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White Pine to be closed this winter

Posted: Thursday, Sep 15th, 2011

In a statement released Tuesday, the Citizens to Save White Pine announced the White Pine Ski Resort would not open for the 2011-12 winter season.

The closure will have significant effects on the Sublette County alpine ski team, which has used the resort for practices for years. Pinedale High School Activities Director Jeff Makelky is unsure of what the team will do for practices, but there remains the possibility it will have to travel to Jackson resorts on a regular basis.

The Nordic ski team should be minimally affected as the cross-country ski course at Kelly Park is maintained by the County through the Recreation Board.

After the Sublette County Board of Commissioners decided to turn down the option to purchase the resort at their meeting Aug. 2, some members of Citizens acknowledged closing for the season was a real possibility. For weeks, the group of local business people tried to find ways to ensure the ski area would open, even returning to the commissioners, who had committed to helping the resort in any way possible, short of purchasing it.

On Aug. 16, Citizens suggested the commissioners consider having the County fund grooming for the ski hill through the County Recreation Board or purchasing a groomer to lease back to the resort. Again, the commissioners turned the group down, citing a hesitance to compete with a private contractor, as well as that of investing taxpayer dollars in a private enterprise.

The only tangible aid offered to Citizens at the Aug. 16 meeting included having the Sublette County Road and Bridge Department plow the driveway from Skyline Drive into the ski area, as the department has assumed responsibility for plowing Skyline Drive itself. Commissioner John Linn also suggested Road and Bridge could use its equipment to transform the ski jump on the far left of the hill into a tubing hill for families.

In the end, this offer of assistance proved to be insufficient incentive for the owners to keep the resort open through this winter, and the group made the final decision not to open this past Monday.

Citizens’ release stated operations will be shut down Oct. 1. Operations this summer have included cabin rentals and small group rentals. This limited use was, albeit indirectly, part of the reason the commissioners turned down the opportunity to invest in the area.

Both Commission Chairman Joel Bousman and Commissioner Andy Nelson said, with proper investment in profitable summertime activities, the owners could make up for wintertime losses, and the business could sustain itself without County participation.

The members of Citizens have, on more than one occasion, said they had no intention of being long-term ski resort owners or operators. Their purchase of White Pine last fall was an effort to keep the area open through last season as a service to the community.

Citizens member Bonnie Chambers emphasized the short-term aspect of buying the resort.

“We purchased it as the best means to keeping the ski hill open for the 2010-11 season,” she said. “We were really only interested in the ski hill staying open.”

This, they achieved, and, with the above average snow fall last winter, they said they had a well-attended season. The group sold 516 ski passes and 5,965 lift tickets during the season, with nearly 90 percent of the patrons being Sublette County residents.

Chambers said the resort is not a destination resort but more of a community asset. This argument was much of the basis for the discussions with the County on investing in or purchasing the entity.

These discussions have been in the works since 2010, Chambers said.

“In good faith, we presented a ‘cleaned up’ resort for purchase, and we naively thought the County would purchase it for the benefit of the residents,” she said.

When it became clear that wouldn’t happen, the group struggled to come up with other options, including running the resort through a nonprofit and looking for another private buyer, but time was running out, and setting up a nonprofit and finding a buyer take significant amounts of time, Chambers said.

Citizens plans to shut off the utilities on Oct. 1, but Chambers said that does not rule out an 11th hour miracle.

“Anything is possible,” she said. “Last season, we opened eight weeks after the purchase, which was no small feat … The challenges are those of funding.”

Four of the five local owners are business owners, including Chambers and her husband, who run Chambers Design-Build, Inc., and Rex Poulson and his wife, who own the Great Outdoor Shop.

“As owners of other businesses, none of us can make the same time commitment and sacrifices we did last year,” Chambers said.

The last time White Pine Ski Resort closed for a year, it remained closed for 10 years. Chambers said Citizens will work through the winter to find a way make sure that doesn’t happen again, but she admits it will take “a large feat.”

For the complete article see the 09-16-2011 issue.

Click here to purchase an electronic version of the 09-16-2011 paper.

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