- Associated Press - Saturday, December 6, 2014

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Not long after the recession put the skids on skiing like an unwaxed board in heavy crud, Sun Valley, Brundage and Tamarack resorts are applying a fresh coat and hoping to slide into a smoother future.

All three are upgrading facilities and slopes in response to an improved economy and renewed excitement about skiing, snowboarding and other winter sports.

The resorts are hoping that with a little help from Mother Nature, they will boost their bottom line this season.

Signs are everywhere - at big and small ski areas, locally and nationally - that skiing is bouncing back.

Sun Valley is spending millions on its slopes and renovating its signature lodge.



Brundage is expanding its lodge and giving it a face-lift, as well as building a terrain park in its own style.

Tamarack is finally out of a financial fog and is investing in its ski operations.

And there are new faces in an industry that rarely sees newcomers.

Boise snowboarder, terrain park designer and entrepreneur Ryan Neptune has opened a new micro-resort at the Eagle Sports Complex after a short-but-successful launch last winter at Eagle Island State Park.

Just across the state line, a new resort is opening north of Logan, Utah. Cherry Peak hopes to cater to both adults and families with affordable lift tickets. It will offer three lifts for skiers and snowboarders, a three-lane tubing hill and an ice rink.

“The industry is doing well and it can afford to upgrade,” said Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Area Association. “It’s almost across the board. Whether it’s big resorts or mom and pop, everyone is doing pretty well right now.”

That might buck conventional wisdom of some who claim skiing is an ailing industry that’s chasing Baby Boomers to their graves.

Berry disagrees.

Skier visits, which is a head count each time a person buys a day pass (or season pass) and visits a ski area, were 56.5 million nationally last winter. That’s just under the 10-year average of 57 million, Berry said, despite a disastrous year in California.

That state saw a 30 percent drop in visits because of drought, and ski areas throughout the Northwest got a late start last winter. One ski area, Mt. Ashland in Southern Oregon, remained closed for the first time in its history from lack of snow.

National skier visits peaked at around 60 million in 2007-08 and reached that again in 2010-11, which coincided with good snow years despite a down economy.

Skier visits bottomed out at 51 million in the 2011-12 season, which was the lowest in more than a decade.

Berry said that with a snowy winter, this ski season could match or top the national records.

Alan Moore, president of Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area, said there’s a lot of “pent-up demand” in the Boise area, and Bogus could have a big season if there is actually some good winter weather.

Bogus Basin would like to replace its Morningstar Chairlift and expand its lodge within the next five years, he said.

But being a nonprofit, Bogus would probably do it differently than other ski areas.

“At some point in time, we’d have to ask the community to open up its wallet,” he said.

If Bogus had a big year, or several, and had excess revenues, it would reinvest that back into the mountain.

Idaho’s resorts have different motivations and reasons for spending money now, but they share a common enthusiasm for what lies ahead.

“There’s no doubt the industry is confident about the future,” Berry said.

BRUNDAGE

With its short lift lines and uncrowded slopes, you might think Brundage Mountain Resort near McCall has some growing room for skier visits, but that’s not how Brundage’s managers see it.

The resort is known for its quality snow, affordability, family-friendly atmosphere and uncrowded vibe. Brundage wants to preserve those things.

“People come here because they get the powder days, and it’s low-density skiing,” Brundage president Bob Looper said. “If that erodes, we will lose them.”

The resort plays to its strengths by renovating its existing lodge and improving it, while maintaining the traditional atmosphere.

Looper said a goal of its expansion is to create a well-rounded experience for visitors on the slopes and in the lodge, whether buying a lift ticket, renting equipment, or having a meal and drinks after skiing.

“We want to give them a complete ski experience,” he said.

Brundage is improving the slopes by adding the Deadwood Shred Park, which brings a terrain park back to the front side of the mountain beneath the Bluebird Chairlift.

Brundage is using the natural materials on the mountain, which is why it’s called Deadwood.

Brundage is also working on adding limited snowmaking. That might seem ironic, if not sacrilegious, for Brundage fans, but in recent years it had to delay its opening when the summit had plenty of snow, but the base was lacking.

“It would be nice to provide a little more certainty when we can open,” Looper said.

Brundage is also working on expanding its terrain by adding a lift, or lifts, to the adjacent Sargents Mountain area, which has long been part of its master development plan.

That’s still likely a few years out, but “we will pursue it diligently,” Looper said.

The new lifts would be the first major expansion of the terrain since 2007, when it added the Lakeview Chairlift, which opened up 150 acres of new terrain at the resort.

SUN VALLEY

Idaho’s biggest and most famous resort can’t rest on its reputation when competing with the biggest ski companies in the world, as well as entire ski towns (looking at you, Park City).

Even during the downturn, Sun Valley remained aggressive, adding or improving everything from halfpipes to golf courses.

This year, Sun Valley marketing director Jack Sibbach said he sees a renewed enthusiasm from skiers he visited with at trade shows.

“We see some optimism with the public,” he said. “Not just with us, but throughout the whole ski industry.”

Sun Valley gets about 26 percent of its visitors from Idaho, and Sibbach said they are valued customers.

But that means the resort has to attract nearly three out of four guests from out of state.

Sun Valley is getting direct flights from Seattle and San Francisco this year, and everyone who visits will see changes.

The resort is completely renovating its lodge, which won’t be completed until June and is unavailable this winter, although Sun Valley will still have plenty of places to stay.

