Veteran skier Bob Crayton has nothing but praise for the $23 million in improvements that have been made to Bridger Bowl Ski Area in the past 15 years.
"I'm thrilled that the new management has a mountain focus," Crayton said last week as he donned his helmet after lunch in the Deer Park Chalet to venture onto the slopes. "I think every improvement has been great."
About 20 minutes northeast of Bozeman, Bridger Bowl has been able to funnel money into numerous improvements recently for one simple reason — it's a nonprofit ski area. There are no stockholders to please with ever-increasing returns. And as a nonprofit, the ski area gets a tax break.
A few other Northwest ski areas are in the same boat. Lookout Pass Ski and Recreation Area on the Idaho-Montana border and Bogus Basin north of Boise are examples.
"The more public ski areas are, the better they are doing," said Jerry Johnson, a professor and head of the political-science department at Montana State University who has studied ski areas for 20 years. "You have to wonder if the old business model is viable anymore."
Valuable to economy
A recent study by the University of Montana's Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research calculated that Bridger Bowl directly contributes about $12.4 million to the Montana economy. The figure is surpassed only by the two big dogs in Montana skiing — Big Sky Resort and Whitefish Mountain. All told, the study put ski areas' direct contribution to the state's economy at $48 million.
What's unusual, in this time of banks threatening foreclosure or foreclosing on resorts that have borrowed too much, is that Bridger Bowl has been able to expand without long-term loans.
"What money we make we put back into the ski area," said Doug Wales, Bridger Bowl's marketing director. "Our mission is to provide a quality experience for a good price."
That mission is aided by an active and growing community in the Gallatin Valley and Park County. Bozeman is a university town that recruits outdoor-oriented students. Snowfall has been good to excellent, and the mountain's terrain is praised. Last year the ski area set a record for skier/snowboarder visits at just less than 200,000.
"I really like it a lot," said Tana LeCavalier, a first-year MSU student from Colorado. "I'm still kind of a beginning skier, so I've been doing the easier runs, which are really nice."
Five years ago, Johnson, of MSU, took exception to one of Bridger Bowl's moves — the building of its Saddle Peak Lodge. He argued then, and still maintains, that the structure did nothing to improve the skiing experience. His criticism is tempered, though.
"By and large they've done a really good job managing the place," he said. "They've really improved the ski area, and Schlasman's Lift (installed two years ago) put them on the map nationally."
Improvements add up
The list of improvements to Bridger Bowl is long — construction of Powder Park lift, Snow Flake lift, Schlasman's and this year a new Bridger lift. Pierre's Knob lift was converted to a triple chair. The ski area also built the new Saddle Peak Lodge, refurbished the Jim Bridger Lodge and rebuilt the Deer Park Chalet. All told the ski area has invested $23 million in improvements over the past 15 years. In addition to the improvements, the ski area employs 316 seasonal workers.
"It's definitely been an exciting era for Bridger," Wales said.
The investment decisions are guided by a volunteer board of directors whom Wales described as "ski bums with job descriptions."
Dave Albro, who lived and skied at Sun Valley for many years, returned to Bridger Bowl last week for the first time in 12 years.
"I'm really impressed at how it's expanded," he said. "There's more terrain than what I remember. I think the new lift is a great idea. And everyone raves about Schlasman's."
Schlasman's claim to fame is that it accesses an area of expert terrain where only skiers carrying an avalanche beacon and shovel — and preferably skiing with a partner — are allowed to ride at no extra cost. It's like having an out-of-bounds area inside the ski area's boundary.
"Schlasman's has profoundly changed the area," Crayton agreed.
Some Bozeman residents thought Bridger Bowl had ignored part of its mission statement, though, when the ski area lowered the age for free skiing. Now, only children age 6 and younger ski free. The mountain's managers were accused of pursuing profit over encouraging entry into the sport. But Johnson said he compared Bridger Bowl with other similar ski areas, and the hill isn't out of step with its peers.
Nonprofits are decidedly in the minority when it comes to ski areas. Of the 330 members of the National Ski Areas Association, only 22 are nonprofits. Some, such as Winter Park in Colorado, are owned by cities and two are owned by colleges.
The hills were able to stay competitive because they generally have lower ticket prices. Surprisingly, last year was a great season for skier and snowboarder visits despite the lackluster economy.
Dave Byrd, of the NSAA, said there are several reasons why ski areas have done well in a down economy — good snow, low fuel prices, great deals offered by ski resorts and the fact that it's often a sport that families do together. Those who did ski generally spent less on food and beverages and stayed fewer nights, he said.
"It's interesting because the industry is really so dependent on how wealthy people feel," Johnson said. "Bridger can appeal to people who think it's affordable."
"I think we're pretty much unparalleled for the price," he said.