Small ski areas facing a slippery slope
New business ideas sought in world where big is better
|By ALAN WECHSLER, Staff writer
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First published: Sunday, March 29, 2009
|LONDONDERRY, Vt. — It may take more than Magic to save Magic Mountain.
It's been a rough couple of years for this quiet ski area in Southern Vermont, surrounded by giants like Okemo, Mount Snow and Stratton. The 30-year-old snowmaking system was constantly leaking. In February, an underground conduit filled with pressurized air for snowmaking blew a 4-foot hole in the ground after a corroded wall gave way.
Nor have the crowds been flocking here. Magic, surrounded by ski resorts that measure their yearly skier visits in the hundreds of thousands, itself gets only around 16,000 ski visits a season.
On a recent Sunday, there were about as many skiers as open trails on the peak. And the snow — crusty, granulated — was melting quick in the warming air.
But with spring comes change, and that's never been truer here. For a decade, investors have been trying to get this forgotten alpine resort in Southern Vermont working again. And now, their latest plan: they want to sell the mountain to its customers.
Magic, with its 1,700 feet of vertical, is the biggest of three ski mountains close to the Capital Region that may change ownership in the next year. Outside Warrensburg in the Adirondacks, the closed Hickory Ski Area is being eyed by a Texas investor who wants to get the 1,200-foot-vertical area running again. To the west, Oak Mountain in Speculator has been taken over by the local county government, which hopes to find an investor willing to try to make the 650-foot-vertical mountain profitable as a year-round resort.
All these ski hills have one thing in common — they're a place out of time. They're surrounded by an industry that survives by cutting more trails, building more real estate, adding more high-speed lifts — in short, doing whatever it takes to bring in more visitors.
Yet, fans of these smaller mountains like, even prefer their mountains more diminutive. And the limited crowds create a camaraderie impossible in today's giants.
"There's a need for these places," said Jeremy Davis, who runs the New England Lost Ski Areas Project, which keeps track of closed ski areas around the Northeast.
But is there a market for them? Local ski area managers think so.
At Magic Mountain, officials are sending out about 300 letters to season-passholders and other "friends of Magic" to announce a plan to turn the resort into a cooperative venture. Shares for the co-op would sell from $3,000, with the hope of selling 300 shares within 90 days and up to 2,000 over the next four years.
The money would be used to improve the snowmaking equipment and for other projects.
The idea is not without precedent. Two hours to the north, the scrappy, retro Mad River Glen successfully went co-op 14 years ago.
The mountain raised about $3 million through the effort.
However, Mad River stands alone in the East with its legendary wooded, steep terrain. It's also a world-famous mountain that has supporters all over the country. Plus it has almost no snowmaking and little grooming to pay for.
"I think they're going to have a tough row to hoe," said Mad River's marketing director, Eric Friedman, who is familiar with Magic's co-op plan. "You put even modest snowmaking cost into our business model, and we don't make money."
Still, Magic officials are hopeful.
"The whole idea is to keep this mountain going," said company president James Sullivan. "To keep the Magic way of life viable."
Magic was opened in 1961 by Swiss developer Hans Thorner. It changed hands several times since 1985, and closed in 1991.
A new owner came in 1998, despite the fact that some of the equipment had been sold off and the rest was in bad shape. Three years ago, Sullivan, 44, a former ski racer and Connecticut lawyer, decided to get involved. With two silent partners, they leased the property and invested $850,000 in the resort. The original plan was to buy the resort, but in today's market the idea didn't seem feasible.
Instead they came up with the co-op idea.
The mountain needs $2 million for improving the snowmaking system, but that's just a start. Never mind the fact that the plodding chairlifts take 12 minutes to reach the top, a veritable lifetime in this day of detachable quads. There's also a need for some serious marketing: "There's still some people out there who still don't know we're open," Sullivan said.
Still, many skiers appreciate a quiet resort.
"It would be criminal to have this place go under," said Stan Czecher, a Westchester resident who teaches snowboarding here on weekends.
Carol Cleveland, of Stratford, Conn., has been coming for a decade with her husband, Skip. She's considering buying a share after they go on sale next week.
"I'm just happy there's going to be a plan," she said. "This place is the best-kept secret in Vermont."
In New York, Hickory and Oak — while smaller than Magic — occupy a similar niche in the skiing community.
Hickory opened 60 years ago, and hasn't changed much since then. It's mostly expert terrain is accessed via finicky Poma surface lifts, and there's zero snowmaking and little grooming.
Hickory was never very profitable, and was more of a club than a business. It's been closed for four years. Now Saratoga Springs native Bill Van Pelt hopes to get the mountain operating again by next winter.
Van Pelt, a businessman now living in Houston, has a contract to purchase Hickory, but does not yet have a business plan. He's asking Hickory fans to e-mail ideas to email@example.com.
"We're trying to evaluate how to position it, and what is its niche," he said. "I've gotten e-mails from 65-year-old guys who'd like to see it open for their grandkids. But I don't know how deep that group is."
Meanwhile, in Speculator, the Hamilton County Industrial Development Agency has recently become the new owner of Oak Mountain, which opened in 1947. Under family ownership for 50 years, Oak was taken over by the county after numerous bad snow years and rising debt combined to force a foreclosure (the IDA had loaned the mountain $710,000). For the last two years, the Village of Speculator ran the mountain, with help from local volunteers.
Now, officials hope to recruit someone to turn Oak into a resort that could also make money in the warmer weather.
"Concerts? Zip lines? Waterslides? We need to find some kind of an activity, because that's when 80 percent of our tourists are here," said Bill Osborne, the IDA's executive director.
"We're really looking for somebody with a business plan," he added. But so far, "nobody has come up with that silver bullet."
Alan Wechsler can be reached at 454-5469 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A look at three ski resorts near the Capital Region that are facing a change of ownership:
Magic Mountain, Londonderry,Vt.
Vertical: 1,700 feet
Lifts: 2 chairs, 2 surface
Status: Leased by investors, who are seeking to turn the business into a cooperative.
Hickory Ski Hill, Warrensburg
Vertical: 1,200 feet
Trails: About a dozen
Lifts: Two Pomas, one T-bar
Status: Closed for four years. Texas businessman has option to buy, but wants locals to continue operating it.
Oak Mountain, Speculator
Lifts: One quad, one T-bar
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