A tangle of lawsuits and no cash has Schweitzer Mountain Resort in limbo, with grim odds for opening this winter.
Schweitzer needs an estimated $1 million to pump into the resort and operate it this fall. It’s questionable whether the bank or the prospective buyers will be willing to extend that cash while the resort is mired in controversy.
“I am going to do what I can to keep the mountain open, but it’s very unclear right now what the future holds,” said Sandpoint attorney Ford Elsaesser. He was appointed by a judge as trustee for Schweitzer to try to sell the resort and pay off its $28 million debt.
“Regardless of how many motions and lawsuits are filed it’s still my intent we open the mountain and I told employees that,” Elsaesser said.
Harbor Properties Inc., a Seattle firm, signed a deal weeks ago to buy the resort for about $18 million. The sale was agreed to by members of the Jim Brown family, who founded the ski hill in 1963.
But two family members, Bobbie Huguenin and her mother, Jean Brown, are protesting the sale, saying they weren’t getting enough money.
The mother-daughter team also sued U.S. Bank, claiming they were forced to let Elsaesser oversee the resort and the bank conspired to take the Brown family fortune. The family borrowed about $21 million from U.S. Bank to develop and operate Schweitzer. They have been unable to repay the loan and decided to sell the ski hill to pay the bank and some 200 other creditors.
Attorney Edwin McCabe, who represents Huguenin and Jean Brown, has accused the bank and Elsaesser of misconduct. One of his arguments is Elsaesser was appointed trustee by a federal judge and the matter should have been handled in state court. Everything Elsaesser has done since being appointed in February is illegal, McCabe claims.
“The bank had the family set up to take its property and leave them with a giant debt,” McCabe said, adding that the resort is in limbo until the legal issues are resolved.
“Limbo is a fair word until we get a ruling and the family back in control of the mountain,” he said.
Sales of season ski passes generate a large chunk of cash, about $700,000, to operate the mountain. Because of the ongoing dispute, those passes have not yet gone on sale but could by early September.
“The more time that passes, the harder it’s going to be to put together a ski season,” said Jonathan Coe, Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce executive director. “The fear in the community is that this is going to get all balled up in court.”
Schweitzer employs about 500 workers during the peak ski season. The resort also fuels Sandpoint’s winter economy, packing hotels and restaurants with tourists.
“To get the mountain open and people skiing has to be the plan for the winter. We have a plan that would have that mountain up and going and it does not involve the bank or Harbor Properties,” McCabe said.
He declined to elaborate on the plans, but said his clients have invested an enormous amount of personal money in the resort and knows how important it is to Sandpoint.
“This family has a long history of being part of that town. The suggestion the family would sit by and have 500 people out of work is ludicrous.”
Resort officials said local businessmen have offered to come up and operate lifts this winter and that the bank is well aware how important the ski season is to Sandpoint’s economy.
That has bolstered hope that someone will step in and open the resort. A judge was supposed to approve the sale of Schweitzer Sept. 8, and Harbor Properties said they still are interested in buying despite the glitches.
By the end of the week, resort officials hope to have more details about the fate of Schweitzer.
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