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Why are Northwest Montana’s Ski Areas Still Independent?

Why are Northwest Montana's Ski Areas Still Independent?

The younger skier wearing a black mesh shirt ties a black bandana round his brow and pulls a goofy face for the digital camera. His associates, dressed up in Hawaiian shirts, cheer. Others smile on, chatting and holding darkish beers whereas ready within the queue for a Whitefish Mountain Resort season move sale occasion hosted by the Nice Northern Brewery this fall.

“This is the best day of the year — second best, after opening day,” one passholder says.

Through the years, skiers and snowboarders acquire these plastic rectangles like scout badges, saving them as mementos of excellent occasions and worse hairstyles. For a lot of locals, they’re tokens of dedication to the house hill.


The most important ski corporations in America are rising via the acquisition and homogenization of independently owned resorts, small and enormous. This well-established development has escalated, in recent times, into an arms race to dominate regional markets. The empire-building, bottom-line-driven strategy of resort group titans has resulted within the accelerated improvement and commodification of mountain valleys, in some instances to the detriment of human and pure communities. However there are exceptions. Northwest Montana is certainly one of few remaining areas in American snow states the place a conglomerate big hasn’t taken up residence. Turner Mountain Ski Space, in Libby, is owned by a nonprofit basis and operated virtually solely by volunteers. Whitefish Mountain Resort is owned and operated by the company that based the mountain, and whose largest shareholder is a billionaire businessman with native ties. Blacktail Mountain resort, in Lakeside, continues to be owned by its 4 founders, who are looking for a successor.

Many skiers love multi-destination passes, like Vail’s EPIC and Alterra’s Ikon, which open up fantastic journey alternatives for many who are capable of benefit from them. As with Vail’s Afton Alps, situated on the outskirts of Minneapolis, conglomerate funding guarantees to maintain mom-and-pop ski areas alive and introduce snowboarding to extra people dwelling in city areas. However a balanced mountain city tradition requires significant company of locals in its resorts. Outsized outdoors funding typically creates dramatic wealth disparity in rural mountain cities, exacerbating the proliferation of second- and third-homes, and ultimately pushing out lower-income staff, together with those that prioritize snowboarding above all else. This displacement, compounded by the company effort to create a extra streamlined expertise throughout its properties, can undermine the idiosyncratic character that initially made the ski city particular.

Because of the vital prices of operating a winter resort, particularly in a densely consolidating business, many ski areas haven’t been capable of keep open beneath unbiased possession, both shutting down or promoting out. However the chairlifts at Turner, Whitefish, and Blacktail are nonetheless spinning. Overdevelopment has by no means been a priority for Turner or Blacktail; progress at Whitefish has been extra formidable, however by nationwide requirements, it’s nonetheless rootsy and unpretentious for a resort of its measurement.

There’s no assure that unbiased possession will proceed to achieve success right here, however the skiers and snowboarders who smile for a move photograph in Northwest Montana achieve this figuring out that they’re paying to recreate someplace constructed and sustained by native pursuits and funding.

Turner Mountain. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Dwelling

Turner Mountain Ski Space

Base elevation: three,842

Summit elevation: 5,952

Annual skier visits 2017/2018: four,600

Value: An grownup day move is $38, an grownup season move is $495, and a four-person household move is $1,285

Volunteers opened Turner Ski Space in 1961, about 20 miles north of Libby contained in the Kootenai Nationwide Forest. Situated in a distant nook of the state, it’s extra reliant on its group of locals than most ski areas. However a formidable volunteer ethic is embedded in Libby, and its supporters have been capable of maintain the mountain open each single winter because it opened. The individuals who reside right here perceive that in the event that they don’t contribute, in no matter approach they’re in a position, they may lose Turner.

