Why the ski industry needs small hills.
By Drew Pogge | Photograph by Ryan Krueger
In 2012, California’s June Mountain closed after 50 years of operation. The 500-acre ski area owned by nearby Mammoth Mountain had become a disposable line item as Mammoth tried to put its hefty ledgers in the black. After the bull wheels stopped, a few locals happily hiked for turns under empty lifts. But most residents and business owners in the adjacent town of June Lake responded with anger and panic. For ski industry prognosticators it was yet another trigger to question the future of community hills. With rising costs, uncertain weather, and flat skier visits, how could local ski areas survive? “We were trying to cater to everybody,” says Carl Williams, June’s general manager. “The skiing was good, but we weren’t serving any market well.”
More than a thousand small ski areas have shuttered over the last 40 years, but there are success stories. The vibrant hills serve targeted communities while turning a profit. See the thriving ski scene at Bridger Bowl, a small, nonprofit ski area outside Bozeman, Montana. Or Great Divide in Helena, Montana, which Kevin Turner’s family has owned and operated since 1985. The business model: Entice new skiers and young families with affordable pricing, simple amenities, and a friendly environment. No condos. No lobster bisque. Dirt lots instead of heated garages. Great Divide runs five double chairlifts, some of which date to the 1980s, the lodge is paid for, and everything screams minimal overhead. “We stay focused on our limited reality,” says Turner. “We reinvest. We stay affordable. And we stay friendly.”
Working the knife close to the bone is a proven method in mountain towns. The winter hub of the Jackson, Wyoming community isn’t the destination resort up in Teton Village, it’s Snow King, the site of everything from a downhill race series and old man hockey games to morning ski touring sessions. Howelsen Hill in Steamboat Springs, Colorado is overrun with local kids learning to cross-country ski, link alpine turns, and sail off the small ski jumps. Vermont’s Bromley has introduced hundreds of thousands of new skiers and riders to the sport with education programs and value pricing. Then there’s Bogus Basin near Boise, Idaho. Wachusett in Massachusetts. And any ski area in the Midwest. Each is defined by a pragmatic, sustainable approach that attracts budget-conscious families. “The large resorts rely on smaller ski areas for customers,” says Williams of June Mountain. “These sports have a high cost barrier. June brings people to the sport and turns them into avid skiers. Eventually they’re ready to graduate to Mammoth.”
During the closure, Williams and Mammoth generated a new business model for June, which reopens this winter. The big plan? Think small. For starters: Free skiing for kids under 12. As Kevin Taylor says, “A mountain town just doesn’t seem complete without its own local ski area.”
From the Early Winter 2013 issue.