It was all smiles last week as Casper City Council members toured the new lodge at Hogadon Ski Area, a big-ticket item that generated controversy when its $5.3 million price tag was approved during tough economic times last spring.

But seeing the lodge — which will open for events by September — in person and hearing from Hogadon Superintendent Chris Smith won over at least one skeptic. As a candidate, Councilwoman Amanda Huckabay was asked last fall where she would cut the city’s budget if needed.

“I’m a needs-before-wants person,” she said. “My answer would be Hogadon.”

On the way down the mountain after the tour, Huckabay said she felt more comfortable with the city spending money on Hogadon knowing that part of its mission included bringing local school children up for special physical education classes.

“In the wintertime the ski school is really the heart and soul of the ski area,” Smith said.

Streamlined services

The new lodge includes a host of improvements that, though they may be taken for granted elsewhere, the old lodge sorely lacked. Most relevant for beginner skiers, including students, is a streamlined process for purchasing ski passes, lessons and paying for rentals — all in the same building and with more space to accommodate skiers, employees and rental gear.

That replaces the cumbersome process used up until now, in which tickets were purchased in the lodge and rentals had to be picked up a short and steep hike away in a second building.

Electric doors will lead from the rental shop and ski school straight onto a patch of snow that will be arranged for beginner skiers to get comfortable before descending to the magic carpet lift or going down the mountain.

An expanded space for concessionaire Mountain Sports will double or triple the number of skis and snowboards that can be rented, Smith said.

A longtime supporter of the new lodge construction, Councilman Charlie Powell said that would improve a current frustration for ski area patrons: inadequate equipment supply.

“If four people come up with a size 13 shoe, the fourth one can’t ski,” he said.

The lodge was constructed with an eye toward function and on something of a shoestring budget. Powell said that $5 million is a lot of money but noted that schools and other public buildings often costs tens of millions.

The structure also features an elevator that makes the building compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, administrative offices — a first for Hogadon — and an expanded number of toilets in response to a common complaint from visitors, Smith said.

Flashier is the main dining room on the top floor of the lodge, with a large serving area and a bank of floor-to-ceiling windows that offers views of the ski area and Casper.

The space can hold up to 200 people in winter and 150 in a configuration meant for summer events. Two weddings are already booked for September. Smith said that up to 250 guests might be accommodated if the bar and outside decks are used.

The bar, with indoor and outdoor seating, is attached to the dining area and features its own impressive views down the mountain.

“The view of the city lights is amazing,” said lodge steering committee member Bob Kidd. “It’s going to be a spectacular night venue.”

Summer events planned

While city-owned Hogadon employs 16 people in the winter, Smith is currently the only summertime employee. But he said a past career has prepared him for overseeing event bookings and other year-round uses for the new lodge.

“My wife and I owned a florist shop for 20-some years,” Smith said. “Working with events and brides is nothing new to me.”

Whether the lodge is open to the public during summer months depends on whether the food vendor, yet to be selected through a bidding process, chooses to operate the kitchen year-round or not.

But part of the goal with the new building is to attract visitors every month of the year.

“We wanted it to be a year-round facility,” Smith said. “We really focused on not just being a ski area but really being a concession.”

As an example, Smith touted 2.5 completed miles of a planned 5-mile mountain biking course — also fit for hikers — that starts near the lodge and is intended for local use as well as to draw high school and other competitive teams north from Colorado.

As for the price skiers will pay? Smith offered a bit of hopeful news for anyone anxious of murmurs at City Council meetings that season pass prices were likely to jump significantly to pay for the new lodge.

“We still have a small market, and we just cannot raise them very much,” he said. “It would not increase more than probably $50.”

The building features a few other neat touches, including heated outdoor stairs that will prevent the need for morning shoveling in the winter and a concrete elevator shaft pressed to look like wood.

The old lodge was deemed structurally unsound, and after the public was barred from entering a portion of it two years ago, the capacity dropped to about 75 people. Now that structure is going to be demolished in the coming weeks and the new lodge will reign supreme at Hogadon.

“It’s very exciting,” Smith said. “It’s a very stunning, beautiful building in a great location.”