A snowball of debt threatens to squash Tom Maclay’s grand plans for the Bitterroot Resort. As reports surfaced last week of unpaid services and liens placed on his land, personal court records and major staff changes reveal additional financial troubles.
To help meet his business obligations, Maclay’s selling off parcels of his 3,000-acre ranch. While he says his proposed upscale resort has simply “entered a new phase,” the piecemeal sales indicate the land could now include sprawling individual estates rather than the 2,700-home ski-and-golf community Maclay originally introduced in 2004.
“Honestly, the total of Tom’s time and energy is going into selling real estate right now so…he can pay the bills and get on with things,” says Jim Gill, former chief operations officer at Bitterroot Resort.
In an interview last week, Gill said his role was recently reduced to consultant. The 30-year veteran of the industry previously worked at Breckenridge Resort in Colorado and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming. Maclay hired Gill to help get the Bitterroot Resort off the ground in 2004.
“You don’t need an operations manager if you don’t have operations, right?” explains Maclay of the change.
The housing market crash, the need for multi-million dollar financing, public opposition and permitting hurdles all contribute to the resort’s recent troubles. But Maclay’s questionable business practices appear culpable, too.
A 2007 Child Support Enforcement Division order signed by an administrative judge explains where Maclay’s personal wealth comes from—and where it goes. The document states Maclay’s parents sold him the ranch assets for a fraction of their value. He then received an $18.5 million financing package to begin planning and developing the Bitterroot Resort, which Gill has said could cost as much as $200 million. That loan also bankrolls Maclay’s homes, vacations and vehicles, and pays him a monthly draw, according to the document.
Specifically, the order shows Maclay built a $2.225 million home. He spent $18,000 annually on dozens of trips around the world, which he claimed were for business. He purchased two Land Cruisers. Business expenses included paying then-COO Jim Gill $11,000 monthly and Maclay’s fiancée, for whom Maclay created a job, $3,000 per month.
Maclay says the documents contain “gross inaccuracies,” and adds, “Obviously it’s taken a lot of capital to get to where we are, and there’s no mystery there in this business.”
In addition to the court documents uncovered by the Independent, the Ravalli Republic reported last week that Maclay has had three liens placed on his property after failing to pay a local marketing firm and a construction company. A Ravalli County judge ruled March 16 that Maclay must pay Maverick Marketing Group of Hamilton $48,602. Last November, SK Geotechnical Corp. of Missoula filed a $38,031 lien on land owned by Bitterroot Trails, LLC, one of Maclay’s business entities, and filed another March 26 after the balance wasn’t paid.
Further evidence that Maclay’s cash cow is slimming include the fact that the resort sold its snow coaches and halted its skiing operation last winter.
In addition to money woes, the resort has yet to move forward the permitting process with the Bitterroot National Forest. A financial and technical feasibility plan would help the U.S. Forest Service determine if Maclay has the financial capability to start and maintain a backcountry skiing operation on 3,000 acres of public land. (The Forest Service would not judge the financial feasibility of developing the skiing infrastructure and resort on private land). The Bitterroot National Forest asked for the plan in late 2008.
“We don’t have a timeline right now,” Gill says. “Again, we’re focusing—er, Tom is focusing—on real estate.”
Bob Clark of the Sierra Club, a staunch opponent of public land development below Lolo Peak, says the Forest Service should consider the resort’s apparent financial troubles as it evaluates the development’s merits.
“I think that these most recent incidents combined with the downward spiral in the housing market—particularly the market for second and third homebuyers, the bankruptcies and troubled times of many of the upscale ski resorts such as Tamarack and the Yellowstone Club—should heavily influence the Forest Service’s decision on that particular criteria,” he says.
Much like the bankrupt and shuttered Tamarack Resort in Idaho, Maclay seeks to leverage real estate to make any resort development profitable. But his need to sell the land little by little to cover costs makes his original vision seem unlikely.
Maclay doesn’t put a number on how many lots have sold so far, but says it’s more than 12, and more will be listed soon. Those sales could result in a different concern for local residents: sprawl.
“If it gets developed in patterns that we’ve seen occur in other areas of Missoula and Ravalli counties, many people regard that as not the best development,” says Dick King of the Missoula Area Economic Development Crop. “It might be very ironic that if they go that route that would have opposition as well.”
King cautions that those residents rooting for Maclay’s resort to run adrift should consider the implications of that land instead turning into hundreds of unplanned McMansions dotting the ranch below Lolo Peak.
“How that land will be developed—or not developed—is such a significantly large piece of property,” say King, “that it will have a big influence on our economy and our quality of life.”