For many years, the longest T-Bar in North America hauled skiers 2,100 ft straight up Turner’s fall line. When passholders joked that going up was more durable than taking place, they weren’t actually joking. However chairlifts are costly. By the mid-1990s, the T-Bar had aged past reliability, and the group rallied behind Kootenai Winter Sports activities Inc., the nonprofit that owns the hill, to boost sufficient cash to buy used chairlift supplies. Licensed engineers, electricians, and specialists in different journeymen trades donated their experience to refurbish and set up the carry, which opened in January 2002. Three years later, volunteers constructed a brand new lodge, changing a primitive warming shack. In December 2014, a catastrophic hearth ravaged the gear workshop, destroying many important instruments, and the mountain nonetheless opened two weeks later.

“We didn’t skip a beat. We survived that. That goes to show you what this community is capable of,” Bruce Zwang, Turner’s board of administrators president, says. “If you roll up your sleeves and get to work up there, you’re going to feel a sense of ownership and a sense of pride. You helped keep the dream alive.”

All this time, Turner has been the quietest surviving ski space in Montana, when it comes to skier visits. And although it has grown because the ‘60s, it hasn’t grown quite a bit. All providers — raise tickets, patrol, leases, and the modest cafeteria — are beneath one roof. Après-ski revelers congregate within the small parking zone. Every little thing runs on a generator. In case you name the primary quantity, the telephone rings in Zwang’s workplace in Libby, the place he works as an accountant.

Except for the December holidays and President’s Day, Turner is open solely on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. At the very least 50 individuals contribute sufficient volunteer hours to earn a move; the one two paid staff are raise operation and upkeep. Midweek personal leases that value $three,750, a 20-year-tradition, assist maintain Turner within the black. Mountain supervisor Jon Jeresek says they’ve by no means missed a cost on long-term loans, and that “very dedicated financial supporters” will typically name up and see if the ski space might use an enormous examine. For the individuals who ski Turner, this effort is, with out query, well worth the sacrifices that maintain the enterprise.

“What I see people appreciating the most about Turner,” Jersek says, “is just the absolute freedom and relaxation with the experience. Skiing at Turner is one of the most relaxing ski experiences you can ever imagine … This is an experience that was fairly common in the Mountain West. It’s faded, with small areas going under, and big areas surviving, and big areas becoming a destination catering to regional or out-of-region skiers. Ours is not that. We are not that.”

At Turner, it’s typically quiet within the lodge. Individuals right here like that. They don’t fear about dropping pals. They don’t fear about snowboarding quick sufficient, or in the appropriate locations, to get the great snow earlier than it’s skied out. They see wildlife — on a regular basis. (Jeresek says he’s noticed wolverine and mountain lions.) At 9 a.m. on a Saturday, they park a couple of hundred ft from the chairlift. Lap after lap, they ski via evenly spaced glades with high-limbed timber, down 2,100 ft of fall line slopes with a constant pitch. At three:59 p.m. on a powder day, they spot un-skied strains from the sluggish double chair. Turner evokes the enjoyment of snowboarding in a spot the place a group’s dedication alone has preserved the leisure and pleasure of this utterly nonessential, however completely blissful, pastime for nearly 60 years.

“Survival? I’ve never been concerned about our survival,” Zwang says. “We’ll do what’s necessary to keep going. We always have. We always will.”

Whitefish Mountain Resort. Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Dwelling

Whitefish Mountain Resort

Base elevation: four,464 ft.

Summit elevation: 6,817 ft.

Annual skier visits 2017/2018: 382,066

Value: An grownup season move, which provides 18 days at associate ski resorts like Nice Divide and Pink Lodge, is $660 if bought pre-season. A carry ticket is $81 on the window; it’s cheaper should you purchase it prematurely on-line, or at Costco.

Whitefish’s pioneering skiers, Lloyd “Mully” Muldown and Ole Dalen, marked the primary descent on the Massive Mountain in 1933, a era after the city of Whitefish’s founding, and two years earlier than Solar Valley, America’s first “destination” ski resort, opened in Idaho. Many skiers within the Hell-Roaring Ski Membership, which shaped in 1937, have been enthusiastic concerning the prospect of progress. Their aspirations for winter tourism on this railroad city reached far past something that Montana’s quaint ski areas had ever seen.