There’s never a good time to do it,” Sibbach said.

Sibbach described it as a “rebirth” of the lodge. It will go from 148 rooms to 94 rooms, but rooms will be more luxurious.

On the slopes, Sun Valley has improved glade skiing on 25 acres of the mountain by thinning trees and removing dead ones. It’s designed to improve forest health, and also improve skiing.

While 25 acres may be a small fraction of the 2,000 on site, more acres will be thinned in the future under a long-term plan with the Forest Service.

One of Sun Valley’s biggest advantages over other resorts is it operates North America’s largest automated snowmaking system, which ensures its Thanksgiving opener and lets skiers carve turns when Mother Nature is stingy with natural snow.

Sun Valley replaced 47 snowguns with “state-of-the-art Rubis Evo snowguns” that create twice as much snow as the old devices, with less energy. And they are more productive at warmer temperatures.

The guns will operate on Lower River Run, Mid River Run, Roundhouse Slope, and Upper College, which are early season runs.

It’s the first phase of Sun Valley’s snowmaking replacement program.

Sun Valley will continue its expanded and improved terrain parks, which are among the best in the U.S.

Dollar Mountain features two high-speed quads, a tubing hill, a full-featured terrain park with 76 rails, and one of North America’s largest super-pipes.

TAMARACK

In Tamarack’s case, one reason it’s spending money is because it finally can.

The resort emerged from foreclosure earlier this year and now has a new company backing it, known as Newtrac.

The company is spending $2.6 million at the resort, including $1.2 million on the slopes, according to project manager David Papiez.

The resort is also expanding its operations to daily skiing when it opens on Dec. 13.

“It adds to our message that Tamarack is back,” said Wolfe Ashcraft, marketing and recreation manager.

Tamarack’s lifts ran four days a week and holidays since it reopened for skiing in 2010, when its homeowners association took over ski operations.

The association had a goal of breaking even while showing Tamarack remains a viable ski resort, which it succeeded in doing. But there was little or no money for capital improvements.

“From a purely operational standpoint, we need some upgrades,” Ashcraft said.

The resort is improving snowmaking, buying new ski rental equipment, replacing snowcats and snowmobiles for grooming, expanding its terrain park, and cutting brush on the slopes to improve skiing.

People will notice a difference, Ashcraft said.

“Everything is going to be a little shinier, nicer and newer,” he said.

Emerging from foreclosure coincides with an improved economy, which is timely for Tamarack.

The resort rode the wave of the early 2000s real estate boom like a surfer in a tube, only to have the wave close out and send the resort into a financial wipeout.

Meanwhile, Tamarack became an “under the radar” resort that’s now a favorite for Treasure Valley skiers.

“We know that Boise and the Treasure Valley is our primary market, and also McCall. We want to win over the locals,” Ashcraft said.

Momentum is gaining at Tamarack. Ashcraft said McCall’s summer traffic was the best it’s been in years, and Tamarack’s Osprey Meadows golf course had its best season ever.

Daily skier visits in recent years have been on par with the years preceding the real estate crash.

Equally important, Ashcraft said, is that fewer people wonder whether the resort will open from year to year, which makes marketing much easier.

“We don’t know what the future holds, but it’s a new chapter,” Ashcraft said.

GATEWAY PARKS

Ryan Neptune is taking skiing back to its roots with a modern twist.

This winter, he will operate four micro-resorts in three states and offer low-cost skiing, snowboarding and tubing.

He opened his latest park recently at the Eagle Sports Complex, and may reopen another at Eagle Island State Park.

Admission is $15, which includes a lift ticket, ski or snowboard rental, and lesson.

Neptune’s parks are simple: He makes snow with generators and portable snowguns, uses a snowcat to spread it around a slope, adds rope tows or surface lifts (aka magic carpets), adds jumps and rails, and encourages people to have fun.

His business model is also simple: make skiing, snowboarding and tubing affordable to families, and bring it to them.

“I’m honestly just trying to make an economical product. Everything else is too expensive in time and money,” he said. “I’m opening it up to a gigantic amount of people who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to do it.”

While people are sliding on snow by whatever means they choose, others are watching, relaxing and socializing.

Kids can ski or board after school and hang out with their friends. Parents can put a family of four on the slopes for roughly the price of an adult day pass at other Idaho ski areas.

They can also drive to one of Neptune’s parks within minutes from their homes in the Valley.

Neptune said he’s watched how people use his parks, and a small, intimate atmosphere works best.

“These kids are not clambering for more acreage,” he said.

Neptune said he’s not trying to make a mini-ski area, but replicate the experience of a skate park on snow.

He’s found it’s not only kids using his parks.

“Our entire business is based on that four- and five-person family showing up at our park,” he said.

Neptune said opening day at Eagle Island last January attracted 1,500 people.

Despite getting a late start last winter, he was satisfied with the season at Eagle Island and may reopen it this winter as a tubing hill and ski/snowboard slope for first-timers.

He’s not just grooming slopes - he’s grooming the next generation of skiers and boarders, and the National Ski Area Association’s Berry has taken notice.

“We love these places. They get kids excited,” he said. “And when 300 vertical feet doesn’t meet their needs, they head up to Bogus or up the road to McCall.”

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The original story can be found on the Idaho Statesman’s website: https://bit.ly/1vZOGXi

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Information from: Idaho Statesman, https://www.idahostatesman.com

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