SHERIDAN — With the mercury pushing 80 degrees Monday, it’s a good day for carving watermelon by the poolside. But area skiers are dreaming of a different sort of carving that involves newly sharpened skis slicing through fresh snow on a crisp winter day — particularly if that day is spent on 250 acres 60 miles west of Sheridan in the Bighorn Mountains.
Yes, it’s a specific dream, and according to board members of the Antelope Butte Foundation, it’s a dream that is inching closer to reality.
The Antelope Butte Foundation has been striving to restore and re-open Antelope Butte Ski Area, which closed in 2003, for nearly two years. The board originally hoped to open for the 2013-2014 season, but it has come to terms with the fact that such a big project — which includes refurbishing the lodge and lifts — will take time to do it right.
“Basically, we’re the tortoise and we’re here to win the race,” board member Josh Law said, referring to Aesop’s fable about a turtle who wins a race against an overconfident rabbit by staying the course while the rabbit takes a nap along the way, sure that he can win.
Fifty years ago, when Wyoming-based Fun Valley Inc. was trying to open Antelope Butte, it took close to seven years to get the ski area up and running, board President Mark Weitz said. Board members and supporters are hoping it won’t take that long this time around and are fairly confident they’ll be building during the summer 2014 construction season to have Antelope Butte open later that year.
The Antelope Butte Foundation chose to operate as a nonprofit organization so it could receive donations from area supporters and put its profits back into operations, said board Vice President Paul Birkholz, who grew up skiing at Antelope Butte.
When the foundation started in summer 2011, it raised $160,000 to apply for a special use permit from the U.S. Forest Service, which owns the land. The money was needed to prove to the USFS that there was enough support to make re-opening the ski area a viable option.
The foundation submitted the permit application in February 2012. It originally thought it would begin fundraising and building that year but realized a lot more grunt work had to be done.
Bighorn National Forest Natural Resource Specialist Travis Fack said the foundation needs to raise funds and submit a business plan to the Albuquerque Business Center for a technical financial review.
If approved, improvements will need to be purchased, permits processed and health and safety requirements met before the ski area can open.
Relationships with the federal government, the state also needed to be established.
The lifts had to be inspected by a licensed tramway inspector.
The lodge was evaluated and found to have mold, so it will need to be stripped and re-insulated.
The Wyoming Business Council requested that financial projections be reviewed by a third party. It was found that 10,000 skier days at $40 per ticket would be enough to break even.
But before the lifts can run and the lodge can house those 10,000 skiers, the foundation needs to raise approximately $3 million — $1.5 million to refurbish the lodge and shop, $275,000 to bring the lifts up to code, $1.15 million for snow groomers, equipment and a new magic carpet beginner ski lift and $15,000 for indemnification bonds and operational capital.
At this point, that is where the Antelope Butte Foundation is standing.
“We’ve done lots of homework and now we have a project in good shape,” Birkholz said. “We’ve got a project that we’re taking to the streets.”
The foundation will interact with the public at Third Thursday events this summer and will focus on one-on-one conversations with any and all who are interested in supporting Antelope Butte.
“Like many of us in the area, I grew up skiing and snowboarding at Antelope Butte,” supporter David Garwood said. “I feel Antelope Butte is unique because it offers good terrain with a setting that is perfect for the family. I am very motivated to see this go back up.”
Garwood put his 2-year-old on a snowboard last season. His 9-year-old daughter Isabella has been boarding for three years and can’t wait for Antelope Butte to open.
“Because it’s closer, we can go up there faster and have more time to snowboard,” Isabella Garwood said.
It is for young skiers and snowboarders like Garwood that the Antelope Butte Foundation is striving so hard, board members said. Many of them learned to ski at Antelope Butte and want to pass on the same legacy to their children.
“It’s multi-generational recreation. You spend the whole day together. You drive together, eat together, ride the lifts together and ski together,” Law said.
Additionally, the board sees Antelope Butte contributing to tourism and job creation in the area — all year long.
“May through September is our cash cow and what we thrive on as a community,” board member Anthony Tarver said. “We want to bring that into the winter season.”
According to Tarver, when both ski areas in the Bighorns — Meadowlark and Antelope Butte — were open, there were three ski shops in town, in addition to the economic boost from food and lodging purchases. According to Weitz, both ski areas did better when both were open since skiers tend to “share the love,” so to speak by visiting several hills in their area.
Likewise, Weitz said, a law passed in 2011 allows winter special use permits to operate in the summer, too.
The Antelope Butte Foundation envisions year-round activity at the ski area with scenic lift rides, biking and hiking trails, music festivals and wedding or group rentals filling the “off-season” months.
“There is unlimited potential,” Birkholz said.
For more information about the Antelope Butte Foundation and Ski Area, visit www.antelopebuttefoundation.org.