Construction crews are on site as of October 2015 with targeted opening for the 2016/17 season.
Mr. Robert Nutting, President of Seven Springs Mountain Resort, Ogden News, and the Pittsburgh Pirates hosted a meeting that included his management staff, officials of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), local press and supporters of Laurel Mountain who wrote letters to advocate a speedy opening of their now closed winter sport resort. Mr. Nutting began by thanking all in attendance with a nod to all the DCNR official that drove from Harrisburg. Mr. Nutting compared the slow often frustrating process moving this Pennsylvania state park project along to the equally long and frustrating rebuilding of his Pittsburgh Pirate Major League Baseball franchise. He stated that he hoped that Laurel would soon see the success that the Pirates have achieved most recently. Mr. Nutting told his personal stories about his young daughter skiing Laurel's challenging Lower Wildcat and portrayed his as a skiing family. He repeated that he was deeply committed to opening Laurel but also spoke of the need to get it right and of his commitment to excellence. He went on to say that he and his family are not motivated by quarterly reports but rather by doing business by what interest them and doing it right. Mr. Nutting said, "Our goal is to be there for a long time." Mr. Nutting then began a power point presentation of the state funded six and a half million dollar infrastructure rebuild plan for Laurel Mountain. I repeat them here not necessarily in the order presented:
Maps flipped from original.Top of map is the top of the mountain:
Rework and relocate Innsbruck to eliminate the switchback turns at the top. Innsbruck will still have a somewhat "out and back" character but it will be less hairpin and more gradual, more "round the bend" than "out and back". The trail will be widened its entire length and the start of the trail will begin at the bottom of Tamecat just to skier's left of the beginning of Broadway. There will be 16 snow guns added to Upper Innsbruck and 13 added to Lower Innsbruck. This should make it the novice friendly, top to bottom trail as Laurel has always lacked.
Deer Path will be widened and snowmaking renovated, again with the goal of making a top to bottom easy trail. There will be 23 to 30 guns on the trail. Deer Path was once a rope tow line before Laurel's first true top to bottom lift, a T-bar, was installed in 1955.
Snowmaking ponds will expanded to ensure all snowmaking trails can be totally recovered twice, an 11 million gallon expansion of holding capacity from 15 to 26 million gallons.
\ Broadway will get some trail work too. The pinch point known to locals, especially the ski patrol, as the chute will be graded and widened. The lower pitch below the Midway Cabin will be re-graded as it will be the connector between Innsbruck and Deer Path.
A new fixed grip Quad will replace the current double and be realigned to begin near the site of the Wildcat warming hut and end at the top of the old tubing hill. That will take the end point closer to the lodge and a little higher on the mountain creating better access to the lodge and the trail network on skier's left side of the mountain. This lift should exceed the capacity of the 2 lifts it will replace.
The old quad will be removed. When Mr. Nutting was questioned about the possibility of making snow on that lift line trail (named Lincoln Highway) he said the thought occurred to him when he hiked the mountain. There are no plans to equip the trail with air and water lines and hydrants but the new snowmaking on Innsbruck as well as existing lines on Broadway will make snowmaking feasible on Lincoln Highway. If this happens it will give Laurel another long top to bottom intermediate trail with consistent snow conditions.
Any additions or improvement to the trails on skier's right of the mountain will depended on the success of Laurel's new design (skier visit count to justify expansion) . The major trails on that side of the mountain include Snow Bowl, Laurel, and Dream Highway.
The yellow shaded areas on the map below indicate planned trail grading.
That about covers all of the improvements being made by the PA DCNR's PA Bureau of State Parks. On hill construction is targeted for July 2015 but actual earth moving will probably begin in August. The timeline is set by established procedural policy applied to all state funded projects. This process was spelled out in some detail by the Assistant Director of the PA Bureau of State Parks, John Hallas. Mr. Hallas and other DCNR department heads answered many questions from the assembled guests concerning details about the project including lift placement and trail and snowmaking improvements but the question on everyone's mind was when will Laurel Mountain be open? That answer came with the caveat, if all things go according to plan Laurel will open for the 2016/2017 winter season.
The current lease is set to expire in 2018 but negotiations to extend the lease are in the preliminary stage. When Hallas was questioned about the 10 year duration of the current lease he replied that 10 years was the set time frame for all state owned facilities leased to private operators but there can be exceptions to that with some leases up to 35 years. When I stated that 10 years seems to be too short a time for a private operator to have confidence to make investment in a public owned facility Mr. Nutting seemed to agree with light hearted gestures of encouragement as I put the question to Mr. Hallas. Mr. Nutting did express confidence that an extension will be agreed upon stating that they were in it longer than the two and a half years remaining on the current lease.
