ASHLAND — Two very different ski seasons taught Mt. Ashland Ski Area General Manager Hiram Towle two lessons after he took over in September 2014 following a winter in which the area didn’t open at all.
Mt. Ashland opened for only 38 days in 2014-15, but despite that Towle found there was a crew ready to follow his vision of how to make things work and a community deeply committed to seeing the resort survive.
Last season, with an opening-day snow pack of 54 inches and a financially successful 88-day run, Towle saw the shortcomings of the current infrastructure. Those lessons will drive the mountain’s approach to expenditures for the immediate future.
“We’ve really got to focus on getting our bread and butter taken care of,” said Towle. “We are a skiing business. We’re going to do what we can do to make the ski area the best we can.”
Two prominent elements emerged over the winter: crowded lodge facilities and packed parking.
Parking was stressed on busy days despite the addition of 100 spots in summer 2013. On some days, ski area staff were stationed at the start of the access road to tell visitors no spots were available. Because any expansion of parking would be expensive, Towle said, the effort will more likely focus on carpooling and greater use of the Ski Hopper 40-seat bus to allow skiers to get to the mountain without their cars.
Improvements to the lodge are more financially feasible, he said.
Detailed plans for lodge improvements and associated fundraising will be announced in September. A roofing project planned for this summer has been put off until lodge plans are complete.
While capital expenses will be the focus in the near term, a long-proposed and controversial addition of skiing territory with a new lift is on hold. Expansion advocates and environmentalists battled over the proposal in the courts for years.
Mount Ashland could proceed with clearing runs and installing a new chairlift at this time, as various legal challenges to the U.S. Forest Service’s approval were answered. But the work would be a multi-million dollar undertaking and would likely once again generate controversy.
“I don’t want people to be led to believe it is totally off the table,” said Towle. "A lot of time and effort went into it. On the whole, it’s divisive. It’s good and bad on both sides.”
Elements of the Forest Service’s decision have been implemented, said Towle. Those include the parking addition, widening of several runs and creation of a gentler beginners' slope off the Sonnet lift using dirt removed from parking expansion. The ski area also has maintained and monitored 23 restoration sites designed to prevent erosion from affecting streams in the Ashland watershed.
Towle left Sunday River resort in Maine, a private operation where he managed several departments over 12 years, to head the nonprofit operation in Southern Oregon. There was trepidation, he acknowledges, as he moved his family west, with challenges related to the expansion battles, a year without skiing and a $750,000 Small Business Administration loan taken out to keep the operation going.
But when a second consecutive low-snow season struck, he said, he was delighted by the way the mountain crews responded to his ideas to get the area open and by the support shown from community members and local businesses.
“To be in a new position and seeing the outpouring of support from Mt. Ashland staff and others in the public sure gave me a lot of comfort,” said Towle. “The mountain has a rabid, loyal following.”
The no-snow year of 2013-14, followed by the low-snow year, has impacted programs. Ski-pass sales numbers are building, but still do not match those of earlier years. The mountain's after-school ski program drew 1,000 kids last year after having none the two previous seasons, and the goal is the boost that number.
Some current projects will be visible, others less so.
True South Solar is installing 85 solar panels on a shop roof to provide electricity. The project cost is $117,000, with much of it covered by grants.
Next winter skiers should experience fewer delays on the Ariel chairlift due to electrical issues. A new low-voltage system with display will allow operators to monitor all circuits at once rather than having to check each one individually. It’s a $20,000 upgrade.
Towle said that building a rainy-day fund for low-snow years is a priority for the ski area's board of directors. That fund will come from operating revenue, with all future fundraising targeting capital expenses rather than operations.
The mountain crew is also preparing for the possibility of more low-snow years. Ramps that skiers use to access lifts now can operate with as little as an inch of snow.
“We’re trying to make sure we have the way in the future to handle the lack of storms,” said Towle.
Also on tap for next year: celebration of the community purchase of the ski area 25 years ago in 1992.
Tony Boom is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at email@example.com.