TENNESSEE PASS — In the shadow of clashing giants that are transforming the ski resort industry, the publicly owned, non-profit Ski Cooper ski area is thriving.
Skier visits have set records for many years in a row, even in seasons when state and national visits decline. Same for total revenue and net income. Income per skier visit is up. Restaurant, retail, rental, ski school and summer revenue is peaking at the Lake County-owned ski area north of Leadville.
And a month ago, the 470-acre ski area that was founded in 1942 as a training ground for the 10th Mountain Division’s skiing soldiers, opened up its first significant expansion in decades, paying for the $1.8 million new terrain and surface lift with cash reserves.
A small, independent ski hill that is financially vibrant is a rare story today. Vail Resorts and Alterra Mountain Co. are corralling North America’s most popular resorts into their mega passes and pushing independent resorts to either join the big players or forge pass deals that can pinch bottom lines. Ski Cooper has deals for three days of free skiing with 42 small resorts around the country, including Loveland, Monarch, Powderhorn, Sunlight and Purgatory. In the decade since the debut of Vail Resorts’ Epic Pass in 2008, Ski Cooper has doubled its revenue.
“When people ask me what our philosophy is, I say in this day and age people are looking for something a little bit more unique and I compare it to the beer market,” says Dan Torsell, the general manager who took the reigns of the Lake County-owned ski area in 2012, following a season when the ski area posted an annual loss of nearly $500,000. “Craft beers are pretty popular right now. Well this is a craft beer. We are riding a chairlift at a craft brewery right now.”
Torsell is swinging his skis off the 10th Mountain Chair, a fixed-grip double installed almost 50 years ago. It’s a Monday following a very busy weekend, but the snow under the chair is barely touched. Torsell, whose career captaining ski resort operations spans giants like Killington and Sugarbush out East and smaller hills like Powder Mountain in Utah, is proud of the snow quality.
“We don’t make a drop of snow,” he says. “This is an all natural snow experience.”
The Torsell touch at Ski Cooper has drawn the eye of other publicly held ski areas. He recently visited Steamboat Springs-owned Howelsen Hill ski area, where the city loses money every year. City leaders are studying a deal that would transfer operation of Howelsen over to the Steamboat ski area and cap the city’s annual loss at $913,000 in a new partnership.
Other, smaller publicly owned ski areas in Colorado — Durango’s Chapman Hill, Gunnison’s Cranor Hill, Lake City Ski Area and tiny Lee’s Ski Hill in Ouray — operate only when snow allows. Denver-owned Winter Park is operated under a long-term lease with goliath Alterra Mountain Co., which took over the lease from Intrawest. In Silverton, a high-altitude town of 600 people, Kendall Mountain three years ago launched a public process to study a possible expansion of the 16-acre ski area. Consultants sketched potential growth plans that could push Kendall to 300 or even 800 acres, with a cost for a four-lift, year-round resort at $25.1 million.
But don’t try to compare Cooper with other publicly owned ski areas in Colorado, Torsell says, suggesting nonprofit Bridger Bowl outside Bozeman, Montana, is a better comparison.
“With our terrain, we are unique,” he says.
If the management system at Ski Cooper has any kin in Colorado, it’s likely the Ouray Ice Park, where a nonprofit operator governed by a volunteer board runs the nation’s premier ice park on city-owned land, creating what many hope becomes a national model for independent management of self-sustaining recreation at highly trafficked sites.
And Ski Cooper just upped its game with Tennessee Creek Basin, a 70-acre expansion of challenging terrain, serviced by a new T-bar chairlift. The ski area saved money for a decade to pay for the $1.8 million expansion, which included about $1.6 million for the Leitner Poma surface lift and installation, and more than $200,000 for clearing about 36 acres of dense timber to carve room for 13 tree runs, all classified as double black-diamonds.
But that saving didn’t come at the cost of other projects. This season Ski Cooper installed RFID chip technology so ticket-checkers can scan skier passes with a wave of a wand. The Ridgeview Cafe yurt on top of the mountain has grown dining revenue with the popularity of evening dinners. Ski Cooper also has one of the only snowboard cross courses in the West, and teams from around the world come and train on the course’s berms and jumps before the ski area hosts big-name contests like the Rev Tour.
Torsell switched out a concessionaire that was handling food in the base area cafeteria and brought it in-house with a renovated kitchen and a new bar. The kitchen now caters some of the larger events in the area, like the Leadville 100 races. He revamped the rental and retail spaces at the base as well. The 2,600-acre snowcat skiing on Chicago Ridge also has added to Ski Cooper’s bottom line. So has Twofer Tuesday and $30 Thursday events, which deliver lift access for a fraction of the walk-up cost of most every other Colorado resort. (A day ticket at Ski Cooper is $62.)
“This isn’t about a silver bullet. We have been rearranging this place and the way it flows. Every step we are raising the bar just a little bit more, you know,” Torsell says.
A decade ago, Lake County’s contract with the volunteer-board of the nonprofit Cooper Hill Ski Area — a 501(c)4, which the IRS defines as a group dedicated to “social welfare” that directs its earnings into things like charity and recreation — was up for review.
Some groups in the county urged local leaders to scrutinize the management arrangement that has the Cooper Hill board operating the ski area for the county, which owns the assets and holds the long-term lease with the Forest Service to operate on public land.