Mr. Nutting also said their intention was to market Seven Springs, Hidden Valley and Laurel Mountain as a destination in the same manner that New Hampshire resorts created the Ski 93 campaign for resorts access from Interstate 93 which runs through the state and the Ski The Summit campaign used effectively by the four Summit County, Colorado winter resorts. This will be done through the Highland Pass program that will grant access to all three resorts. This program has been in effect since Hidden Valley was added to the Seven Springs operation. A weekend pass buyer can add the option to include the other resort by paying an additional charge. Likewise, a season pass buyer can do the same and sample the other resort with a nominal upcharge for the pass. To paraphrase Mr. Nutting, the Washington/Baltimore market is the target market for our three resorts with their distinct individual character and terrain variety each has to offer.
With regards to the Seven Springs owned assets on the mountain which are not eligible for state funding, the primary focus of questions were about the lodge which is in need of repair since it was last in operation for during the 2004/2005 season. While acknowledging problems with the size of the Laurel Lodge especially during busy weekends, there are no plans to enlarge facility. Instead, the lodge will be remodeled to create more room for equipment rental area within the existing walls. My guess is that food service traffic flow will also be studied.
When I asked if there were plans to further integrate the resorts by providing shuttle service between them, Mr Nutting paused for a moment then said that he was thinking of a nice way to say no. The consensus is that people prefer to use their own cars to travel between Hidden Valley and Seven Springs. If my memory serves me correctly I believe that among season pass holder only about 25% currently purchase the multi-resort Highland Pass. Mr. Bill Nutting, Bob's brother, told me that so far it appeared that season pass buyer were mostly content to stay with one resort. As a local more inclined to buy a season pass it did not occur to me to inquire about the weekend version of the Highland Pass buyer's use patterns.
Asked about Laurel Mountain Village, a nearby resort community, Mr. Nutting said that while Seven Springs owns many lots in the Village there are no plans for development.
I was concerned about the preservation of historical structures on the mountain and was assured by DCNR officials that all artifacts were cataloged and the scope of construction would not disturb these sites. included are Midway Cabin, Laurel's first lodge, the hand laid stone wall upon which ran the first rope tow, and the foundation for the engine house of that rope tow. Mr. Hallas also pointed out the Bureau's work in presenting and interpreting other historic sites under their authority and assured that no less would be done at Laurel. He mentioned several ways to present Laurel's cultural history. Please forgive my journalistic shortcomings as I was so intent on listening that I did not take note so much detail is lost as I try to reconstruct from memory but I believe that he suggested PA Historical Marker Program administer through the PA Historical and Museum Commission, the agency responsible for conducting an historic review of construction sites.
When questions turned to history and Midway Cabin in particular, Mr. Nutting expressed his interest in returning Midway to useful condition and making it available for future Laurel riders and visitors. Perhaps I detected from Mr. Nutting an implication that Midway could be a candidate for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places citing his mother in law's membership on board of the National Trust for Historic Preservation? I hope so but at the very least this big part of PA ski history and the significant role of Laurel Mountain in the greater history of skiing should now be preserved and told.
Although plans for Laurel are in the final stage and the project is not yet put out to bid, with the attendance of several ranking officials of the PA DCNR and Mr. Nutting's personal attention, enthusiasm and optimism, the invited Laurel Mountain supporters left assured that Laurel will reopen for the 2016/2017 winter season.
Laurel was a noted destination during the 40's and 50's and was served by ski trains from the Pittsburgh and Cleveland area. Laurel's ski conditions were often reported in the New York Times along with other larger Eastern resorts. Laurel was the first Pennsylvania ski resort to install commercially successful snowmaking and the first to use snow grooming machines. The resort enjoyed its heyday under the direction of 10th Mountain vet Ralph "Doc" DesRoches during the 1950s. Doc became the CEO of the trade association Ski Industries of America and was key to that organization's success. DesRoches was also instrumental in funding the US Ski Team which went on to win the first Olympic Alpine skiing medals for The US Men's team.
Laurel remains much as it was in Doc's day. There is no private lodging on the mountain, only the ski lodges and maintenance buildings. Midway Cabin, Laurel's first lodge built in 1940, still stands and is located on Lower Broadway, the first trail cut by Schneider. The main lodge, Laurel Lodge, sits at the summit commanding panoramic views of the Ligonier Valley. The trails are classic old school hugging the contours of the mountain offering the skier the experience of skiing through the forest. Lower Wildcat, named for the tributary of Rolling Rock Creek at the bottom of the trail, was cut before World War 2. It is the steepest trail on the Laurel Ridge also the home ridge of Seven Springs and Hidden Valley.