Mt. Ascutney's revival serves as a model for other ski areas
When Mt. Ascutney ski resort went bankrupt over a decade ago, it threw the nearby town of West Windsor into turmoil. Jobs left the area, property values plummeted and taxes went up.
So the town took a risk, and bought the ski area in 2015. Residents formed a non-profit called Ascutney Outdoors to run it. The move paid off — the mountain draws visitors for a variety of activities year round, and the population of West Windsor has rebounded.
News outlets have picked up on the story, and the mountain has become a model for other smaller scale ski operations looking to survive climate change, ski industry challenges and other factors.
To learn more about that, Vermont Public's Jenn Jarecki spoke with Natalie Starr, a board member for Ascutney Outdoors. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jenn Jarecki: First, how do your priorities with this type of management structure differ from those of commercial ski resorts?
Natalie Starr: Well, commercial ski resorts obviously have investors and a profit to make. And our goal is to just be sustainable and keep this mountain operating through, good winters and bad, for skiers and outdoor recreators in our community. We have a very small budget and the scale that we operate is very small compared to every ski area.
What impact has mountains got nice revitalization had on nearby communities in terms of shops, cafes, jobs, that kind of thing?
Our general store closed after the ski hill closed. And with the purchase by the town and then the rebirth of downhill skiing at Mt. Ascutney, the general store also was able to open. That was also because of the investment by community members, who bought the bankrupt store and then essentially leased it back to a young couple who has rebuilt it back into a thriving cafe and general store. Around the area — certainly Windsor, Weathersfield, we're not far from Woodstock, either — I think that there's a lot of people that come up to the area and they still are curious and come down to Ascutney. Certainly local businesses would benefit from the tourism that comes to the area.
Natalie, can you describe the importance of the general store in a community like West Windsor?
Well, there isn't a place to go and have a cup of coffee or pick up the newspaper and chat with your neighbors and stuff. You know, the general store was that place. And when it closed, it really hurt. It hurt the community. There was no place to go other than school or town hall and the mountain. Now, if you go there on a weekend, it's very busy with both locals and people that are from out of town, certainly.
In Colorado, Cuchara Mountain Park closed in 2000 after being run into the ground, but is now looking to reopen. And the owners say they're leaning on Mt. Ascutney as a template. What lessons do you think other ski areas can take from the story of Mt. Ascutney?
Probably the most important one is to scale it to the community that you plan to serve. We are a small community. And our visitation is on the small side. So we have surface lifts and we have just a certain amount of terrain open for downhill skiing. Going big, and certainly with chairlifts and other very much more expensive lifts to not only install but operate — that's a much bigger step. So depending on what kind of skier days they expect to see, and whether or not they're getting into snowmaking and need it. That's a whole other scale of skiing.
Seeing other mountain operators looking toward Ascutney Outdoors for inspiration, how does that feel as a grassroots organization?
Certainly it's felt great to the community and certainly those that have put a lot of energy into the mountain since 2015, 2016. It's great to have not only the visitors and the enthusiasm, but some some attention. But at the end of the day, it's our community and our volunteerism that really feels the best — having people continuously volunteer and come back is what has made it possible to keep the place open. And seeing that kind of enthusiasm and that kind of commitment is what really feels great.
That seems like a good segue to the next question I wanted to ask you, which is about large conglomerates that are increasingly buying up ski resorts. We've seen this happen in Vermont to places like Stowe and Sugarbush. Those companies can offer discounted passes at bigger mountains with lots of terrain. Does the consolidation that's happening in the ski industry threaten the long term viability of a smaller independent operation like Mt. Ascutney?
Not at all. I think we're talking apples and oranges. The large ski areas have a ticket price that most families can't afford. Even with the passes, which certainly enable many to ski that wouldn't be able to, we're still talking about a pretty high entry fee.
At Ascutney, what we have is a small family community area with a very low entry fee. It's $10 for youth and $20 for adults. And you can buy a season pass for a family of four for $200. So that's pretty different.
I think also, we have some learn-to-ski programs and work with area schools. And we really work with a lot of skiers that are just learning to ski. And it's a great feeder system into the bigger ski resorts where it's probably harder to do so depending on what kind of terrain they have available and how crowded it is.
We know climate change poses an existential threat to ski resorts, but your nonprofit has deliberately expanded offerings on the mountain to include not just skiing but mountain biking, hiking, horse riding. How vital is that to keeping Mt. Ascutney a sustainable operation?
Not everybody's a downhill skier. So certainly having other things to do in the winter, like snowshoeing and cross country skiing and backcountry skiing — as well as having mountain biking and hikingm and even having horse trails — has been great because everybody in the community has an opportunity to recreate over the mountain.
So I just think it creates and builds a greater following. Mountain biking has been there for a long time in the town forest, and was able to expand once the town owned the ski area and more formally develop ed a trail system. And that has been great.
What's next for Mt. Ascutney? Does the nonprofit have any goals or challenges it's looking to address moving forward?
Certainly we hope to keep our trail system operating and expanding, working within our conservation easement. We also are going to electrify our rope tow with this new state [Vermont Outdoor Recreation Economic Collaborative] grant, which will be great in terms of its capacity to bring skiers up the mountain quickly and more smoothly.
We also are going to add a skills park — have built a skills park — flow trails and climbing trails to modernize mountain biking on the mountain. We have a lot of very exciting and fun technical trails. But the younger bikers really love the flow trails and the skills park to get a little air. So these things are pretty exciting to the next generation of mountain bikers.
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