Valley are connected, in one way or another, to the resort — as employees, investors, visitors or otherwise.

For now, despite some of the questions that have been raised locally, Sununu doesn’t plan to open the resort’s financial records for inspection, for town officials or the public.

“Look, everybody always wants to know what our balance sheet is, what our financials are,” Sununu says. “We’re a private business. That’s not public information, nor should it be. This is a small town and a small community. Everyone has their opinion on what should happen here, and we listen very carefully to those opinions and those ideas.”

Absent details about its finances, publicly available data about ski visits is the next best thing for people trying to get a sense of how the resort is doing. But in recent years, those figures have been cause for concern in the community.

Like other New Hampshire resorts, Waterville Valley has seen a steady decline in skiers in the past decade. Last season, Waterville Valley logged fewer than half the number of skiers it did in 2010, the year Sununu took over.

It was a rough year for the entire East Coast ski industry, but Waterville Valley’s visits fell more sharply than other White Mountain resorts.

“The hotel, town square, conference center — they’ve never been better, never had better financial results, without question,” Sununu says. “The ski area last year? It stunk. I’m not going to lie about that. It was really tough weather. The business is so dynamic. It's not about the overall value, or anything like that.”

But if Sununu keeps pointing to his business record at Waterville as he campaigns for governor, how should voters size that up?

“Tell them to come on up, and have a couple of great days of skiing at Waterville Valley,” he says. “The quality of the product speaks for itself.”

All the while, people who’ve been on the ground in Waterville for years say that product hasn’t changed as much as they’d hoped under Sununu’s management. 

“I think he’s basically a good person,” says Andy Knight, who runs the Waterville Valley Foundation, a nonprofit that supports a range of community institutions in the valley.

And as a community partner, Knight says Sununu’s been great — he’s been a good neighbor, and he’s made sure to keep up the resort’s long tradition of supporting local charity and community causes.

As for Sununu’s record at the resort: “If Waterville Valley Resort and its current trajectory is what he’s saying, ‘Hey, I’m a successful business man,’ the jury is definitely way out.”

That’s not to say Knight, or others in town, weren’t rooting for him. The year the Sununus took over at Waterville Valley, Knight says the kickoff party for the new ski season felt like a homecoming celebration.

“There was a great buzz in the room, a kind of electricity that I haven’t felt in a very long time,” Knight wrote in a blog post at the time.

He remembers noticing that Sununu, who was there for the party, seemed genuinely surprised at the enthusiasm on display — but Knight, in his blog, said that wasn’t necessarily so surprising.

“There are a lot of us who love this place, who have seen it through the lean years but always believed that the core of greatness remained,” Knight wrote. “We’re grateful for the new hope and looking forward to the return of the luster and magic. Everyone loves a comeback story.”

Six years later, Knight says, a lot of people in town are still waiting for that comeback.