Mass resignations don't cool tempers in Gunstock Mountain management feud
(This story was updated at 5:45 p.m. Thursday.)
Gunstock Mountain Resort's management team abruptly resigned Wednesday night, a move that follows months of acrimony and what top staff have called political meddling over the direction of the county-owned mountain.
For much of the past year, some members of the board that oversees the resort, backed by a handful of libertarian-leaning Belknap county lawmakers, have said the resort, which is coming off two years of strong financial performance and has plans to expand, needs to be on a tighter leash.
The mountain’s defenders - including many local residents who said Gunstock’s offerings had improved markedly over the years - said the push for reform was politically motivated and driven by misinformation.
In resigning Wednesday, Gunstock’s management team said the feuding and criticism had taken a final toll.
"We couldn't take it any more; we couldn't take the environment,” said Tom Day, who quit as Gunstock president Wednesday. “They had meetings to tell me that I needed to make sure to support them, and that they were in charge and I'm not. It's just crazy.”
Gov. Chris Sununu, who before becoming governor was CEO of the Waterville Valley Resort, which his family owns, was quick to agree.
“What has been happening over the last year surrounding the Gunstock Area Commission’s inability and unwillingness to work collaboratively with the management team at Gunstock is deeply concerning,” Sununu wrote in an open letter Thursday.
Sununu also took particular aim at a handful of Belknap County Republican lawmakers — Reps. Mike Sylvia, Norm Silber, and Gregg Hough – and the commission members they appointed to oversee Gunstock.
“These individuals have made bad decisions, and until they are removed from their positions and replaced with good people who recognize the wonderful asset that Gunstock is, the County will continue to suffer,” Sununu wrote.
In a statement, Silber, who represents Gilford in the New Hampshire House, dismissed the resignations as “a well-orchestrated and well-financed campaign of disinformation” to divert attention from forthcoming audit reports he predicted would be “very damaging to the reputations of the resigned commissioner, many of the resigned former staff and the governor himself.”
“It is truly unfortunate that the governor failed to have any contact with the Chair of the Gunstock Area Commission, the Chair of the Belknap County Delegation or the other two State Representatives he called out before inserting himself into a controversy about which he actually knows very little,” Silber continued.
The current leader of the Gunstock commission, Peter Ness, said his focus is on trying to figure out how to keep operations at the resort up and running with no management team in place.
“We were faced with an unprecedented act of management, and we are trying to figure out how operations for the mountain move forward today,” Ness said during a brief interview Thursday. “I’m in meetings all day to try to get that done.”
According to the Gunstock Mountain Resort Facebook page, the resort’s Gunstock Adventure Park, a popular summer attraction, is closed until further notice.
“Please know that we are just as bummed as you are and hope to see you soon,” the post reads.
(Original story by the Laconia Daily Sun follows below. NHPR is republishing it in partnership with the Granite State News Collaborative.)
The mass resignations came at the beginning of Wednesday night's Gunstock Area Commission meeting.
As Commissioner Ness made opening remarks, Gunstock General Manager Tom Day stood up and asked why he and the rest of the management team had been relegated to sitting in the audience, rather than having their own table as had been customary at previous meetings.
“We just did that to be more consistent with the way other delegations and committees work,” Ness explained.
To Day and apparently the rest of the Gunstock management team, this was a bridge too far.
“I'd like to tender my resignation and give my two weeks notice. I'll be happy to facilitate whatever I can do,” Day said. “It seems there's a lot more control that wants to come from your side of it so I feel that my role here is diminished.”
Earlier coverage from NHPR: In Belknap County, a battle over the future of a beloved local ski resort reaches a boiling point
After Day resigned, one by one, the other members of the Gunstock management team followed suit and left the building.
The following staff members resigned: Tom Day, president and general manager; Cathy White, chief financial officer; Robin Rowe, director of resort services; Peter Weber, snow sports director; Rebecca LaPense, director of human resources; Patrick McGonangle, facilities operation director; and Kristen Lodge, director of marketing.
Commissioner Gary Kiedaisch also tendered his resignation.
In the parking lot, before the management team could disperse to their cars, Commissioner Jade Wood came out to address the staff.
“I called a brief recess to thank you and your whole team for being patient. I had no idea you weren't going to be seated at the table. I never would have cooperated with that gesture,” Wood said. “I just want to send a note of gratitude to all of you. You did a fantastic job. Hopefully we can figure something out.”
After Wood finished her words, Kiedaisch appeared in the lot and addressed her directly.
“Jade, I'm going to be watching the money. They have signature authority. There's millions of dollars. I'm going to make sure there's no corruption, that no money is paid to anybody,” Kiedaisch said. “If any money is paid on behalf of the delegation, that's corruption. It's inappropriate payments. The auditors will say that. This commission is in serious trouble right now.”
Wood returned to the meeting room.
