Small towns reclaim abandoned ski areas as charity

LA VETA, Colo. (AP) — It really was the longest wait of their entire lives. But Race Lessar and Landen Ozzello are finally where they want to be, on a slope close to home, carving snow into ski jumps.

Their local ski mountain just opened.

“I’m glad it’s been open for at least a year,” Lessar said. It’s opened as a charity, and that may be the key. “I didn’t know there was hope,” he said.

His connection to the mountain is so close, it’s practically named after him. His father runs here and calls his son to bring him joy. Chad Lesar first skated on hand-down gear, then worked on a nearby ranch during the summer to earn money for better racing equipment.

“We’ve never been very rich,” Chad said of Huerfano, one of the poorest counties in the state. “It’s good to see a small area open for cheap,” he said. The skis here are short, but the affordability might be enough to keep it going and working.

Overlooking the spectacular Spanish Peaks in southern Colorado, the 50-acre Parker-Fitzgerald Kuchara Mountain Park is the story of many American ski areas, only the community decided to change the script.

Ski resorts boomed in the 70’s and 80’s, both in climate-free areas and long-term workers. First time ski resort owners took on debt and quickly filed for bankruptcy after a bad snow season. Ownership was transferred several times before resorts were divided into ghost towns.

But some communities are now gaining ground by offering the option of endless lift lines and skyrocketing ticket prices. Many are reopening as non-profits, offering a mom-and-pop experience at much lower prices than corporate-owned resorts.

“It’s not necessarily about drawing overnight or out-of-town guests, but about having a positive economic impact and providing a source of physical and mental health to the community,” said Adrian Isaacs, director of marketing for the National Ski Areas Association.

Delayed reopening

After years of mismanagement, unpredictable snow and bankruptcy, Kuchara closed in 2000. He had been dead for 16 years when stubborn locals with fond memories of the mountain rallied. When the last owner put it up for sale, the Kuchara Foundation gave the county a down payment and helped raise the rest of the money.

Going into this season, the preparation was intense. Volunteers hold fundraisers. There were donation jars. Confiscating snowmaking equipment and lifts may seem like a good idea, said Ken Clayton, a board member of Panadero Ski Corp., a sister nonprofit. But both needed expensive repairs, and then the refurbished chairlift didn’t even pass inspection. On top of that, it was a hot, dry winter. As the season wore on, the volunteers began to lose hope. “It wouldn’t have happened because we didn’t have snow,” Clayton said.

Finally, as cold weather and snow storms arrived in late winter, Kuchara’s maintenance director had an idea. They attached old school bus seats to a truck trailer, hitched to a tractor with a snowcat, and got the word out that they were hauling people up the mountain. “We’re trying to give something back to the community because they’ve helped us for so long,” Clayton said.

And the community was revealed.

The ability to grow

There’s no manual on how to reopen an abandoned ski resort, especially as a non-profit, so some community groups are working together and learning from each other.

Will Pirkey had heard of a non-profit ski area six hundred miles north in Wyoming, and wanted to join the volunteer board. The Antelope Butte Foundation has been running the northern Wyoming nonprofit ski area since 2018 after it was closed for 15 years. With a dedicated, mostly volunteer staff, it will be open Friday through Monday. Keeping skis affordable, especially for kids, is key to the mission.

For $320, a child can get a season pass to Wyoming Mountain, rentals and four lessons. The foundation covers families who cannot afford the cost. They also host classes at local schools that introduce kids to cross-country and downhill skiing.

Cadance Wiplinger, principal of Greybull Middle School, used to help students get to the ski area when she teaches a strong outdoor industry in the Montana town. But her students came primarily from mining, railroad, and agricultural families with little wealth.

“A high percentage of our kids wouldn’t have had the opportunity if we hadn’t used them,” Wiplinger said. “It opens up their world a little bit.”

Ahead with a short, weedier winter

If fond memories and the spirit of volunteers are essential to reopening an abandoned ski area as a nonprofit, so is snow, and consistency will determine whether it can endure.

The Antelope Butte Foundation studied 30 years of snow conditions before committing to reopening, board president Ryan White said, but knew it would always face a short winter. such as greenhouse gas emissions Warm the atmosphereSummer is growing shorter and there are more dramatic changes, for example last year Snow drought This year’s followed by the Sierra Nevada Record skiing.

Antelope Butte is buried in the powder this season, former executive director Rebecca Arquerese said, but she knows there won’t be many other years. Snow formation can extend the season, but opening seven days a week is a tough decision for a mountain without staff.

“Will it give us two, three more weeks or just two or three more days? And does it make sense to make that capital investment? Arcarese asked.

In southeastern Vermont, irregular snow has been plaguing the Ascutney Mountains for a long time. A local nonprofit has reopened Ascutney after a five-year shutdown. A few seasons ago, a storm dumped several feet of snow on the slopes, but rain washed it away a week later.

“If you spend a hundred thousand dollars on snowmaking, you’re going to be heartbroken when the mountain washes out,” said Steve Crefield, a board member of Ascutney Outdoors, which owns and operates the mountain.

So ski resorts are dealing with climate change by offering year-round activities, from archery to concerts and weddings. But in a quiet town like La Veta, with limited outdoor winter activities and a population of less than 1,000, there’s still no substitute for snow sports.

On a Sunday afternoon in March, a shot of energy at Mount Merman Brewing Company – one of the few bars in town. After pints donning ski pants, the windswept teenagers — Lessar and his pals — nosh on barbecue chicken, pizza, and play battleship.

The shift is so busy, co-owner Jen Lind has to help out behind the bar. She barely knows the energy in her brewery compared to the mellow pace of the weekend.

“I think that’s coming from the mountain,” Lynn said. “People are excited to be outside and have things to do.”


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