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Sale of Wyoming ski area in Bighorn Mountains nears

Sale of Wyoming ski area in Bighorn Mountains nears

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A small ski area atop Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains is poised to be turned over to a nonprofit foundation within the next couple of weeks.

Paperwork to finalize the sale of the Antelope Butte Ski Area by the Bighorn National Forest is working its way through the Forest Service right now. Once the new deed is written, the $275,000 being held in escrow will be transferred to the Forest Service and the Antelope Butte Foundation will be the proud owners of all the infrastructure — two ski lifts, a lodge that hasn’t been used in 12 years, maintenance buildings and ski shacks.

The land the ski area sits on will continue to be owned by the forest. The foundation will lease the 250 acres the ski area sits on.

Work to do

“We’re looking at fully opening by December 2017,” said Andrew Gast, CEO of the foundation that is based in Sheridan, Wyo.

During the summer of 2017 the ski area could be partially open to the public, he added, provided that the first order of business — fixing up the lodge — is far enough along. The summer of 2017 will also be the time to make the ski lifts operational once again.

“The actual amount of work we have to do is pretty considerable,” Gast said.

That includes, in part, finalizing the operating permit with the Forest Service and raising money to fund the restoration work.

The fundraising target is $3.3 million. So far the nonprofit has raised $675,000. But Gast is hopeful that having the deed in hand will allow larger investors to finally feel comfortable enough to contribute.

“Sheridan and northeastern Wyoming has a good history of philanthropy,” Gast said. “Our first challenge was owning it. For a lot of people who could give us money, that was a big concern.”

Professional help

The foundation has been receiving advice from the Mountain Rider’s Alliance, a group created to provide a “mountain experience that benefits the environment, community and riders.” Part of what the foundation stresses is greater energy independence through solar, wind or hydropower as well as creating year-round destinations by providing mountain biking, wedding facilities, summertime lift rides or other activities.

“It used to be skiing was centerpiece and the base lodge was the amenity. Now it’s reversed,” MRA co-founder Jamie Schectman told Outside magazine in a 2013 story.

Sleeping Giant Ski Area, west of Cody, Wyo., is a small nonprofit taking that advice to heart. This summer the ski hill along Highway 14-16 into Yellowstone National Park will be opening its new zipline. The line is set to thrill riders beginning on June 15 and will be in operation through Sept. 15.

Last year in that time frame, about 361,000 visitors passed the ski area on their way to Yellowstone.

Human factor

The MRA also provided Schectman’s expertise to the Antelope Butte Foundation. He was the foundation’s first employee, working as the interim executive director for seven months until last September.

“He provided us with real specific information about what we needed to do,” Gast said.

Schectman said he has faith in the project and was impressed by the community support on both sides of the Bighorn Mountains.

“I believe in their ground-up approach of getting the community involved,” he said.

Once people donate to the project, they will also become customers to see the fruits of their donation, he said.

Summer fun

Year-round recreation at the ski hill will be key to keeping it financially viable, Gast and Schectman agreed.

“350,000 people drive by each summer,” Gast said. “It has the potential to be three times as big as the winter.”

Schectman sees Highway 14 as a natural route to funnel travelers motoring between Yellowstone National Park to the west and the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore to the east.

“Whether you believe in climate change or not, it’s clear that to be successful you need to be insuring against fickle winter weather,” Schectman said.

Having a summer resort can help clear that hurdle, he added. Big resorts have already taken the plunge. The challenge for smaller places is being able to raise enough capital to invest in the additional season of operation.

Newer group

To help in that respect, the Mountain Rider’s Alliance has formed a consortium of small ski areas to help create buying power to lower the costs of products through collective purchasing. The consortium can also provide some management expertise to smaller hills, Gast said.

“The National Ski Area Association represents all ski areas, but their conferences are held in the middle of winter when small ski managers are working,” Gast said.

The consortium could provide similar conferences at a time more convenient for small operators, he said. MRA has already scheduled one in June at Red Lodge.

Future challenges

So Gast is optimistic about the future of Antelope Butte Ski Area.

“It was operating for 40 years and was marginally profitable with 10,000 to 12,000 skiers on average in the winter,” he said.

With the base facility at an elevation of 8,400 feet and the top of the mountain stretching to 9,400 feet, even in dry winters like this one Antelope Butte is covered with snow. Snow making, which many ski areas are acquiring to help through dry spells, would be an expensive investment requiring a water source and pond atop the mountain, not to mention more electricity in the grid to help power the snow makers.

Since Antelope Butte is at the end of the power line, though, that may require the ski hill to develop an alternative source such as solar to fuel any expansion of the mountain’s energy requirements. For now, though, considering that step is quite a way off into the future.

“Sheridan and northeastern Wyoming has a good history of philanthropy. Our first challenge was owning it. For a lot of people who could give us money, that was a big concern.”

— Andrew Gast

CEO, Antelope Butte Foundation

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