Laurel Mountain supporters hopeful but cautious of ski resort’s reopening
Marge Curley wants to believe.
She desperately wants to believe that Laurel Mountain Ski Resort will rise again, returning to its former glory when skiers visited in droves — as many as 30,000 a year in the 1960s — drawn by the mountain’s long, snaking runs and cheap lift tickets.
But Curley, 76, has witnessed decades of frustrating starts, stops and taxpayers’ money spent trying to restore the resort that closed from 1989 to 1999, then reopened and closed three more times between 1999 and 2005, a victim of mild winters and lingering financial difficulties.
A plan by state officials to infuse $5.2 million in public dollars to reopen the 500-acre ski area for the 2015-16 season has Curley hopeful but cautious: “I have to see it to believe it.”
Beyond the issue of whether the resort will reopen, an expert questions whether public money should fund a privately run enterprise.
“This is a shaky investment for taxpayers,” said Bob Dick, an analyst with the Commonwealth Foundation, a Harrisburg public policy group.
Dick questioned the wisdom of spending state money so the resort can compete against the company under contract to operate it through 2018 — the company that owns the larger, more established Seven Springs and Hidden Valley resorts, both slightly more than half an hour from Laurel Mountain.
He said studies have shown that “these sorts of tools are not effective for increasing employment growth.”
“The best option to pursue would be to allow private financing to come in and see if they can make it work,” Dick said. Taxpayers “have their own bills to pay, and they shouldn’t be subsidizing other businesses.”
Anna Weltz, communications director at Seven Springs, said her company believes Laurel Mountain will complement offerings at Seven Springs and Hidden Valley. She said the company plans to extend its Highlands season pass and ticket — which provides skiing and snowboarding at Seven Springs and Hidden Valley — to include Laurel Mountain.
“We derive a tremendous amount of visitors from areas we consider our hotel markets like Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Ohio,” she said. “Many of those guests stay with us on lodging packages that include skiing and snowboarding at both resorts. Ultimately, we could plan to include Laurel Mountain in those as well.”
It’s the lack of lodging at Laurel Mountain that many believe is an obstacle to its success.
The resort was established in 1939 as a place for members of the prestigious Rolling Rock Club to ski. In 1964, the ski area was transferred to the state with the understanding that no summertime activities would occur there, and no lodging would be built.
Those restrictions have industry experts questioning whether Laurel Mountain could compete with Seven Springs and Hidden Valley, which offer an array of accommodations and year-round activities.
Six years ago, a study by Utah-based ski industry specialists Jack Johnson Co. concluded that the lack of year-round offerings could be a deal breaker. The study stated: “The resort can and should be recovered at a break-even or reasonable profit margin level if capital improvements can be made … and addition of summer activities is incorporated.”
Jack Johnson did not return several calls seeking comment.
Nationwide, the skiing industry has experienced a 10 percent growth in the past decade, but lodging boosts the chances of success, said Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Area Association.
“The greater bed base you have in proximity to the resort, the greater likelihood you have for success,” Berry said.
Some say that it will take more money than what the state is investing to revive Laurel Mountain.
Robert Davis, 60, of Sarver, a staff member at online publication EpicSki.com, said Laurel Mountain has been closed for so long that it is beginning to fall off skiers’ radars.
“It’s going to take marketing and a little bit more investment than what the state is doing,” Davis said.
He said Laurel Mountain backers were buoyed, then disappointed, by years of on-again, off-again talks about reopening.
“The ball is in Seven Springs’ court, and I’m very hopeful they will do right by the skiers,” Davis said.
The latest plan to reopen Laurel Mountain has been in the works for five years. The state spent $515,000 to draft designs calling for more than $5 million in improvements, including a new ski lift, widening and clearing trails, adding lighting and snow guns and developing ponds with pumps for snowmaking.
At one point, Seven Springs officials wanted to introduce a snowtubing park at Laurel Mountain, but they backed off that plan.
“As home to the steepest slope in the commonwealth, Laurel Mountain has always been known as an incredible ski and snowboard destination,” Weltz said. “We wanted to focus on restoring that offering.”
State Department of General Services spokesman Troy Thompson said officials must determine when to solicit bids for the work.
There is no timetable for approval, Thompson said, “but we are moving to put this project on the fast track.”
In the meantime, Ligonier Mayor Ormond “Butch” Bellas remains optimistic, looking forward to the “trickle-down” effect the resort could have on the local economy.
Bellas, 69, learned to ski at the resort when he moved to Ligonier in 1966.
“This is a jewel in the wilderness, and we need to preserve it,” Bellas said.
As for Curley, she has been ready for the opening for a long time.
“Most of my friends sold all their stuff,” she said. “I got new boots three years ago.”
Nicole Chynoweth is a Trib Total Media staff writer.