“There was a vision of what could happen there,” says Mike Muldown, Mully’s son and a Whitefish actual property agent. “[Sun Valley] was the icon. And when they tried to advocate for Whitefish becoming at least something like that, they were a little unrealistic in their expectations. They were on a shoestring budget.”

In March 1947, the winter earlier than opening day, Winter Sports activities Inc. (WSI) — the company that also owns and operates the resort — shaped, with $70,000 in inventory approved. Whitefish locals financed greater than half of the startup funding; the remaining got here from Ed Schenck and George Prentice, Nice Falls businessmen who moved to the world to assist begin the resort. Eight months into the primary yr of operations on the Massive Mountain, Schenck reportedly declared the undertaking “dead broke,” in accordance with Jean Arthur’s guide “Hellroaring.”

Supporters locked the doorways on a group assembly till attendees ponied up a further $6,000 in donations. Rusty Abel, the founding father of Whitefish Credit score Union, loaned skiers cash at no curiosity so they might purchase extra inventory. Resort staff accepted shares as an alternative of paychecks, and companies, like Nelson’s Hardware, accepted shares as an alternative of money. Schenck’s descendants have stated that his private funds suffered due to how arduous he labored up there, ceaselessly with out compensation.

Solely two years after the ski space opened, Whitefish hosted the Nationwide Ski Affiliation Championships. This was the most important ski-racing occasion within the nation. Whitefish didn’t also have a chairlift. However the occasion was a hit. Whitefish continued to host ski races, producing gifted athletes, which stored the group within the information. Trains full of households from the Midwest and Seattle rolled into city each week. It was a energetic scene up on the mountain, day and night time. As extra individuals relocated to expertise the frontier of snowboarding within the northern American Rockies, the rail city started its transformation right into a ski city. A ski tradition grew, formed by the area’s seclusion, often-harsh climate circumstances, and superb powder days.

By the late ‘50s, “it had pretty well been figured out that one T-Bar, one Poma Lift, and one rope tow were not just going to hack it if The Big Mountain was ever going to become a real destination ski resort,” Norm Kurtz wrote in his memoir “Chair One.” Initially a Whitefish ski bum, Kurtz was promoted by way of the ranks to basic supervisor within the late ‘70s. In response to Kurtz, two stockholders loaned the cash to purchase a raise that might attain the highest of the mountain. When Chair 1 was put in in 1960, Kurtz says, “it was euphoria up on the hill!”

Within the ‘70s, local families who purchased WSI stock finally saw a return on their initial investment. The next growth push was to expand mountain facilities and on-hill bed capacity. First came two subdivisions, and then the Alpenglow, which was Montana’s first leisure condominium. Within the early ‘80s, WSI began selling parcels of base area real estate via The Big Mountain Development Corporation. In the ‘90s, Mike Collins, a ski resort developer, was hired as the CEO, and he installed Whitefish’s first high-speed chair and a snowmaking system, undergrounded energy within the village, and commenced arranging direct flights from Minneapolis. “I wanted to be a competitive resort in the Northwest,” Collins says. He says there was by no means sufficient funding to construct a lodge, and although he courted hoteliers, they expressed extra curiosity in downtown alternatives. What was attainable was constructing duplex, townhome, and single-family house developments.

The board of administrators’ majority, which was filled with longtime Whitefish locals, accredited all this progress. However some board and group members fearful that it distracted from the resort’s core competency. Actual property investments helped the enterprise climate some troublesome seasons, however by the flip of the century, the resort was mired in debt.

In 2004, after which once more in 2006, the board of administrators voted to scale back the variety of WSI shares by means of reverse-stock splits, shopping for out buyers with smaller quantities of inventory. On the Huge Mountain’s 50th anniversary, in 1997, WSI had greater than 800 stockholders. After the reverse-stock splits, just a few dozen remained. Invoice Foley, an independently rich, non-skiing investor, held the bulk share.

