3 minutes reading time (590 words)

Town Ski Area Series Part 1: Why Your Local Ski Hill Matters

Town-Ski-Area-Series_revised The Town Ski Area Series will highlight small local ski areas in Wyoming, Montana and nationwide. (Leo Wolfson)

It may seem the only movers and shakers in the ski resort industry these days are the mega resorts, with hundreds of ski trails, multi-million dollar base lodges and well-connected regional season pass partnership deals. With the bright optics of these flashy resorts, it's easy to forget the “mom and pop” style ski areas are just as critical for the ski industry’s future.

A 2014 community ski area survey performed by the Mountain Rider’s Alliance, Ski Essentials.com, and the Antelope Butte Foundation showed more than 70 percent of the roughly 1400 respondents learned to ski at a hill with 1600 vertical feet or less.

“I think that smaller ski areas – especially ones that are within a drive market of a city or metropolitan area – provide a welcoming, easy experience for their skiers, especially for first-timers/beginners or families,” National Ski Areas Association's Adrienne Isaac told SnoCountry.com.

As great as the big ski resorts are, they aren’t where most people will learn to ski or ride. Only 10 percent of respondents to the community ski area survey learned to ski or ride at a mega-resort with a vertical of over 2500 feet or more than 12 lifts.

“We are losing and have lost a lot of youthful beginners because people aren’t willing to bite off that big of a nut in hopes their kids might like it,” Antelope Butte Foundation founding board member Mark Weitz said.

Weitz’s sentiment is worrisome because it’s those same small ski areas which have been slowly disappearing over the last 30 years.

In the late 1970’s there were 735 ski areas in the United States. As of last season that number was 472.

Lost ski area hubs serve as a small batch look into the industry as a whole. At one point Maine had 135 ski hills. Now that number has dwindled to 15. Since Colorado became a state in 1876, it has had 200 ski areas. Now that number is near 30.

In 2015, Bill Jensen, a well-known ski industry executive, made a prediction: about 150, or 31 percent, of the nation’s roughly 470 ski areas will go out of business in the foreseeable future.

Sleeping Giant Ski Area in Wyoming was resurrected about 10 years ago thanks to the help of the non-profit Yellowstone Recreations Foundation. (Leo Wolfson)

Thankfully the stats aren’t all bleak. Over the last decade small ski areas like Antelope Butte and Sleeping Giant have reopened in Wyoming while Big Squaw followed suit in Maine and Whaleback Mountain in New Hampshire returned in 2013 after its own spotty history.

Instead of waiting to entice a buyer to invest and gamble, the communities surrounding these recently closed ski areas organized non-profit or co-op groups with the aim of reopening their favorite slopes. That effort paid off at Antelope Butte this season after seven years of hard work.

“I kind of liken it to the rise of local breweries, the craft beer movement,”Weitz said. “People are wanting to be a bit more in tune with their community and the whole vibe of the local scene.”

Slightly bigger ski areas like Bridger Bowl in Montana and Mad River Glen in Vermont have been operating under community ownership for years with consistent success.

Marble Ski Resort near Glenwood, Colo. existed until 1974. (Coloradoskihistory.com):

So what does it take to keep your local ski hill alive? The answer is simple: support it. Purchasing season passes, volunteering, spreading the word and bringing your friends and family slopes are just some of the ways you can keep the spirit and really future of skiing and snowboarding alive for many generations to come.

“It’s just like having a local brewery, butcher or bakery. It’s just nice to have your friends there,” Weitz said.

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