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Ski Resort Life

What it Takes to Run a Nonprofit Ski Hill

The nonprofit model can be incredibly beneficial to small resorts, but it takes a village to keep it going.

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In 1992, Mount Ashland was hovering on the brink of bankruptcy. After a series of bad winters from ‘88 to ‘91, Harbor Properties, who owned Mount Ashland at the time, was getting ready to pull the infrastructure from the resort and shut down operations. 

Steve Jameison, a local attorney, along with Bob Matthews, who had grown up skiing at Mount Ashland, rallied the community to raise enough money to buy the ski area from Harbor. The “Save Mount Ashland” campaign raised $1.7 million and founded the Mount Ashland Association, a nonprofit that would manage the community-run ski area. “Without the nonprofit model, Mount Ashland probably wouldn’t still be here,” said Michael Stringer, Director of Development at Mount Ashland. “But it’s also turned the mountain into an accessible community asset that the town of Ashland is incredibly invested in.”

Small ski areas are incredibly vulnerable to low snow years, and crowdsourcing funding from the community can be a viable way to keep a resort afloat. Stringer added that even since 1992, Mount Ashland has had a few low snow years where they might not have made it if the community hadn’t stepped in. 

Mount Ashland isn’t alone in their approach—Bridger Bowl in Montana, Mount Ascutney in Vermont, and Bogus Basin in Idaho all operate as nonprofits, relying on support from their local communities to keep operations running. Unlike a traditional ski resort with corporate ownership, nonprofit ski areas can apply for grants, campaign for donations, and offer tax write-offs.

“We’ve had a couple of years where we’ve been on the ropes financially, and it’s an amazing thing to see the community step in and help out,” said Susan Saad, Director of Community and Customer Relations at Bogus Basin. “Locals are happy to pay into it because they know everything is going back into the mountain.” Just 16 miles outside of Boise, Bogus Basin is the largest nonprofit recreation area in the country. Unlike Mount Ashland, which started off as a for-profit ski area, Bogus Basin in Idaho has been run by the community from day one.

In the late 1930s, nearby Sun Valley was becoming a booming ski destination and the Treasure Valley community felt they had the potential to create something similar in their own backyard. “Local leaders wanted to give the community something by the community,” said Saad. “The Treasure Valley community wanted to ski.”

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At the heart of any successful nonprofit is a clear mission. For ski areas like Bogus and Mount Ashland, this typically means prioritizing accessibility, keeping lift ticket prices low, and investing in learn-to-ski programs, sometimes at the cost of making large-scale improvements to infrastructure. “The ski area must be driven by a higher purpose and desire to make an impact,” explained Stringer. “Ultimately, we’re working towards something bigger. In our case, making the community a better place to live and helping everyday people afford to ski.”

A full-day adult lift ticket at Mount Ashland is $52 on the weekends and $45 during the week. For first time skiers, Mount Ashland’s My Turn Program is a way for first-timers to learn at an affordable price. For $149, skiers or riders get three days of lessons, rentals, and lift tickets. At the end of the third lesson, each participant gets a free season pass and rentals for the rest of the season. “The whole goal is to help everyday people ski in a time where it’s not possible at many resorts around the country,” said Stringer.

Saad says that one of Bogus’s biggest challenges is the fact that by keeping ticket prices low, they can’t always invest in big improvements and upgrades. “Sure, we’d love to add more snowcats and snowmaking, but our mission is to keep the mountain affordable and accessible and we have to stick to that,” said Saad. 

Nonprofit ski areas work well in small communities with a high level of local investment, but relying on fundraising efforts to keep a ski resort running isn’t as simple as sending out donation envelopes and throwing a few fundraisers. “Many nonprofit ski areas ended up nonprofit because they couldn’t stay in business as a for-profit,” said Saad. “But there’s no guarantee that becoming a nonprofit will ensure future success. Having donors that can and will support Bogus is an amazing aspect of the Treasure Valley community, but not something that just any small town could jump up and do.”

Skiing at Bogus Basin
Not very crowded at Bogus Basin.Photo courtesy of Bogus Basin

For Bogus, adopting a comprehensive 10-year master plan that’s widely available to the community made a huge difference in donor involvement. “Donors want to know what they’re investing in. Spelling it all out makes it more enticing to help us make it happen,” said Saad. “Transparency is really important so the community knows what to expect for the future of Bogus—we have to be really clear about what we want to make happen and exactly what we need to do so.”

Stringer and Saad both recognize that, while the Ashland and Boise communities are clearly very dedicated to their local hills, the nonprofit model isn’t a quick fix. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, community-owned resorts like Bogus and Mount Ashland cannot operate with the same autonomy as a massive corporation. Major upgrades such as on-mountain lighting, snowmaking, and lodge improvements can sometimes take years to be approved or funded. Decisions are voted on by a Board of Directors, and all improvements or changes need to align with the organization’s mission. “Part of our job is to listen to everyone’s ideas and suggestions, even if you don’t completely agree,” said Stringer. “It’s rewarding to connect with the community on such a regular basis, but it can sometimes be hard to streamline projects.”

Keeping donors engaged during low snow years is another major hurdle to a ski resort that relies on donations from their community. Like their corporate-owned counterparts, many not for profit resorts have turned to summer operations to keep visitors engaged, with hiking trails, lift-accessed mountain biking, alpine coasters, and summer festivals and concerts. 

“Transitioning to year-round operations over the last few years has really helped offset challenging winters,” said Saad. “It keeps people excited about their local resort all year long and it lets us make use of the infrastructure we already have.”

Despite hurdles, Stringer says that one of the most rewarding parts of running a nonprofit ski hill is the sense of pride and ownership from the local community. “People are proud to ski at Mount Ashland because it’s their mountain and they’ve worked hard to keep it going,” said Stringer. “It feels like a friendly neighborhood where everyone knows and watches out for each other. You can turn your kids loose to roam around with their classmates and catch up with old friends in the lodge. It’s rare to find that anymore.”

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