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Volunteers give second life to Vermont ski area

Volunteers’ time, funds revive Magic Mountain

Photo courtesy of Magic Mountain

Volunteers painted chairlifts at the 200-acre Magic Mountain ski area, in Londonderry, Vt.

Six years ago, Magic Mountain lost half a million dollars. Snowmaking covered only a quarter of the southern Vermont ski area, and the chairlifts had a reputation for being so unreliable that some skiers didn’t feel comfortable letting their children ride them.

But now the once-struggling resort, which has attracted a cult following for its steep, narrow trails and old-fashioned feel, is approaching an important milestone in its effort to become a skier-owned cooperative: nearly $1 million raised from the sale of shares to patrons.

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Signs of improvement are abundant around the 200-acre resort in Londonderry: The main lift has been repaired and received a fresh coat of red paint; the second lift - idle for three years - is finally up and running; and snowmaking can now reach half the trails. Moreover, the amount of off-trail skiing in the trees has doubled, to 60 acres, thanks largely to crews of volunteers who came up on fall weekends to clear paths through the glades.

Magic is among a number of small ski areas around the country that have been getting creative to attract skiers, particularly families. Some offer free ski lessons and kid-only trails; at the Loup Loup Ski Bowl in Okanogan, Wash., kids get a cookie when they return their rental equipment.

In Vermont, Magic’s turnaround has been long in the making. It was closed for most of the 1990s, its lack of snowmaking leaving it particularly vulnerable when Mother Nature didn’t deliver. The management team that took over in 2006 has sunk more than $100,000 into the mountain, and those efforts are starting to pay off: Skier and snowboarder visits increased 29 percent last year, compared to the 2006-2007 season; revenue was up 32 percent; and sales of season passes were up 49 percent.

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Much of this probably wouldn’t have happened without the tight-knit community of Magic skiers, 252 of whom have plunked down $3,000 apiece to become shareholders. Their reward? Seeing the mountain open for another season.

Amy Winnewisser and her fiance make the four-hour drive from Brooklyn to Magic every winter weekend. The couple bought a share last year, and are saving to buy another. As telemark skiers, they love that they can hike up the mountain - and no terrain is out of bounds. But they also love the community spirit, especially at the bar in the lodge where skiers gather at the end of the day.

“We always joke that it’s like ‘Cheers.’ We come in and everyone’s like, ‘Amy!’ ’’ she said.

Once the number of shareholders hits 300, management will be allowed to tap into the $900,000 raised to further improve snowmaking. Increasing the number of trails that can be covered with man-made snow will keep skiers from fleeing to better-equipped resorts nearby, such as Bromley Mountain, when the sun and rain beat down. The sale of the 300th share will also trigger a change in ownership from the family that owns the resort to a partnership that includes shareholders and Magic president Jim Sullivan.

Sullivan admits that the shareholder program, which he started two years ago, hasn’t attracted as many people as he’d hoped. The idea was to follow the model of Mad River Glen, in northern Vermont, which is cooperatively owned, and sign up 1,000 shareholders in four years, but Sullivan has since revised his target and will instead focus on raising money through private investments.

“We’re sort of out of the critical stages of continuing to exist,’’ Sullivan said. When he first took over the mountain, Sullivan said, one of the most frequent questions he would get is, “You guys going to get open this year?’’

The economic downturn has been hard on ski areas, especially smaller ones. Skiers are more cost-conscious, and funding is difficult to get, making it harder for resorts to pursue important improvements, such as upgrading lifts and snowmaking, according to the industry research publisher IBISWorld.

Large companies have been scooping up smaller resorts, including Peak Resorts, a Missouri company that added Wildcat Mountain in Pinkham Notch, N.H., to its 11-property portfolio last year.

Magic, which is scheduled to open Dec. 17, is trying to stay independent - and it has the power of its skiers behind it. Over the summer, Magic patrons donated almost all of the $16,500 needed to repaint the primary chairlift. Every fall, volunteers ride the chairlift up the mountain, armed with chainsaws and machetes to clear brush and trees.

Shareholder Jeff Novak, 47, who owns an electrical contracting company in West Springfield, Mass., last year donated an intercom for the bar and downstairs kitchen; this year, he plans to put a sound system in the lift shack.

Novak takes his family to Magic every weekend and likes the easy parking and being able to leave extra gear in an unlocked cubicle in the lodge. The food doesn’t break the bank, either. “You’ve never been sold a $12 cheeseburger,’’ he said.

Given the lack of funding, the no-frills atmosphere, and the competition with corporate-owned ski areas, Novak is happy to see the mountain back on more solid ground.

“We’re almost at the tipping point,’’ he said. “It’s really remarkable that they’ve survived.’’

Katie Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.
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