Western Pennsylvania ski areas hope for repeat of last winter’s snowy weather
The thermometer in Jim Shultz’s truck dropped to 28 degrees as he drove home from the Steelers game Sunday night.
Cold enough to make snow, he thought.
Weather governs when Allegheny County’s Boyce Park ski hill opens, which it’s not expected to do until early December. Shultz, who will command the park’s arsenal of snow guns for a second year, could start making snow any cold day now.
“We’re ready to push the button,” Shultz said. “This time of year, I’m always looking at the forecast.”
Last season ranked as one of the best for Pennsylvania’s 21 ski areas, said Linda Irvin, president of the Pennsylvania Ski Area Association. More than 3.4 million people visited ski areas, just missing high-water marks set during the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons.
“We think everyone is looking forward to another strong season,” Irvin said. “We’ll see what happens. Unfortunately, Mother Nature is in charge.”
Meteorologists differ in their forecasts for this winter in Western Pennsylvania. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted the region would return to normal: a few cold snaps, a few snowstorms.
AccuWeather, however, has said to expect a second year of heavy snowfalls and frigid temperatures.
Last season, nearly 35,000 people visited Boyce Park, up from 11,000 the season before and 3,800 two seasons ago. The ski area lost less than $200,000, an improvement over past years, when it drained county fund as much as $400,000 to $500,000.
Increased prices for lift tickets, rentals and lessons could pump an additional $200,000 into the hill, pushing Boyce Park toward the break-even point, county officials have said.
Season passes went on sale Monday. This is the first year the hill has offered a true season pass. In past years, skiers or snowboarders could buy a $40 or $60 pass that gave them a more than 50 percent discount on lift tickets throughout the season. This year’s season pass — $200 for children and $250 for adults, both with a $25 discount before Dec. 1 — allows unlimited use with no additional fees.
“We kept getting feedback from skiers and snowboarders that they didn’t like that,” parks spokesman Kevin Evanto said of the old season passes. “They would have to go to the lodge. They would have to pay each time. Now, if you have your own equipment, you don’t even have to go to the lodge.”
Before the start of last season, the county hired Shultz — whose ski area maintenance company, Mountain Works, is based in Ligonier — for $702,000 through September 2016 to handle snow-making, maintenance and grooming. Broken chair lifts and lack of snow had led to short seasons and threatened the future of the ski hill.
During the offseason this year, the county spent $12,800 to add more lights on the slopes and $2,500 on a pump to increase the amount of water Shultz can shoot through snow guns to make snow even when the temperature is above freezing. The county doubled the size of the terrain park and expected to spend $9,000 on more skis, snowboards, boots and snow tubes to rent.
Last season, the county ran out of equipment on busy days and turned away customers, Shultz said.
“The 2013-14 ski season was the most successful ever at Boyce Park, and we’ve made a number of improvements to ensure the 2014-15 season is even bigger and better,” county Executive Rich Fitzgerald said in a statement Monday.
Shultz said some attribute last season’s success to luck and believe he won’t be able to repeat the success.
Bring on an average winter, Shultz said.
“It will give us a chance to prove it,” he said.
Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7986.