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The Sackler family’s involvement in Mt. Snow stirs controversy

The ski slopes of Mt. Snow near some rental properties to the west of Dover, Vermont.
The ski slopes of Mt. Snow near some rental properties to the west of Dover, Vermont. (Matthew Cavanaugh for the Boston Globe)

DOVER, VT. — Mount Snow towers over this Southern Vermont town. The ski resort is Dover’s largest employer, a huge part of its tax base, and a marker of local identity. The tagline on the municipal website reads “Home of Mount Snow.”

But one notable — some would say notorious — investor’s major stake in the resort has some people in Dover and the nearby Deerfield Valley town of Wilmington feeling queasy about their association with the ski resort.

Members of the Sackler family — whose pharmaceutical company, Purdue Pharma, makes the opioid OxyContin — have in recent years become the largest shareholders of publicly traded Peak Resorts, Mount Snow’s owner.

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And a transaction late last year gave the Sacklers a path to eventually own a majority of the company.

Some here are wary of supporting a family that they believe has benefited financially from the opioid epidemic, a national public health crisis that has hit this corner of Vermont hard. Windham County, where Dover is located, had 24 accidental opioid overdose deaths in 2018 — the highest number in the state.

“Dismay might be putting it very mildly,” Dover Selectwoman Sarah Shippee said. “It’s a tough situation, because Mount Snow has been a really great community member.”

As the Deerfield Valley quietly struggles with the problem, protesters elsewhere have dramatically attempted to shame museums and other institutions with ties to Richard Sackler and his family.

Sackler is the former president of Purdue Pharma, and both he and the company have been the subject of high-profile lawsuits accusing them of downplaying the dangers of opioids in a quest to boost sales.

The family and Purdue deny the allegations.

Purdue Pharma headquarters in Stamford, Conn.
Purdue Pharma headquarters in Stamford, Conn. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

In recent months, the United Kingdom’s Tate museums and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York have rejected donations from the family following public protests about the Sacklers’ connection to the opioid epidemic. Near Boston, Tufts University is reexamining its deep ties to the family. Even a large hedge fund in March said it no longer wanted the billionaire family’s money.

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But while some organizations have faced boisterous demonstrations — such as the “die-in” at the Guggenheim in February — the response in Vermont has been more one of measured concern, shared among neighbors, all aware of how vital the resort is to the fabric of this place.

Mount Snow is a constant presence in town, rising into view along the main stretch of Route 100, its slopes still covered with patchy snow in recent weeks, though the skiers are gone for the season.

With the Sacklers holding a significant stake in the company, the fortunes of Dover and its neighbors are tied to those of the billionaire family — whether they like it or not.

“It’s definitely a conundrum, because you don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you,” said Angel Balch, who lives in Wilmington and volunteers with a community group seeking ways to combat the opioid crisis. “People are torn, but there’s really nothing that we can do.”

Peak Resorts owns other New England properties, including New Hampshire’s Attitash Mountain, Wildcat Mountain, and Crotched Mountain resorts. It also owns properties from Missouri to Ohio and the Mid-Atlantic.

Both Mount Snow and Peak Resorts declined to comment. A representative for the Sackler family had no comment.

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The Sacklers, largely through a family investment office, own about 13 percent of the company’s common stock, making them the largest shareholders listed in public records. But a pair of complicated transactions since 2016 have left the family with even more clout.

Peak Resorts has twice borrowed money from a company associated with Richard Sackler and his family — once as it financed improvements at Mount Snow and later to buy a chain of ski mountains in Pennsylvania.

Those transactions raised the possibility that the Sacklers could eventually take control of the company, though such an outcome would depend on many factors.

The Sacklers received a combination of preferred stock and warrants that give them the right to buy more equity under certain conditions. By this route, the Sacklers and their affiliated companies could, in theory, acquire a majority stake in the company.

But according to US securities filings, the Sacklers could only achieve majority ownership if the stock price rose considerably — and if the family was willing to lay out tens of millions in new investment in exchange for the shares.

A series of stories in Vermont and New Hampshire media have, in recent weeks, drawn attention to the family’s involvement. Some of those reports have erroneously said that the Sacklers already hold a majority stake in Peak Resorts.

State Representative John Gannon, like a number of other locals interviewed by the Globe recently, said Vermonters are concerned about the big picture: Dover relies on the resort. And the Sackler family is a significant shareholder, but that family is “not the people on the ground who manage Mount Snow.”

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“People can choose what they want to do, but at the end of the day, Peak Resorts and specifically Mount Snow are an important part of our economy,” said Gannon, a Democrat who represents the Deerfield Valley. “I don’t want to see anyone do anything to jeopardize their success.”

The welfare of the resort has become more critical for the region as industry trends put pressure on smaller ski mountains that do not have the snowmaking abilities or the core of season-pass holders that Mount Snow enjoys.

An ambitious project to revive Haystack Mountain, on the border of Wilmington and Dover, as a private resort known as the Hermitage Club, led to bankruptcy proceedings; the venture now faces an uncertain future.

Mount Snow has stood as a civic anchor for both Dover and Wilmington even as it has changed hands several times over its 64-year existence. The mountain employs about 1,300 people in winter and 375 year-round. That’s a major slice of the economy for a pair of towns with a combined population of about 3,000.

Dover economic development director Steve Neratko estimated that 90 percent of jobs in his area are associated with the mountain in at least some way: hospitality, rental property management, and maintenance for owners of second homes, for instance.

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Tax revenue from Mount Snow also pays for extras, including a robust network of hiking trails through the woodsy town nestled in the Green Mountain National Forest, he said.

“I can’t imagine that the town would exist the way we know it without Mount Snow here,” Neratko said.

In recent years, Peak Resorts has spent $30 million on a snowmaking system that debuted in 2017, allowing the mountain to draw tourists earlier in the season. It also is completing a $22 million new base lodge for its Carinthia area, the section of the resort that features its terrain park.

There are plans to eventually add high-end lodging nearby.

In part because of such investments, Peak Resorts has a reservoir of good will to draw on as people consider the Sacklers’ role in the company.

“I love Peak Resorts. They have done every last thing that they said they were going to do here,” said Adam Levine, owner of the Valley View Saloon in Dover, which, like many local establishments, has a sign on the door warning patrons to remove their ski boots before entering.

The news about the Sackler connection has also ignited debate among skiers, some of whom have read the initial coverage and have been under the mistaken impression that the family now owns Peak Resorts.

In the popular Ski the East Facebook group, some users discussing the ownership situation said they’d bypass Mount Snow next year. One even tried to get a hashtag going: “#boycotmountsnow.”

Others took a more measured view.

“How about we make the communities in Peak [Resorts’] areas a success despite who happens to have invested, not tear down the economic fabric to spite one investor,” another person wrote. “Any actions, whether positive or negative, are more critically felt by those living in that community.”

The ski slopes of Mt. Snow.
The ski slopes of Mt. Snow. (Matthew Cavanaugh for the Boston Globe)

Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com.