Are nonprofit models an answer for small ski areas?

As climate and economic challenges mount, some community ski hills find a new path.

 

In the 1960s, the Rogue Snowmen, a ragtag crew of alpine skiers in southern Oregon, fell in love with a mountain they thought would be perfect for a developed ski area. The group worked tirelessly to raise the seed money. In 1964 they did, and Mt. Ashland, “a mountain for the people by the people,” was incorporated. The little ski hill weathered three decades of financial ups and downs, trading hands from one group of owners to the next, until Dorothy Bullitt, the owner in 1991, couldn’t find another buyer — she even laughed one potential buyer out of her office when she was offered only $800,000.

The beginner lift at Mt. Ashland, a nonprofit ski area in southern Oregon. The area has been resilient to economic challenges and shorter seasons because of their nonprofit structure.
Ben Rogers, Flickr.

Robert Matthews, a local who’d grown up skiing there and had worked at a gear shop nearby since he was a teen, decided to step in. But he didn’t have the $1.3 million needed to buy the ski area. So Matthews decided to take an entirely new approach — one that few ski resorts have done to this day: Go nonprofit. First, he gathered a group of about 35 ski enthusiasts to help him. Second, he developed a pyramid fundraising structure: each person had to find two more people to donate $1,000 each and so on. Matthews asked residents in the town of Ashland, population 17,000, and nearby Medford to “vote with their checkbooks. Do you want a ski hill here or not?” The campaign caught on. The local Rotary clubs helped raise money for the ski area, then-governor Barbara Roberts set aside state lottery funds and agreed to contribute $500,000 to “Save Mt. Ashland.”

In 1992, contributions from community members and tenacious fundraising efforts came together, and the Mount Ashland Association was born. The nonprofit ski hill is still financially stable today with more than $2.5 million in valued assets, according to the association’s financial statement.

Not only was the business makeover what saved Ashland in 1992; it’s also keeping the mountain alive today, amidst a tough economic environment and climate change. Each year, budgeting is a “moving target” that depends on revenues (historically linked to the amount of snow) of the previous season. But as a nonprofit, Ashland can campaign for donations and apply for state tourism and economic development grants. The majority of its revenue now comes from contributions, grants and revenue from selling season passes and lift tickets. “The nonprofit model is keeping us afloat, frankly,” says Hiram Towle, manager of operations. 

Today, small ski areas like Mt. Ashland are increasingly vulnerable as larger companies buy them up and consolidate the industry. There are 470 ski areas in the country today — down from the more than 720 open 30 years ago. In addition to the tough economic landscape, climate change has resulted in more precipitation falling not as snow but as rain, which makes for fewer operational days at ski resorts. If warming trends continue, there could be bare slopes for entire seasons in the Rocky Mountains within the century. Earlier this year, William Jensen, a high-profile industry analyst, said 150 U.S. ski areas are likely to fail in the next 10 to 20 years because of climate change and industry economics. At the time, Jensen’s presentation garnered criticism from the ski industry and widespread media coverage. It’s a formidable forecast, but some ski areas have found that nonprofit models are a way to keep open. 

In Sheridan, Wyoming, the Antelope Butte Foundation, a nonprofit established in 2011, is trying to raise millions of dollars to bring back a community hill that closed more than a decade ago. “It’s sort of like resuscitating a dead patient,” says Mark Weitz, president of the association. “We have a heartbeat, but we’re not up and running around yet.”

Antelope Ski Area originally opened in 1960, and it had a record number of visitations in 1998. The area closed in 2004 because “lack of snow and an aging population resulted in fewer skiers,” the Associated Press reported at the time. Weitz saw a nonprofit model as the only way to bring the community ski hill back.

For nearly a decade, Weitz has been interested in reopening the mountain. The Antelope Butte Foundation has been able to raise more than $200,000 in donations since 2011, but it’s an example of how difficult the nonprofit track can be.  The foundation still needs to pay $305,000 to secure the right to make improvements on the property and an additional $3 million to make infrastructure improvements that will pass safety benchmarks. “There is a risk that there could be a loss of momentum,” Weitz says about his campaign to raise funds. “There are kids now that never had that experience (of skiing at Antelope), and there’s going to be a little less resonance as time goes on.” The foundation aims to re-open by December 2016.

Part of what makes small communities a good place for the nonprofit models is that locals often have a strong sense of ownership to their ski hills. Many kids who learn to ski at these places grow up feeling indebted to the areas; the ski hill is their alma mater. The majority of the patrons are not far-flung tourists, as they are at many world-class ski resorts. As a result, community members feel compelled to donate to keep the ski area alive for generations. “We’re in a great, relevant place in the community,” says Chris St Germaine, president of Bald Mountain’s nonprofit organization in Pierce, Idaho. “We know we’re not the kind of place you go to take a two week vacation — we’re not trying to be that.”

One particularly striking example of a community coming to the rescue of a beloved ski area happened at Ashland last year. Exactly 50 years after the Rogue Snowmen had opened the business, drought was hitting the area hard. Because of the unseasonably warm temperatures and lack of snow during that season, Mt. Ashland couldn’t open a single day. The managers and members of the board turned to the community for help. If Mt. Ashland were a private ski hill, they would have had to refund the season passes they had already sold. But as a nonprofit, operators could ask skiers if they would donate the cost of their passes for a tax deduction. Most did. “I gladly donated the cost of the pass,” says Linda Davis, 59, a Medford resident that has skied at the area since she was nine years old. “Our community is forever hopeful it will be cold enough to have snow. Our little mountain has struggled, but whatever it takes to keep running for as long as possible is worth the effort.” 

The nonprofit model isn’t a free pass for every struggling small ski area. Lincoln Kauffman, director of operations at Donner Ski Ranch in California, says the small, corporate structure works well for them, despite having to shut down in bad snow years. “We’re in it to make a profit,” he says. “We are so small, and employ fewer people, but that allows us to operate with lower overhead.” Plus, nonprofits have certain responsibilities that privately owned businesses don’t. Nonprofits must always be aiming to meet their organization’s mission. That often means keeping lift tickets cheap, so the slopes are accessible to everyone. They also face limited revenue streams; grants can be difficult to find, and donations can be sporadic. So is snowfall.

“The hardest part of the nonprofit model is meeting the mission,” says Towle from Mt. Ashland. “We strive for a higher sense of purpose, but it can be volatile when the uncertainties of weather have to be factored in.” 

On an August afternoon, Matthews stands around boxed merchandise and new gear strewn haphazardly around the Rogue Ski Shop near Mt. Ashland, where he’s worked for more than 40 years. He methodically places skis and jackets around his shop and hopes they will soon be slathered with snow and spotted with snowflakes. “If it doesn’t snow, you can still enjoy the company of friends and hike at Mt. Ashland,” Matthews says. “Sometimes you need to let go of your first love.”

Paige Blankenbuehler is an editorial intern at High Country News.