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Small ski areas thrive in sluggish season

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As ski center managers in the Adirondacks close the books on another winter season, some are reporting an increase in skier visits and revenue. Others say they've had about the same or fewer numbers of visitors compared to last year. Chris Knight looks back on the winter of 2009-2010, including one of the biggest success stories of the winter - the reopening of two smaller, community-centered ski areas.

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Reported by

Chris Knight
Adirondack Correspondent
The largest ski areas in the Adirondacks, Gore Mountain in North Creek and Whiteface Mountain in Wilmington, both of which are run by the state Olympic Regional Development Authority, did not see an increase in skier visits this winter. 

In fact, Gore Mountain Manager Mike Pratt said he's expecting to end the season with about 15,000 fewer skier visits than last winter. "Between winter starting late, missing out on the Thanksgiving holiday and high winds that kept us closed on New Year's Sunday, there was a big hole that was dug early in the season," Pratt said. "Mid-week Christmas was great and from the second weekend in January on has been really good."

As of last week, Whiteface Mountain had recorded 184,000 skier visits, which Manager Bruce McCulley said is about on par with last year. Revenue was down about 3 percent, he said, citing the late start to the season and a drop-off in sales of season passes.

McCulley also said the state of the economy may have played a role in preventing a better season at Whiteface. "I think people were a little more cautious with their money," he said. "Our season pass revenue was down some, and that's a big expenditure when people are uncertain. We haven't seen a significant loss in numbers, but we're kind of holding steady."
Despite the slow start to the season, ski areas like Gore and Whiteface were able to make snow on a consistent basis, except for a brief thaw in mid-January.

At Titus Mountain in Malone, marketing director Dean Savage said the ski season ran for 89 days, about three weeks shorter than last year. While there were no real big snowstorms this winter, Savage said the natural snow came in frequent small amounts, creating good conditions throughout the season.

One of the big stories of the winter may be the resurgence of some of the smaller Adirondack ski areas like Big Tupper, which opened for the first time in 10 years through the efforts of a group of 125 volunteers, led by the group Adirondack Residents Intent on Saving their Economy or ARISE.

ARISE Chairman Jim LaValley said volunteers went into the season with no expectations on how many skiers they'd draw or how long the season would last, "Even without an expectation, the season ended up far better than we could have imagined," he said. "The outpouring of support from volunteers was far better than expected. The number of children that took up skiing again this year and the number of adults who came back to skiing was over the top better than I would have ever guessed."

Big Tupper wasn't the only ski area in the Adirondacks to be reborn this winter.
Hickory Ski Center in Warrensburg reopened under new ownership and with the help of scores of volunteers after not operating for four years. But things didn't go exactly as planned, according to general manager Shawn Dempsey, who said Hickory got very little natural snow, had problems with its lifts and had to shut down the mountain's snowmaking system in January.

"We made it through the ski season," he said. "We didn't have nearly as many days as we hoped. But we had a lot of people that were very excited to return to Hickory after many years of it being closed."

Meanwhile in Saranac Lake, the small, village-run Mount Pisgah Ski Center, which has one T-bar lift, a handful of trails and a tubing run, set a new record by bringing in $88,000 in total gross income. Manager Matt Cook said he was "ecstatic" about the season.

Cook said he thinks the economy has sparked a resurgence of interest in some of the smaller ski hills of the Adirondacks at the expense of the larger, more costly ski centers, "They certainly have a lot to offer in acreage, but if you're watching your wallet, these mom and pop operations could be the place to go to have a great time, but not spend a fortune on a lift ticket."

Most of the region's ski centers have already closed for the season, although Whiteface is open daily through April 11th.  Gore Mountain is shut down this week but will re-open for one more day this coming Saturday.

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