The groups suggested that maybe a different operating structure would work better, possibly enlisting a major player that could spur more investment and maybe even return cash to the county. The model for a deal like that would look like the city of Denver’s 2002 arrangement with Intrawest at Winter Park, where the resort company pumped $50 million into the city-owned ski hill and delivered annual payments while developing real estate at the base.
Ultimately Lake County commissioners renewed the contract and kept the nonprofit board in charge at Ski Cooper.
Part of the agreement with the county says the ski area must be self-sustaining. It cannot borrow money, finance any improvements or rely on taxpayers. In 2009, when the ski area was hosting around 50,000 annual visits, tax filings show Ski Cooper took in about $1.9 million in gross revenue and lost $51,000 that year.
A decade later, the ski area logged closer to 80,000 skier days and harvested $3.9 million in revenue and reported an income of $719,000 with $2.4 million in savings. In the last 25 years the ski area has invested about $9 million into improvements, all with cash from operations.
“It’s a very conservative board,” says John Clapper, the chairman of the Cooper Hill board. “We don’t take many chances. We don’t want to risk the whole enchilada by taking risks and borrowing money. We are pay-as-we-go.”
Lake County Commissioner Kayla Marcella calls Ski Cooper “a well-oiled machine” and a “one-in-a-million asset for the community.”
“It’s really our hidden gem,” she says. “I think the value of being homegrown is just so important to us. The sense of community around our recreation facilities is so unique.”
When Great Outdoors Colorado awarded Get Outdoors Leadville a $3 million grant to build facilities and programs to get more Lake County residents outside to recreate, Ski Cooper was a natural partner, Marcella says.
With a host of programs that get local kids skiing for the first time, Ski Cooper is sparking an outdoor vibe among families that maybe haven’t had the opportunity to get outside and play, Marcella says.
“We are seeing that trickle down effect with so many youth now participating in outdoor activities and it’s bleeding into their families. It’s really helped grow that business at Ski Cooper as well as an outdoor community,” Marcella says. “The funding from GOCO, and being able to partner, with Ski Cooper has been a game-changer for us.”
Ski Cooper employs about 230 workers during the peak season. The ski area injects an estimated $12 million in spending into the local economy, with Leadville collecting the majority of that impact. Leadville has seen sales tax collections more than double in the last decade, reaching a record $1.6 million last year. Sales tax now accounts for more than half of Leadville’s budget, not counting grants for upgrades to historical structures.
Annual audits of the city’s budget credit the surges in sales tax — up $286,000 in 2018 and $170,000 in 2017 — to “tourism activity higher than anticipated.”
For the 7,800-resident Lake County, where a majority of workers are employed in government, mining and construction, the growth in the tourism economy is celebrated as another pillar to help iron out the ups-and-downs of the extractive-based economy.
And the expansion into the backside of Ski Cooper will likely boost Lake County’s winter tourism even more.
So far this season, Torsell suspects his guests — most of whom now come from afar, not Lake County, like they did a decade ago — are extending their ski vacations to ski the new, more challenging acreage.
“I think we are getting an extra day or two out of them and I think the new terrain to explore is hopefully luring a few more people in,” he says.
The ski area’s consultants estimate the new terrain could boost traffic at the ski area by 5%. When the Forest Service collected comments on the proposed expansion in 2018, all the commenters cheered the project, which is very uncommon for a resort expansion plan. Many of the local residents who offered comments celebrated its promise to help grow the local tourism economy.
“I think the benefit is going to be in that return business and keeping those families coming back to Leadville, as opposed to seeing them move on to the bigger resorts in Eagle or Summit counties,” says Tracy Purdy, the president of the Leadville Chamber of Commerce who also manages vacation rentals in Leadville.
But the management at Ski Cooper is doing more than boosting tourism with the expansion.
“They really are listening to the locals,” Purdy says. “I haven’t gone over to Vail to ski this year. I remember some people asking why they were adding a T-bar and not a chair and it’s because they could afford it. I think they really kept in mind the local needs and local perspectives while giving us this new terrain.”
As Vail Resorts and Alterra Mountain Co. battle, smaller resorts like Ski Cooper are finding opportunity in skiers who aren’t buying into the Ikon and Epic pass war. The independents are banding together and offering their own passes, creating partnerships that include dozens of resorts sharing access. Ski Cooper, for example, has deals with 42 resorts across the country that allow pass holders to ski at partner resorts.
Clapper, the ski area board chairman, remembers several years ago when the board decided to offer a $99 season pass to keep skiers coming to Ski Cooper as the big resorts lured skiers with deeply discounted passes.
“I wondered about that and I thought ‘Wow, we are not going to make it,’” he says.
Ski Cooper did make it. With consistent snow, the resort was able to post growth in visits in seasons like 2011-12, when weak snow saw steep declines in visitation across the country. The ski area now offers a $459 pass. That’s about half the price of the full Epic and Ikon and buyers come from all over the country.
“One of the reasons we did make it is because we didn’t have any debt hanging over our operations. I have to credit our success to the team out there and the board. Everyone has a great loyalty to Ski Cooper.”
Torsell says he doesn’t feel threatened by the Ikon or Epic passes or any of the other collectives of independent ski areas.
“We have a special thing here,” he says. “And we watch our expenses and we save money every year. I try very hard to run this like a for-profit business … being very cognizant of our bottom line. We are not out asking for grants, we are not asking the county for money. I think we need to be responsible operators and responsible businesspeople. I have got to bring money to the bottom line. I’ve always had to do it that way.”