“Because of the unanticipated acts of members of management, the commission is going to adjourn the public session of the meeting in order to address the consequences witnessed here, we will enter into a non-public session,” Ness declared. A non-public session can be called to discuss personnel matters.
Before going into the non-public session, Wood moved to open up public comment for 30 minutes, which was approved.
The commissioners faced criticism from the audience and suggestions that they not accept the resignations and try to come to an agreement with management.
“My husband's a ski instructor at Gunstock,” said Denise Conory, of Alton, who claimed extensive experience as a chief executive officer. “It was interesting to me how you set this physical space up and you're hiding behind the subterfuge of rules and how things are done, you intended this. Let's not play games."
She continued, "You knew that you have hounded this management team, which if you knew anything about business, these are exceptional financials. This team has done a terrific job. It's about numbers, not about whether you like them or what you want, it's about numbers and supporting these people.”
Conroy called the commissioners dismissive and criticized them for bringing politics into the management of the mountain.
“At the end of the day, we all come from different political stripes. My husband's a conservative, I'm super liberal. He comes home and works with people of all different stripes at Gunstock. It works. It's a terrific community and well-run business,” Conroy added. “The question I ask is where's the money and who's getting paid? Who sitting at this table here, except you, Jade, who's getting paid here stroking a check? Waiting for Vail to come in here and get a big check?”
“There is no plan to sell Gunstock,” Ness said. “That's an issue for the Belknap County Delegation. Whether they as a proxy for the taxpayers decide to do something with Gunstock, that's not our job.”
Rep. Norm Silber is the only member of the delegation who refused to sign a pledge not to privatize or lease the resort. Silber has gone on record and written The Daily Sun advocating for the leasing of the property to a private entity.
Gunstock Commissioner Doug Lambert appeared baffled at the management's decision to quit, seemingly unaware of long-brewing tensions.
“I don't know that short of it maybe being a political stunt, I would throw my career away simply because of where I'm sitting,” Lambert said.
A voice in the crowd responded to Lambert's statement with, “It's about respect and you know it.”
During this week's meeting of the Belknap County Republicans, Lambert encouraged attendees to show up to the Gunstock Area Commission meeting so they could “have some friendly faces.”
Earlier coverage from NHPR: Seeking more control over ski area, Republican lawmakers appoint political ally to Gunstock's board
Friendly faces towards the Gunstock Area Commission were few and silent. Any that may have spoken, were drowned out by criticism.
“I'm a faithful person and I know the right thing will happen,” said Gunstock employee Alex DeLuca. “I'm urging you to just do the right thing. I have a season pass at Loon. I love to ski at Loon, but the quality of the snow and control and the staff over the last couple of years has been better at Gunstock because this team and everyone, all the employees made it feel like a home.”
In an interview after the meeting, Day, who served as Gunstock’s General Manager, said “this affects more than us.”
“It affects the other 65 full-time, year-round employees and 150 seasonal employees,” Day said. “These are people that liked working for these people and the senior team. This is a huge impact on them. What about all these people? What do we do? It's terrible for this entire county.”
As for the decision for a mass resignation, Day said it was the “nuclear option” and the last thing he and his team wanted.
“The seats made it perfectly clear that their statement was 'we run the ski area, you don't,'” Day said, stating that feelings of resignation were close, but not necessarily planned for the evening.
“We were quite uncertain tonight, then obviously we were going to have to raise our hands to speak and get to the speaker table.”
Former commissioner Gary Kiedaisch said he believed that “was the straw that broke the camel's back.”
“I know most all of them were ready to go anyway,” Kiedaisch said. “These four, not so much Jade, but Ness, Strang, and Lambert are so inept and unqualified to be in the positions they're in that management sees they can't get anything done with them.”
Both Day and Kiedaisch claimed the recently appointed Gunstock Area Commission members were trying to take a larger controlling stake in the day-to-day operations, citing examples such as Strang's request to Day for personal contact information of each employee, and the statement at the last public session where Gunstock Area Commission members stated that they run the mountain, not Day. Day denied Strang's request for contact information.
“We've increased the revenue from $12 to $18 million,” Day said of his team. “The prior commission recognized the financials and felt it was good and these guys felt they needed to have control.”
During his interview, Day stressed the resignation was not what his team wanted, and they were sorry the impact this will ultimately have on the mountain.
“All of them gave up their livelihoods tonight,” Day said. “They have principles of integrity and respect, and those are things that are most important to have in your life.”
Kiedaisch said he “had been in this to protect Tom and the management team from hideous behavior from the commission.”
“When his team resigned I felt I had to show solidarity. That was a reason,” Kiedaisch said. “The other reason I resigned is I've known now for almost six months I'm not able to get anything done but I can resign with a good feeling that I and the four other [previous] commissioners that Gunstock can be profitable on its own, and that we can pay our way forward. We have $7 million in the bank right now.”
The fate of that $7 million is also now up in the air, and it's anyone's guess what future lies in store for the mountain.
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