The Antelope Butte Foundation has been working to reopen Sheridan’s nearest ski area since 2011 and has yet to disturb dirt, having many residents wondering, why does the process take so long?
Paul Birkholz, vice president of the board of directors, said the main reason for the slow going is that the group is attempting to reopen in a sustainable way.
“Could we maybe have gone up there, got a lift running, got a porta potty? Sure, but how long is that going to last?” he said. “So from a timing stand point it takes a little bit longer to get there, but when it is there it’s sustainable and it stays around for future generations not just a couple years.”
So what exactly does a sustainable model look like, what are the steps to getting there and where in the process is the group?
Let’s start at the beginning.
The foundation was formed as a volunteer effort to reopen the Antelope Butte Ski and Recreation Area located in the Bighorn Mountains 60 miles west of Sheridan.
The area defaulted to government ownership after closing in 2003, and with quite a bit of neglect (and expense) piling up on the mountain, the treasured recreational facility was facing the possibility of demolition.
In February 2011, now ABF board President Mark Weitz sent a letter to the U.S. Forest Service asking them not to tear down the ski area, but rather give them six months to figure out a plan.
“So it really came out of either the wrecking ball or some model, and the model we chose was the nonprofit because none of us have the funds to open it and as we say, no white knight was coming in to rescue it,” board member Josh Law said.
Many people ask what a nonprofit ski area looks like and the board members say it’s simple: it looks like a ski resort.
“Whether it is a for-profit corporation or a nonprofit corporation the ski areas still run the same,” Birkholz said. “I think people hear nonprofit and they think, oh it’s going to operate different. No, it’s going to still operate the same we’re just not paying a shareholder.”
“Or they say it’s a nonprofit, it’s not allowed to make money, it’s going to operate at a loss,” Weitz added. “Well, in our situation that’s really not true. It’s break even, but nobody is going to want to pour the however many millions into it upfront to make $10-20,000 a year, and with some risk.”
Weitz added that the other benefits of functioning as a nonprofit are reduced executive expenses thanks to the volunteer efforts of the board, not paying taxes and also being able to receive donations.
And they’re not the only ones doing it this way.
Fifty-year-old ski resort Mt. Ashland in Oregon has been operated as a nonprofit for 20 years with tremendous success.
With a similar mission to ABF, Mt. Ashland provides youth programs including after-school activities and winter science courses.
The principal mission of the ABF is to provide affordable, accessible skiing, mountain recreation and related training and education for all, especially youth and beginners.
While Ashland may be one of the oldest nonprofit ski areas around, it is by no means one of the only. Small community ski resorts across the nation that are not already operated as nonprofits seem to be transitioning that direction.
Sleeping Giant Ski Area near Cody reopened as a nonprofit in 2009 after a five-year closure, creating a reopening plan ABF was able to model.
“The model we have worked out is really a break-even operation,” Law said. “We want the ski area to not have to continually ask the community for more funds, but we also aren’t looking to create a lot of excess money to any degree.”
But for now, that is exactly what the board needs to do: seek funding from the community.
Weitz said though he has heard it said that the group is in perpetual fundraising mode, their true campaign has yet to begin.
“From my perspective, the first year we spent figuring out what the next step was; we figured out the steps and process to make this happen,” Law said. “It’s hard to raise any money if you don’t know how much it’s going to cost.
“Any fundraising that has been done to date has just been for us to be able to put a project together, not a capital campaign, which is coming next,” he added. “Once we get a purchase agreement in place, then we feel like we can come before the community and say ‘here is the project.’”
In January of this year, the foundation ordered an appraisal of the ski area, a required step in being able to purchase it from the U.S. Forest Service.
Fast-forward to today — the appraisal has still not been delivered.
“When we finally get this appraisal done, and then hopefully negotiate a purchase sale agreement, that will have taken three years and I will have called that the discovery and project phase,” Weitz said. “Just getting the whole thing into something that you can put in front of someone to show them what it is, what the cost, the process, etc.”
Phase two? Capital campaign.
The group has determined they need just over $3 million, including approximately $1,787,000 for refurbishment, $1,155,000 for equipment and a small bank of operational capital.
They acknowledge, as well, the many assets they already have in place including a National Ski Area Association membership, and a whole lot of people.
