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How To Save Your Local Ski Hill

Skiers are uniting to invest in distressed hills in Vermont and BC.

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The T-shirts in Greg Williams’s office are everywhere: floor, desk, filing cabinet. By his estimation, there are hundreds of them, and to Williams, they’re much more than clutter and cotton. To him, these shirts represent perhaps the final chance of survival for his favorite ski area, a scrappy knob of soil and stone in the southern Vermont town of Londonderry known as Magic Mountain. “I definitely think it’s all on the line,” he says with a sigh. “It’s this year or never.”

To understand how a few piles of laundry can be so critical to one mountain’s well-being, you must know that Greg Williams is selling the “Save Magic” shirts to pay for two more ownership shares in his beloved but beleaguered Magic Mountain, which has operated for years in the margins of survivorship—a little ski area rich in steeps, trees, and devout locals but not much more. Last season, Magic posted a mere 16,500 skier visits. Still, that’s better than the dark years of the early ’90s, when three lifts were pawned off to pay outstanding debt. In August, the mountain’s management began promoting the idea of cooperative ownership.

Magic is not the first ski area to consider the cooperative model. A hundred miles to the north lies Mad River Glen, which has operated cooperatively since 1995 and currently has 1,800 “owners,” each of whom has paid $2,000 for a share of the mountain (some own more than one share). And in the small town of Terrace, BC, a group of skiers are picking through pocket lint, trying to gather enough spare change to make an offer on Shames Mountain, a low-key ski area that reaps 480 inches of annual snowfall and boasts hundreds of acres of backcountry. It’s currently on the market for a cool C$1.5 million.

What’s behind the co-op trend? Tim Cohee thinks he knows. Cohee runs the Ski Business and Management program at Sierra Nevada College and spent 13 years as president of Kirkwood Mountain in California. “In this economy, most small resorts are simply not bankable. It doesn’t matter how good your credit is; you’re not going to get financing if you’re showing below, say, 200,000 skier visits annually.”

More optimistically, Cohee sees a subtle cultural shift that supports the co-op model. “At some point people say, ‘Big mountains, fast lifts, villages: I don’t really need all that.’” That’s certainly how Mad River Glen shareholder and marketing director Eric Friedman sees it. “When people ask me, ‘What do I get when I buy a share?’ I tell them, ‘The first thing you get is a bill every August,’” Friedman says. Indeed, Mad River shareholders are required to spend $200 per year at the mountain on goods and services. They do receive a small discount on season passes and lift tickets, but as Friedman notes, “Ninety-nine percent of our shareholders bought their share for the right reason: preservation.”

Preservation is very much on the mind of Magic Mountain President Jim Sullivan, who currently leases the mountain with two silent partners. They invested $1 million and planned to buy the mountain but, as Tim Cohee might have predicted, they couldn’t find investors. Now, with the lease running short, Sullivan is turning to Magic devotees like Greg Williams, hoping that 1,000 of them will part with $3,000 each to keep the lifts running. As of late September, 120 shares had sold, a result Sullivan classifies as “somewhat disappointing but not entirely surprising.” Like Mad River, Magic is promising little in the way of fiscal return (shareholders will receive a 20 percent discount on passes). “We’re careful not to tout return on investment,” says Sullivan. “The return is really an emotional one, that they can keep this place alive and viable.”

Much the same could be said of Shames, which is owned by a quartet of Canadian investors with an improbable collection of first names: Harry, Larry, Gerry, and Barrie. The four have owned the mountain for two decades, and they put it on the market two years ago. The idea of a co-op was first floated by a California native named Jamie Schectman, who currently lives in Argentina with his wife Shanie. “A friend sent us the listing. Neither of us had heard of the place, but we quickly realized Shames has something special,” Schectman says. “We contacted a couple locals and asked them what they thought of the idea of buying the resort as a co-op. Both responded within 10 minutes.”

The Shames Mountain Co-op is in its infancy but its members hope to eventually sell enough $500 shares to purchase the resort. Owner Harry Murphy would love nothing more than to sell to a group of locals, but he tempers his enthusiasm with the sort of pragmatic wisdom one gains by operating a ski resort for 20 years. “Running a mountain is a lot more difficult than most people could ever believe,” Murphy says. “There are a lot of armchair quarterbacks out there who don’t really know how to throw the ball.” For his part, Magic skier Greg Williams doesn’t much care if they know how to throw a ball. He just wants them to buy a damn T-shirt. —Ben Hewitt