All S. Franklin Burford needs to complete Snowshoe, the 7,000-acre resort on Cheat Mountain in the West Virginia highlands, is $3 million or so. A great ski season, a surge in real estate sales or a friendly lender--any or all would do.
After 10 years and two bankruptcies, Snowshoe is that close to having all the basic facilities it needs to be a true year-round resort, with much of the money, wherever it's found, earmarked for finishing an 18-hole golf course and clubhouse.
Launched 10 years ago by other owners who lost their $1.5 million investment within months of opening the ski area, Snowshoe is still a capital-short venture plagued by rumors of yet another bankruptcy. Recently, an offer was made by a Pittsburgh investment banking firm to buy out the present owners.
Like most seasonal resorts, it has an annual cash flow crunch as it operates, as Burford says, for 12 months a year on five months' income. The five-month season produces $20 million a year in revenues, making the company one of the biggest businesses in the West Virginia mountains.
But Snowshoe, which draws thousands of skiers each winter from the Washington area despite the five-hour drive to the remote mountaintop, is hardly the struggling infant of a decade ago. Its six ski lifts, all triple chairs, can accommodate more than 5,000 skiers at a time if all the slopes and trails are open.
Last year, the resort had 252,000 skier days, up slightly from the year before, to put it in the top four among Eastern ski resorts. Only gigantic Killington in Vermont and Hunter Mountain in New York had appreciably more skiers, while Stowe, also in Vermont, nosed out Snowshoe for third.
The investment on the mountain, and down in the valley where the golf course remains unfinished for lack of funds, is impressive. Besides the ski lifts and slopes, there are more than 950 individual condominium units, about 40 private homes and 390 private lots without buildings.
In addition, there are several main buildings, including a lodge and 13 restaurants, and a new conference center. There are five developers who have or are working on property on the mountain. More than 40 private companies other than Snowshoe itself are operating everything from pizza carryouts to clothing stores to a service station.
The private real estate investment, not counting Snowshow's property, is estimated by Frank Burford's younger brother Joe--who is in charge of day-to-day operations--to be worth about $80 million, a figure close to estimates of the Pocahontas County tax assessor's office.
Last year, preliminary to another of what Frank Burford calls the "Mickey Mouse" financing deals that have kept Snowshoe afloat, the assets of the Snowshoe Co. were appraised at $31.5 million. The company's total debt is close to $15 million, Burford says.
With a debt-equity ratio of only 50 percent, and consistent profitability, how can Snowshoe be in trouble? The twin problems remain the seasonal cash flow and the immense capital needs. Roads, lifts, a $2.5 million sewage-treatment plant, a $1 million water-treatment facility, snow-making equipment, landscaping, the unfinished golf course--Joe Burford says the replacement cost of it all would be in the neighborhood of $25 million today.
Snowshoe was profitable even when the Burfords took the company into a voluntary bankruptcy proceeding in 1980. That action was taken to persuade some of its lenders to go along with a vital financing proposal.
"The problem is," says Frank Burford, 54, who is a lawyer and former strip-mine operator who once taught tax law at Emory University, "there is no connection between income and money. Snowshoe is extremely profitable. It always has been and always will be. The problem is cash flow."
Last year, Shenandoah Federal Savings and Loan Association of Martinsburg, W. Va., was the lead institution in yet another $9.4 million loan package that provided about $6 million in new money to wrap around some existing loans. At the time, Frank Burford says, he thought his financing worries were over.
They weren't. Even atop the 4,835-foot mountain, which gets around 150 inches of snow in a normal year, the weather was so warm last December that it wiped out the early part of the ski season and cost Snowshoe about $1 million in expected revenue. The resort still ended up with those 252,000 skier-days, but that was short of what the financial plan required.
Real estate sales slumped, too, leaving Snowshoe short another $2 million. Surprisingly, Joe Burford says the missed sales were not the result of high interest rates.
"There was no sizzle," he declares. "We had snow on the slopes but mud in the parking lot. With mud in the parking lot, people just don't get the excitement that causes them to want to buy."
According to the Burfords, Shenandoah Federal President John Taylor has declined to consider lending any more money. Instead, they say, he hired a Pittsburgh investment banking firm to make an offer to buy Snowshoe. The Burfords, who with their families own two-thirds of the company's stock, were both angered and pleased by the offer, which was rejected.