From specialized legal counsel in ski area development to ski instructors, ski patrol, committed volunteers and “inspired, enthusiastic citizens in surrounding communities, across Wyoming, and throughout the nation” the group knows a lot of people are ready and eager to roll.
Current plans call for reliance on a network of ski resorts across the nation facing similar circumstances to pool best practices as well as resources.
“The whole ski industry has changed. A number of community or what you might call ‘mom and pop’ operations are either struggling, or went out of business, or operating under the old business model found it harder to be sustainable because capital requirements have gone up; just the whole texture, the whole layout or ground of ski areas has changed,” Weitz said, adding that another big shift in the industry over the last 25-30 years has been the emergence of mega resorts.
“They are really more about selling real estate and having a village experience, a shopping experience and a fly-in destination experience than it is about learning how to ski,” he said. “And that’s put difficult pressure on the smaller ski areas because if you’re running as a mom and pop, you’re having to carry your own insurance, you’re having to handle your own marketing, you’re having to buy equipment.”
Weitz said the problem is comparable to one farmer trying to compete against a Monsanto type entity; so the solution is similar to what farmers have done as well: form a co-op.
“As Antelope Butte opens and as mountains go more and more this way, it’s going to create more buying power,” Law said. “Several mom and pops come together and purchase ski jackets together, for example. This increases buying power and decreases their marginal cost.”
And equipment is not the only thing that can be purchased in bulk.
The board said even for back office operations like not having to buy their own insurance, marketing and accountants, along with shared ski passes — where one pass gets you entry to multiple resorts — can all help keep small ski areas costs down and revenue up.
And though some people have expressed concern that the reopening could hurt nearby ski areas already in operation, the board of ABF says the opposite will happen.
A place to maintain a healthy lifestyle in the winter; a place for schools, youth and recreation groups to meet and learn; and keeping a treasured tradition alive are but a few of the benefits of reopening Antelope Butte, Weitz says.
Statistically speaking, he says, there are reciprocal benefits of having “competing” successful ski mountains nearby, and there are economic benefits to be seen in surrounding communities, on and off the mountain.
“There are skiers that just like to go to Vail for the weekend and then there are other skiers who like to road trip and go to these community ski areas and just groove on the vibe and hang out in the lodge and we’re meeting a lot of those people,” Weitz said.
“It truly is when the tide rises all boats rise,” Law added.
“The Midwest is the only region of the country that has a younger demographic for the sport that is growing,” Weitz said.
“And if you start driving west from the Midwest the first ski resort you run into is the one in the Black Hills or you run into Red Lodge and I see that midweek at Red Lodge; three quarters of the car tags there are North Dakota and Minnesota,” Birkholz added. “So Antelope Butte has an opportunity there to be a destination where we can start pulling in some of those people. With a small bit of advertising, they’ll keep coming west. And now they are not only spending money at Antelope Butte, they’re spending money in Sheridan, they’re spending money in Greybull and they’re stimulating the economy.”
Law added that the group has done some research into the population that would use the ski area and there has been about a 17 percent growth in the last 17 years that the ski area has been closed. So ABF is looking at a larger population base than there used to be.
Weitz added that even with the population the town had previously, Antelope Butte was able to draw enough support for three ski shops in Sheridan.
“The Sports Lure in Buffalo still has a lot of skiing goods, because they have Meadowlark,” Birkholz added. “But I would bet Big Horn Mountain Sports would still be open in Sheridan if Antelope Butte didn’t close.”
But it isn’t just ski equipment sales that will rise. They are quick to add that hotels, restaurants and essentially everyone else will “rise with the tide” too.
“Millions of dollars of infusion into a community is what Antelope Butte represents,” Weitz said.
But in the meantime, it all starts with owning the land.
If a purchase sale agreement can be obtained soon, and if a capital campaign proves lucrative swiftly, and if improvements can be acquired from the Forest Service to begin renovations to the area next construction season and if furnishings, equipment and employees can be acquired quickly after that, the ski resort could be open for the 2015 ski season.
“Would we all love to have had lifts running three years ago? Absolutely,” Birkholz said.
“And had we only had to raise say $3,000 and we were serving chili out of a cold garage, maybe we could have done that, but we don’t see that as a sustainable footing to grow from,” Weitz added.
So for now, in the name of future generations of ski lovers, we wait.