The Teton Pass Ski Resort west of Choteau remains closed for a second consecutive ski season, but skiers in Choteau, two government agencies and a consulting firm are working to see whether there is a way to get the privately-owned downhill ski area open for the 2019-20 season.
The ski area remains listed for sale, but Mary Sexton, chairwoman of the Choteau Area Port Authority, says the efforts within the community can only benefit any potential new owner. “I see our effort as being somewhat independent now, but we will work in coordination with any buyer who may come along,” Sexton said.
Choteau real estate agent Jim Bouma with Clearwater Properties Montana last week said several potential buyers have looked at the ski area, one of whom he described as “very interested.”
That party is doing “due diligence” now to see whether the purchase might work. Bouma said the start-up costs associated with the ski area are significant and, in a low snow year like the area has seen so far this winter, all factors have to be considered.
But, he said, “I’m hopeful that somebody will do something by next spring and have it open next year.”
Sexton said there are three different “prongs” at work on the ski area problem: Bouma, who has the listing is trying to sell it; an advisory group of local people is working with the consulting firm on a feasibility study; and a third group, made up of other skiers is looking at ways of positioning the community to get the hill up and running or support a new owner.
Nick Wood of New Zealand, who co-owns the ski area with two other partners, closed the area in December of 2017, saying the resort did not make money, and he and his partners, after suffering other financial setbacks, could not afford to open it for the 2017-18 season. He said the facility’s electrical generator failed in the 2016-17 season and would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace.
Wood listed the ski area for sale, originally asking $3 million for the resort, operated on a 402-acre lease on the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest, about 25 miles west of Choteau. The resort includes two lifts, a lodge with a restaurant and liquor license, a ski gear rental shop and several outbuildings. As of this fall, Wood had dropped his asking price to $375,000.
The ski area’s closure meant the loss of several fulltime and part-time jobs for management, marketing, lift operation, maintenance, restaurant and bar workers, rental shop and ski instructor employees and ski patrol.
It also means that there is no one with emergency equipment nearby to help injured downhill or cross-country skiers, snow-shoers or snowmobilers in the backcountry.
The Choteau Area Port Authority (CAPA), a city-appointed board that works to promote economic development, sponsored meetings in Choteau last winter to gather people interested in getting the ski area open again. Those meetings dovetailed with a community assessment done by the Montana Economic Developers Association through an agreement with the Montana Department of Commerce.
Through the MEDA assessment, a core group of skiing enthusiasts signed up to form the advisory group that has worked with the Port Authority and the Montana Cooperative Development Center in Great Falls to apply for a $66,000 federal grant to fund a comprehensive feasibility study of the ski area.
The CAPA raised about $3,000 in donations to provide a match for the federal grant, which was approved last year. The advisory group interviewed three different consulting firms and in October the MCDC hired SE Group with offices in Burlington, Vermont, Frisco, Colorado, and Salt Lake City, Utah, to do the study, which started with on-site visits late last fall.
Sexton said the consulting firm will have preliminary information to report at community meetings in March and should have completed the report by sometime in May.
“They are very, very professional. I’m impressed,” Sexton said of SE Group.
She said one of the two observations that the consultants made after site visits was that Teton Pass has a couple of big challenges: there’s no electrical power at the ski resort and the ski area has to plow the access road — two expensive factors that many other ski areas do not have.
SE Group has 60 years of experience helping public and private sector clients — many of them ski areas — set strategy, navigate permitting and complete planning and design for outdoor recreation activities.
The company provides ski area/mountain resort planning and design, community design, environmental and land-use permitting, landscape architecture and recreation planning.
Claire Humber, the SE Group director of resort planning and design, said in an interview in early December that Teton Pass is not the smallest ski area the company has ever worked with. In 2012, she said, the company worked with Parks Canada, which owns the Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba, where there was a small ski area adjacent to a community with a population of just 800 people.
SE Group works with the Vails of the world and also with the Teton Passes, she said, providing services to privately and publically owned ski areas, for-profits, non-profits, cooperatives and more. She said she particularly enjoys projects at small ski areas. “It’s such a passion for the community that surrounds it, such an integral part,” she said. “The value of the place is held very near and dear to parts of the community.”
Humber said the study will cover the physical location of the ski area, what its capacity and guest services are; what four-season recreation options exist; what its past revenues and expenses have been; what its market potential is; and what kinds of management models might be best suited for it. This information will be viewed in the context of case studies of other similarly situated ski areas.
SE Group will partner with RRC Associates to do the in-depth marketing study. “The market assessment is really thinking about how Teton Pass exists within the context of the industry and in the context of the mountain industry and tourism,” Humber said.
Humber said the final report will provide the community with good examples of what could happen here and with contacts at other ski areas.
The consultant said Teton Pass is not the only ski area in financial straits. Skier visits in North America are not declining but are stagnant at 55 million to 60 million a year — something that concerns the National Ski Areas Association. One recent study showed that while Baby Boomers will ski on average 10 times a year, the much younger Millennials (born from 1981 to 1996) will only ski five times a year, she said.
“There are a lot of headwinds in the industry and that’s certainly one of them: how do we keep people interested and passionate about the skiing industry,” she said.
Humber said she also expects the study to look at whether there is federal grant funding that could be used to pay for Sun River Electric Cooperative to extend power lines to the ski area.
USFS Rocky Mountain District Ranger Mike Munoz says the Forest Service would be happy to work with the ski area to see power lines (buried) extended to the area, and now would be a good time to look at that since the Forest Service has a major road maintenance project on the ski area road planned for 2020.
Munoz said the USFS wants to see the ski area opened again. When he was interviewed on Nov. 28, the ranger said he was planning to send Wood a certified letter, notifying him that he is in violation of his permit, which requires the ski area to be operational at least 36 days each season.
Munoz said the Forest Service is not starting the process for removing the ski area, but he has to notify Wood that unless the ski area becomes operational or is sold to a new buyer who will operate it, the USFS will have to follow a procedure for either removing the resort or transferring the amenities to federal ownership.
Wood is paying $2 an acre on the 402-year lease for the nonoperational ski area, which is at the beginning of a new 20-year lease. Future leases, Munoz said, will be for 40 years under new federal regulations.
Choteau-area farmer Doug Weist, who operates an ag technology company and is a keen skier, is the informal leader of the third “prong” working on ski area concerns. People attending this working group include several avid local skiers and a few former ski area employees, Weist said.
Weist said the “working group” doesn’t have a name yet, but has met several times and is looking at forming a nonprofit that could help the ski area operators by raising funding for plowing the road, for example.
Weist said the small group welcomes new members and wants to be informed about different operating models and to be prepared to help in any way to get the ski area open if no buyer has materialized by late summer.