"Our banker said he would give us no more money, but he said, 'I'll buy it,' " Frank Burford declares. "He has access to all our financial records and he knows what it's worth. His price was absurd, yet his own attitude says Snowshoe is a tremendous success."
The Snowshoe stockholders will meet Aug. 18, when Frank Burford says he hopes to have a refinancing plan that will allow the company to pay off the Shenandoah Federal loan and "get Mr. Taylor out of the picture."
However, both Taylor and the Pittsburgh investment banking firm, Russell, Rae and Zappala, deny that he is one of the investors behind the offer to buy Snowshoe. But asked if he was saying that has no involvement with the offer, Taylor replied, "that's not what I said."
Charles Gomulka, vice president of Russell, Rae and Zapella, says the offer was made "on our own behalf as well as that of a group of investors. To my knowledge, Mr. Taylor is not one of the investors."
At the firm's request, Gomulka says, Pocohontas County authorities have adopted "an inducement resolution" assuring the firm that they would cooperate if the buyers were to seek to issue up to $15 million worth of industrial revenue bonds to provide some of the capital needed to finish Snowshoe.
Since the initial turndown by the Snowshoe stockholders, the offer has been modified, Gomulka says. "We are still in negotiations."
Gomulka also says the $31.5 million appraisal for Snowshoe Co. last year would be valid only if the remaining capital projects were finished and operating. "That's a figure for a value five or 10 years down the road," he asserts.
In previous years, to get around the critical shortage of money, the Burfords have sometimes turned to barter:
Twenty acres of land for condominiums on the mountaintop were swapped for a ski lift and some cleared slopes and trails. Snowshoe's conference center occupies the ground level of a new medium-rise condominium building built by a developer who provided the unfinished space as part of his land-acquisition agreement.
Yet another developer financed by an Arab-backed Washington company, ABAS Inc., ended up with 3.2 acres on which some condos have been built and on which others are under construction. ABAS bought that land and 10 percent of Snowshoe's stock in 1979 for $500,000. Snowshoe's remaining stockholders are individual investors who are friends of the man who started Snowshoe, Dr. Thomas H. Brigham, and who bought in when the Burfords did.
Brigham, a former Birmingham dentist who had previously played a major role in developing two North Carolina ski areas--Beech Mountain and Sugar Mountain--no longer has an interest in Snowshoe, but is still on the scene. He is running the Whistlepunk Co., which has built 30 condo units on ABAS's land and has six more under construction. Prices for the new units, the only condo construction under way on the mountain this summer, range from $84,500 for a one-bedroom unit that will sleep four to $189,500 for a two-bedroom loft unit that will sleep 10 to 12.
But Brigham also has his sights set on another ski area, Tory Mountain, east of Elkins, W. Va. This time he is proceeding slowly.
"The idea is to have enough equity, or a low enough debt-equity ratio, so you have enough staying power to see you through bad times or a disastrous weather season," Brigham says. "Go through the industry and discover those that are successful and you will find they kept their equity high and debt low. Killington is the quintessential example."
Brigham says that is what the investors in Tory Mountain are trying to do. Originally, Tory was to open this year, but the financing is not complete and it is not opening. "We have a commitment for about $3.5 million in equity," he explains, "and we are shooting for a minimum of $6.5 million." The money is being raised through the sale of limited partnerships in a private offering.
About 450 acres have been acquired by the general partner, Tory Mountain Resorts Inc., with a total of about 2,000 acres ultimately to be bought, Brigham says. Land has also been cleared for a lodge and the slopes that will be operated in the first of three development phases.
Brigham says buyers have signed "pre-sales contracts" for about 120 of the 310 condo units in the lodge. Under West Virginia law, however, the 10 percent down payments under such contracts cannot be used to pay for construction expenses. "That certainly slows down any speculative building," he adds.
As for Snowshoe, Brigham says, "It is here to stay. There is too much investment for it ever to be abandoned.
