Strapped Vermont ski area offers skiers a piece of the mountain
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
LONDONDERRY, Vt. ” Greg Williams has been skiing at Magic Mountain in southern Vermont since he was 7. In 30 years, the no-frills resort with its steep terrain and narrow, windy trails hasn’t changed much and that’s the way Williams likes it. It’s a step back in time. And it’s all about skiing.
But in recent years, like other bare-bones resorts, Magic has struggled to stay open, needing costly maintenance, losing money, changing hands, and even closing in the 1990s.
Now its president is banking on devout patrons like Williams to help keep it running, by offering them a chance to buy a piece of the mountain. Other resorts have become community owned, nonprofits, or private clubs. Vermont’s Mad River Glen was the first U.S. ski area to become cooperatively owned in 1995.
Now, Magic is looking to follow suit.
“It kind of answers the questions of what happens to the smaller places that may be great little spots but aren’t quite as commercially viable, given the huge investment in infrastructure we’ve seen at the bigger resorts,” said Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association.
“What they’re saying is we can live without the high-speed detachable quad,” he said.
Magic, with its 1,700-foot vertical drop and 40 trails, is surrounded by bigger resorts in southern Vermont, like Okemo Mountain and Stratton, which draw thousands more skiers a year.
But Magic has a following that Jim Sullivan hopes is devoted enough to plunk down $3,000 a piece to keep their beloved mountain alive. There’s little financial return. What they get is a 20 percent discount on seasons’ passes, a say in how the mountain is run, and a guarantee that the mountain will be open.
So far Magic, which had 16,000 skier visits this season, has sent letters to 800 to 900 people and heard back from a couple hundred who have expressed a sincere interest, some saying they would buy more than one share, Sullivan said.
“It takes the hard-core skiers and hard-core supporters jumping in,” he said.
There’s a need for smaller, more affordable resorts, like Magic, in this economy, said Jeremy Davis, head of the New England Lost Ski Areas Project, a Web site that documents the closed ski areas in the Northeast. Tickets go for $39 midweek and $56 on the weekends at Magic compared to $70 or even $80 day passes at some other resorts.
Plus not everybody needs the big-resort experience.
“It’s a little bit more relaxing. They don’t get lost, they don’t wait in line all day, they’re still having a great time on really good terrain,” Davis said.
Williams can’t imagine skiing anywhere else. He makes the 31/2-hour drive from his home in Wilton, Ct., on weekends, holidays, whenever he can.
He likes that he knows everybody there. He also believes slower lifts, like the two chair lifts at Magic, still have a place in this world, and doesn’t like what he calls uphill capacity — too many people on the hill at once.
“We never discuss how many runs we get or anything like that. It’s how many good runs you get and typically you can find powder days after a storm,” he said.
Magic was founded in 1961 by Hans Thorner, a Swiss ski instructor, who chose Glebe Mountain in Londonderry to carve out “a little corner of Switzerland,” building a miniature Swiss village at its base and importing Swiss ski instructors.
The resort was sold in 1985 and later, after a few bad snow seasons and real estate deals, it closed in 1991. Three lifts were sold to pay off debt.
But a group of investors reopened the mountain in 1996. Sullivan, 44, a former ski racer and Connecticut lawyer, took over ten years later, leasing it with two silent partners. They invested nearly $1 million, with plans to buy it. But in this market Sullivan says he couldn’t find the investors.
With the lease running out, he decided why not try to get the money from a lot of people, instead of just a few.
He’s talked to Mad River, which sold 1,000 shares for $1,500 a piece the first year in 1995. Now 1,900 individuals hold 2,200 shares in the co-op.
“I think the key for Mad River is we just have a tremendously passionate community here. Everybody is in it for the right reasons,” said spokesman Eric Friedman.
A testament to the co-op: Mad River replaced its famed single chair lift in 2007, raising $1.7 million to do it. “What more evidence does one want?” said Berry, of the National Ski Area’s Association.
But Friedman’s not sure a co-op will work for other places.
Mad River makes snow on only 10 percent of its terrain. Magic needs $2 million in snowmaking improvements.
“You add the snowmaking expense to this place and we don’t make money,” he said.
Sullivan figures he has to sell 300 shares this summer, at $3,000 a piece. Eventually he plans to sell up to 1,500. He hopes to have a formal offering ready by next month.
His focus now is convincing skiers that the return on their investment will be worthwhile.
“It’s an emotional return. It’s a preservation society as much as anything,” he said.