Being a ski resort owner during what some are calling California’s worst drought in 1,200 years can’t be a pile of soft, fluffy powder.
In May 2010, Tim Cohee fulfilled a lifelong dream by purchasing a 1,300-acre ski resort 65 miles east of Fresno. The first thing he did was restore the original name, China Peak. Then he went about fixing everything else.
Cohee brought a new level of customer service learned from decades in ski area management, including 17 years as a senior executive at Kirkwood Mountain Resort. He brought in enthusiastic new employees and reinvigorated the holdovers with fresh energy. He made the base area more beginner-friendly and gave snowboarders and freestyle skiers their own terrain park.
He remodeled the hotel and improved the food and beverage offerings. Everything from beds to burgers is better. He made the place a year-round destination by adding summer weddings, events and mountain biking.
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Cohee and his small partnership group, China Peak LLC, bought the resort from Snow Summit Ski Corp. for $3.8 million and have since spent $3 million more on improvements.
Midway through his fifth winter, about the only thing Cohee hasn’t done is something he can’t control: Make it snow.
“This is my 41st year in the ski industry, and I don’t remember two years in a row like this — let alone three or four,” Cohee said in his typically animated, rapid-fire delivery.
Cohee can rattle off the bad years without pausing to stop and think — 1977, 1984, 1991 — except in each case years of heavy snow soon followed.
That’s no longer the pattern.
Unless something changes, and there’s still time for that to happen, California will be parched for a fourth straight year.
Which is a pretty lousy situation for a guy whose business depends on people schussing down snow-covered hillsides.
“So many good things have been done up there, and what’s been super-satisfying is people get it,” Cohee said. “They recognize our improvements, the service, everything. It has not gone unnoticed by anybody. I get emails all the time, and that part has been great.
“The frustration is, and somebody asked me this the other day, ‘All the changes and improvements … how effective have they been?’ My answer was, ‘I have no idea.’ How do I know? We haven’t had a winter, from a business standpoint, to really know.”
Cohee draws an analogy between his situation and that of an NFL owner who hired a good coaching staff, drafted well and revamped the stadium.
“Only to see our quarterback, our running back, our middle linebacker and our All-Pro safety break their legs four years in a row,” he said, delivering the punch line. “The customers knew we had good intentions, but in the end we didn’t put a winning team on the field. So they don’t go to the games as much.”
China Peak sits at a base elevation of 7,000 feet and lies on a north-facing slope. Even so, less than 3 feet of snow has fallen this winter and most of that before Christmas. The resort is open only due to snowmaking.
Current conditions posted on the resort’s Web site do not try to paint the picture of a winter wonderland. Skiers and riders are told of low-snow conditions and warned to watch for marked and unmarked obstacles.
While it might be a crummy time for powder hounds, beginners can still take advantage of a $99 Learn to Ski/Ride Special that includes lift ticket, rentals and lessons on any three days, plus a conditional lift ticket and other discounts after the third day.
That’s one heckuva deal.
“Everything Tim has done has been positive,” said Andy Finch, the retired professional snowboarder from Fresno. “He’s trying to grow the mountain and trying to make the resort better in every way possible with the hand he’s been dealt. These last few winters have been rough on everyone.”
China Peak remains on solid financial footing, Cohee said, but only for two reasons: He and his partner, a local businessman who prefers anonymity, bought in at a good price. And they did so without being leveraged up to their necks.
Good thing, because the resort lost money in two of Cohee’s first four years of ownership. Last year was especially grim. (“We got annihilated,” he said.) This year has been better thanks to pre-holiday storms. But those seem like ages ago now.
Cohee is a visible presence at China Peak. He also finds time to teach courses in ski business and resort management at Sierra Nevada College near Lake Tahoe, a program he founded.
Those are only some of his activities. An elite-level masters triathlete, Cohee is constantly training. He can be seen running up the mountain with one of his five sons or in predawn pool sessions at Clovis North High, where he marvels at the facilities.
“I’m very bullish on Fresno,” Cohee said. “I’ve had a great time here these last five years.”
Now if it would just snow a little.