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Owning up

As Intrawest reviews its strategic options Whistler may contemplate: does it matter who owns Whistler-Blackcomb?

Bob Barnett charts the course of the corporation that lives, breathes, and just might sell, Whistler and Blackcomb.

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Since the Feb. 28 announcement that Intrawest, Whistler-Blackcomb’s parent company, was "reviewing strategic options for enhancing shareholder value" there has been all kinds of speculation about the future of the company.

A couple of weeks ago Starwood Capital Group LLC, a Connecticut-based investment firm acknowledged it had its eye on Intrawest.

"It’s not a huge secret to say we’re looking at Intrawest," CEO Barry Sternlich, told Bloomberg news agency. "Everyone knows it’s sort of in play, and they own a lot of ski mountains."

But we know a little more than that.

The two companies have a history together. Starwood bought a majority interest in California’s Mammoth Mountain Ski Area from Intrawest last year, and most of Intrawest’s real estate at Mammoth in March of this year. The two companies are partnering in development and sales of the Mammoth real estate.

As well, Gary Raymond, the Whistler-resident who ran the real estate side of Intrawest for 20 years, until his departure was announced last Oct. 18, resurfaced Nov. 9 as president of Starwood Development. Based in San Francisco, Raymond oversees Starwood’s development activities and related resort and condo/hotel investments.

Amid the speculation and various efforts to read the tea leaves Intrawest representatives continue to say it’s business as usual and the company is not looking to sell all or part of it assets. And Joe Houssian, Intrawest chairman and CEO, has said that includes Whistler-Blackcomb.

"…our objective isn’t to sell off our assets. Our objective is to grow our assets and build our business," Houssian told Reuters in February when the strategic review was announced.

And part of that strategic review includes looking at partnership opportunities – which is what financial analyst Gail Mifsud of Raymond James thinks the company should be doing.

"Essentially, in my view, what Intrawest needs is an angel investor to come in and basically form a partnership with them…" Mifsud told Pique shortly after the strategic review was announced.

But does it matter to the community of Whistler who owns or controls Intrawest?

Whistler-Blackcomb may be the company’s flagship resort, but it is one of 11 North American mountain resorts the publicly traded company has a stake in. Intrawest, which bills itself as "North America’s leading developer and operator of village-centered resorts," also has six village developments underway and a number of related tourism and real estate operations, such as Abercrombie and Kent, Canadian Mountain Holidays, Club Intrawest, Intrawest Golf and Storied Places.

Despite that diversity most people, including many in the stock market, still associate Intrawest with ski resorts, and in particular, Whistler-Blackcomb. It was through Blackcomb that Intrawest got into the mountain resort business in the mid-80s. And it is Whistler and Blackcomb mountains’ big alpine bowls and thousands of acres of cut runs that initially draw most people to Whistler. The attractions have broadened over the years, as golf, mountain biking, cat- and heli-skiing, snowmobiling, bungy jumping and dozens of other activities have developed and shown people there is more to Whistler than lift-serviced skiing. But the catalyst for virtually everything that’s in the valley and on the mountains today was the development of Whistler Mountain in the early 1960s and Blackcomb in the late ’70s.

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