Whitefish Mountain Resort CEO Dan Graves speaks as Whitefish Mountain Resort celebrates it’s 70th anniversary on Dec. 14, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Dwelling

Fred Jones, who changed Collins as CEO of WSI, defined that the reverse-stock cut up was wanted to make the Massive Mountain’s working mannequin extra tax-efficient. However skiers felt blindsided and betrayed. In 1950, Schenck had informed the Night Submit that, by way of collaboration, the Massive Mountain had “become a concrete expression of the town’s spirit of adventure and cooperation.” The reverse-stock cut up buried this historical past of grassroots, generational help.

Foley modified the identify to Whitefish Mountain Resort (WMR) the next yr, which didn’t endear him to spurned locals. Diehards nonetheless name it the Massive. However Foley started loaning the resort funds for main on-mountain enhancements. Simply earlier than the 2008 recession, Foley and Dan Graves, the CFO employed by Jones, refocused on making operations worthwhile — with out counting on actual property. Underneath Foley’s management, Whitefish has seen chairlift upgrades and the instillation of beloved new lifts, the Summit Home enlargement, and vital improvement of summer time operations, together with downhill mountain biking.

This fall, WMR bought a record-breaking 10,000 season passes. Since 2006, the resort has seen an general progress development in skier visits. The readers of SKI journal just lately voted Whitefish #1 within the west for “Overall Satisfaction.” (The previous two seasons, whereas different areas struggled with snowfall, Whitefish acquired greater than 400 inches, which hasn’t harm.) Foley and Graves “went from being demonized to being our savior,” Kent Gilkerson, a 30-year Whitefish passholder, says. Muldown believes the founders can be happy with how the ski space has advanced, except for dropping native shareholders.

“A ski area that values its locals, that’s what makes a healthy and vibrant skiing community,” says John Davies, a former POWDER journal editor who has been visiting his brother in Whitefish for 20 years. “The trick with ski areas is to change the place without really changing the place. You have to keep the lights on, improve infrastructure, and protect the identity. That manifests in local pride. There’s a lot of that in Whitefish.”

There’s no official platform for native enter, akin to an advisory council of passholders, however Graves, the previous CFO who’s now CEO, says he gladly listens to skiers with suggestions on operations. The resort additionally commonly processes buyer surveys, and lots of huge selections, just like the proposed Hellroaring Basin enlargement, are open to public remark as a result of WMR is partially on U.S. Forest Service lands.

For his half, Graves says huge resort conglomerates sometimes name, however he “would prefer the resort to be owned independently by a small group of investors with interest in the resort and community vs. a large, distant conglomerate.”

“Certainly, our largest shareholder, Mr. Foley, doesn’t want to jeopardize the way the community feels about this resort, related to an ownership change,” Graves added.

There’s a purpose the rumor that Foley plans to promote out by no means dies. This gossip displays basic mountain city anxieties about value of dwelling and overdevelopment. Greater than that, it expresses the protectiveness and kinship that Whitefish’s skiers and snowboarders really feel for what continues to be their beloved residence hill.

Blacktail Mountain Ski Space. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Dwelling

Blacktail Mountain Ski Space

Base elevation: 5,340

Summit elevation: 6,780

Annual skier visits 2017/2018: 44,260

Value: A day ticket is $42, and an grownup season move prices $395.

Whereas Steve Spencer labored as mountain supervisor on the Huge Mountain in Whitefish within the ‘90s, he grew more and more uncomfortable with its trajectory. The Columbia Falls-born skier needed a return to the regional ski space mannequin that catered to native households, no bells or whistles. So he recruited Flathead Valley contractors he knew from the Huge Mountain — Tom Sands, a surveyor; Dennis Carver, a civil engineer; and Jeff Sorg, a carpenter — and set his sights on the Island Unit of the Flathead Nationwide Forest, overlooking Flathead Lake.

They paid an area analysis agency to evaluate shopper curiosity. “It came out so positive, we didn’t believe it, so we did it again,” Spencer says. He consulted wildlife and conservation environmental teams, who have been supportive of leisure improvement within the remoted district. A snow research carried out by the Forest Service within the late ‘60s had already demonstrated dependable annual snowfall.

