Mount Ashland closure a tough call

What's good for skiers and snowboarders isn't necessarily good for the folks who manage their winter playgrounds.

Think about the last time you went to Mount Ashland on a weekday. The runs were probably empty, right? No waiting at the chairlift, no kamikaze kids bearing down on you from uphill, and you parked close to the lodge.

An empty mountain is beautiful thing for the guests, but it's a money pit for the operators. Their daily costs are pretty much the same whether there are 1,300 people on the mountain, as there were on a recent Saturday, or 90, as there were 48 hours later on Monday.

So no one should have been shocked last week when the Mount Ashland ski area announced it would close two days a week next season instead of the current single-day Tuesday closure. Kim Clark, the general manager, summed it up nicely when he said, "When we're bringing in one-third to one-half of what it costs to operate for a day, you can only do that for so long."

The ski area first proposed Monday and Tuesday closures in July 2007. The board of directors settled for a Tuesday closure when people who work on weekends protested that they wouldn't be able to ski on their days off. Unfortunately, they never showed up in numbers sufficient to increase Monday revenues.

"We probably should have stuck to our guns" Clark said last week, and gone ahead with the two-day closure for the 2007-08 season.

Right there you can see one of the problems of running a nonprofit, community-based ski area. You want to serve your customers, but the hard realities of business don't always let you do what the customers want.

Most small ski areas in the Northwest already close at least two days a week. (Small means about 100,000 visitors per season.) Some shut down three days — Willamette Pass and Anthony Lakes are closed Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Chuck Shepard, who owns Hoodoo Mountain Resort, said he wasn't at all surprised by Mount Ashland's decision. Hoodoo is one of the last of the little resorts that operates six days a week, closing on Wednesdays.

"It really doesn't make sense to stay open seven days," Shepard said. "The only time we cover more than our costs is weekends and holidays. Somehow you have to pay for managers, lights, depreciation and everything else."

Shepard said the recession has made profits even harder to find on the slopes.

"We had record numbers of skiers in January and February, but our income is down," he said. Fewer guests are stopping at the gift shop to buy a T-shirt or lingering over lunch and a few drinks in the restaurant.

Many ski areas are trying to earn money during the summer to help make ends meet. Mount Shasta hauls mountain bikers up one of its chairlifts. Hoodoo has developed its camping opportunities. Unfortunately, Mount Ashland doesn't have any natural attractions to lure summer visitors to the mountain, and it's on public land, so any new proposals would have to go through an extensive (and expensive) environmental review, and if recent history is any guide, would be hotly contested.

Shepard said the current recession could be severe enough to force some ski areas to close, period — as in shut down for good. He noted that Mount Ashland's expansion proposals, which managers say are critical for their long-term survival, have been blocked by environmental activists and members of the Ashland City Council for years.

"Skiers and the city (of Ashland) are lucky to have Mount Ashland open," he said. "It's not going to be poor management that would make Mount Ashland close. It's such a difficult operation to keep open that some day it just might not be worth it."

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail bkettler@mailtribune.com

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