"There were lots of reasons why it didn't work the first time," he continues. "It was the basic story of being under-financed. We thought we were okay at the time." But in the fall of 1974, as Brigham was pushing to get the slopes open, prices and interest rates were soaring, and the economy was tumbling into a recession. "It was the worst money period in several decades," he recalls.
While Brigham was pushing, Frank Burford was strip mining another mountain, from which he watched the first of Snowshoe's slopes being cleared. Excited by the idea, he purchased a founding membership for $2,500 and thought that would be his only involvement.
The winter of 1974-'75 was a financial disaster. As 1975 wore on, more and more contractors filed liens against the company and in November, the Charleston National Bank, which held a mortgage on the land, successfully sought permission from a county court to sell it at auction. Before the auction could be held, other creditors forced the company into bankruptcy.
The company's equity had been wiped out, but $6.4 million had been invested on the mountain. Charleston National's loan had been in default since the previous winter and it pressed the federal bankruptcy court for a liquidation.
But that fall, Frank Burford had sold his coal company to Valley Industries for $10 million, plus a right to future royalties estimated at the time to be worth another $10 million. Burford owned 43 percent of the company, and he decided to plow most of his suddenly liquid wealth into Snowshoe. The coal royalties are still pledged as collateral for loans he took out to buy Snowshoe. One loan also has a federal Economic Development Loan guarantee behind it.
There was a true scramble to get the resort operating that second winter while details of the purchase were worked out. The electric power had been turned off because the bills hadn't been paid. The air compressors for snow-making had been taken away and only the threat of a suit got them back. The state came through with some federal manpower-training money to help meet the payroll. The only two sizable buildings on the mountaintop were converted into dormitories that each slept about 75 persons.
The bankruptcy trustee later called it a "blood bath" because warm weather in February and March hurt badly. There were calls for the state to take over the resort to save the jobs for Pocahontas County. (Today, employment on the mountain varies from a low of 100 to 150 in the early spring--after the ski season is over but before the construction season begins--to a peak of more than 1,000 at the height of skiing, says Joe Burford.)
By late 1976, Frank Burford was able to buy Snowshoe out of bankruptcy, but it wasn't easy. "There were 10 different plans," he says. "At one point, I walked off."
Frank Burford is plainly glad he got involved with Snowshoe, though he says he never expected the money problems he has had. At one point, he was so strapped that he had to take a $1.3 million loan from the West Virginia Acceptance Corp., a subsidiary of the Heck's department store chain, on which the interest rate was prime plus 6 1/2 percentage points.
"I thought I could finance anything. Now probably 80 percent of my time is still spent talking to such people as insurance companies" looking for long-term financing, he says.
His pitch is based on the sheer magnitude of Snowshoe and its future potential. "We have a case, a track record. It's no longer speculation by real estate developers," Burford declares.
If he can come up with what he hopes would be the last $3 million he needs to make Snowshoe a true year-round resort and smooth out the cash flow problem, Burford says any future expansion can and should be financed out of retained earnings. Joe Burford says at least four more lifts, and perhaps as many as 10, can be built around the high bowl that constitutes the north side of Cheat Mountain.
With all of the accommodations now available at Snowshoe--Quality Inns is also building a 160-room motel next to the resort's entrance--lift lines can get distressingly long, particularly for intermediate skiers, the Burfords acknowledge. As a result, Snowshoe is moving to limit ticket sales. The general public will be able to ski Snowshoe only after property owners, season-pass holders and people staying on the mountain or in nearby motels that have an arrangement with the resort have been accommodated, the Burfords say.
Some people who manage and rent property on the mountain are worried by the new plan. There are other long-standing gripes about some aspects of Snowshoe's operations, such as the company's "fun pass," which allows someone who rents a condo through Snowshoe to get a package of benefits, including lift use, more cheaply than they could buy the items separately. There are even two antitrust suits pending over the issue.
Frank Burford's big headache, however, remains money for that golf course and clubhouse. They have to be finished before there is much hope of selling the 65 lots and eight condos dotting its perimeter. Tennis courts and a riding stable are not enough to sell lots in the valley.
"Some day there comes a turn-around in this business," sighs Frank Burford. "I think it's in sight for us."
If real estate sales suddenly boom, the skiers come in droves, or somebody offers that $3 million, Frank Burford may get his turn-around.