Their proposal was so strong that the Forest Service issued its first Particular Use Allow for ski resort improvement since 1987 — it has not issued one since. The founders poured sweat fairness into the place. Spencer drew the ski runs, Carver designed the sewer and water techniques, Sands profiled the topography for raise placement, and Sorg constructed resort amenities. After opening in December 1988, it took a few decade of monetary uncertainty for Blacktail to seek out its groove.

“We operate on a tight budget,” Spencer says. “If it’s got any risk to it, we don’t think about it. It pays for itself, it’s not a burden … The whole time, it’s been word of mouth, which is a healthy way to grow. It wasn’t a fast growth. It wasn’t a dishonest growth. It wasn’t an unrealistic growth. People come here, and if we get them once, we get them back.”

Skiers are typically stunned by Blacktail’s measurement, he says. “From the airport, or from Bigfork, you only see the top third of the big lift.” It’s located virtually completely on north-facing slopes, the place snow is best preserved. As a result of the mountain isn’t open on Mondays or Tuesdays, so-called “powder Wednesdays” might be deep. The climate patterns are totally different from Whitefish; you’ll by no means see a snow ghost, these rime-encrusted tree formations brought on by persistent fog protection. Skiers anticipate extra sunny days, and terrific vistas of the Mission and Cupboard Mountains, Flathead Lake, and Glacier Nationwide Park. Passholders at Blacktail are additionally vocal about how extremely they worth native possession.

“What I see happening at Big Mountain is offensive to me,” says Diane Edge, a Bigfork-based Blacktail skier who used to purchase a Whitefish cross, too. She doesn’t just like the crowds, and she or he’s nostalgic about uncommercialized snowboarding experiences. The Blacktail house owners, she believes, “give a damn … They don’t just own it; they love it.”

In 2002, Spencer and his three companions listed Blacktail on the market, however they didn’t obtain any gives. They’re not dashing to unload the property — simply prepared for retirement, someday quickly. They re-listed it in Might of this yr, asking $three.5 million for the turnkey operation, together with three chairlifts and a 17,000-square-foot base lodge.

Steve Spencer, founding father of Blacktail Mountain Ski Space. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Dwelling

Blacktail is unlikely to attraction to conglomerates, which usually purchase smaller ski areas solely once they are simply accessed by a serious metropolis. An outdoor purchaser might help native pursuits, like Foley has at Whitefish. As a result of Blacktail, together with its base space, is situated totally on Forest Service land, the federal company should approve the customer, and personal business and actual property developments won’t ever be permitted. The downhome character that Blacktail passholders love is safe. By means of a realtor, Spencer has fielded curiosity from potential consumers in China, Australia, England, Canada, New York, and the American West.

“The ideal buyer would not be an individual, but a consortium of individuals,” says Gordon Phillips, a Blacktail skier since day one, who additionally buys a Whitefish move.

Different passholders, like Invoice Metzler, have expressed curiosity in pooling assets to purchase the property. A lifelong Lakeside resident, Metzler skied on this mountain earlier than the resort was based, and he’s laid out in his will that his ashes be unfold up there. He respects community-based possession fashions which were profitable at Bridger Bowl, in Bozeman, and Purple Mountain, in inside British Columbia, lower than 5 hours from Kalispell. As a result of Bridger and Pink are famend for his or her difficult terrain, they’ve simply attracted skier help from close to and much. Metzler says he’d be in “total favor” of a grassroots choice, even when it includes some outdoors funding.

The historical past of Northwest Montana snowboarding exhibits that the immense problem of sustaining, or rising, an unbiased ski enterprise extends past luck or good snowfall and even enterprise savvy. A wholesome ski space takes care of its locals, no matter how a lot it depends upon tourism dollars. By working in a approach that displays native delight and keenness, Turner, Whitefish, and Blacktail proceed to obtain group help and funding.  This tight-knit, reciprocal spirit is preserving Northwest Montana ski areas alive, and thriving.

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