Subscribe for 17¢ / day

LARAMIE, Wyo. — The Snowy Range Ski Area may not open up next year unless a buyer is found, and a number of concerned citizens are hoping that it will stay open and remain a community asset.

To that end, they're hoping a local group can be organized to purchase the ski area, keep it running, and even expand the business.

"I think the ski area is very important to this community," longtime skier Frosty Kepler said. "I'd like to save it for the community somehow."

Dan Furphy, president of First National Bank of Wyoming, which assumed operation of the ski area last season when a buyer couldn't be found, said the bank needs to get out of the business of running a ski area. Any time a bank maintains possession of an asset that's outside the banking industry, bank regulators are concerned, he said.

"They push for you to liquidate it. They're not putting direct pressure on us yet, but it's coming," he said.

The ski area, which opened in 1959, is being offered for $2.5 million, and Furphy said a serious offer would probably include at least $1 million up front. The bank has had offers that it's turned down, he said.

"We're a community bank, and this needs to be a community ski area," he said. "That's why it's important that we raise this capital locally."

The ski area employs about 100 people each season, and its loss would be felt in the community, Gaye Stockman, president of the Laramie Economic Development Corporation, said.

"It would be significant," she said. "It still brings in new dollars from the outside. We may see businesses close, especially in the winter, if we don't have something to help them out."

There were about 27,000 skier visits last year, when the ski area opened in mid-December. Over three years it has averaged about 30,000 skier visits, and increasing that number would substantially increase cash flow without a big increase in expenses, said general manager Jerry Thuente, who has worked at the ski area for more than 20 years.

He said that before the lodge burned down in 2003, skier visits had reached 45,000 per season.

The lodge was rebuilt in time for the following season, but skier visits dropped. Longtime owners Rick and Terri Colling were underinsured, and the ski area has struggled financially since that time.

"It was national news when the lodge burned down. It was not national news when we reopened," Thuente said.

The area includes more than 250 acres of skiable terrain, 27 named trails, four aerial lifts and one surface lift on about 460 acres of the Medicine Bow National Forest. It also includes a 32,000-square-foot lodge and snowmaking capabilities for 22 acres of trails.

Advertising, handled through the Albany County Tourism Board, is targeted at skiers in Laramie, Cheyenne, Rawlins, western Nebraska and northern Colorado. For those who live in Loveland, Colo., and Fort Collins, Colo., Snowy Range is the closest ski area and doesn't involved a traffic-heavy drive down Interstate 70, tourism board assistant director Kate Farmer said.

"We're really going regional and pushing for families," she said.

The ski area holds a special-use permit from the U.S. Forest Service, though buyers would need to apply for a new permit, Laramie District Ranger Larry Sandoval said. The permit process includes a review of the technical capability and financial status of the operation. Sandoval said he hoped the ski area could remain open.

Other ski areas around the country have raised the funds to stay open through a variety of means. In Vermont, a ski area named Magic Mountain is selling 1,000 shares for $3,000, with funds to be used for improvements and operating costs.

Closer to home, Sleeping Giant Ski Area near Cody is opening this season after closing in 2004. The area was purchased in 2008 and donated to the nonprofit Yellowstone Recreations Foundation. The reopening took two years and included $3.6 million in renovations. That amount included $900,000 in donations, $50,000 from Park County and $500,000 from the Wyoming Business Council.

Kepler said a similar grant for the Snowy Range Ski Area isn't outside the realm of possibility with a solid business plan.

At the same time, Snowy Range, which opened for the 2009-10 season on Nov. 28, is fully operational right now, with management and equipment in place.

"Next year, it's not going to be there unless somebody steps up to the plate," Thuente said.