On Wednesday night, the seven top managers of New England’s only county-owned ski area resigned, simultaneously. Each gave two weeks’ notice. But the next morning, when these managers showed up to work at Gunstock Mountain Resort in Gilford, N.H., uniformed representatives of the local sheriff’s office ushered them toward the parking lot. The managers were apparently fired.
A red van pulled up soon, marked “A & B Security,” and a burly locksmith proceeded to change the locks on the doors. It was an almost cloudless day, and scorching hot, and tourists in sneakers and Red Sox caps meandered toward the base lodge, hoping to partake in one of Gunstock’s top summer draws: the five zip lines and the Aerial Treetop Adventures, an obstacle course featuring log ladders, seesaws, and rope swings.
But these attractions are now shuttered indefinitely, tied up in a long-simmering political dispute engulfing Belknap County, a Trump-friendly pocket of central New Hampshire where local lawmakers are crimping the budget for the county nursing home and sheriff’s office. And now, for the first time in its 86-year history, Gunstock is bereft of a management team.
The resort, which grossed $18.2 million during fiscal year 2022, was built in the late 1930s by federal Works Progress Administration crews wielding axes and handsaws. In the decades since, it has welcomed thousands of school ski groups and earned a reputation as a low-key, un-chic gathering spot for residents of Belknap County, whose citizens own the place.
Thursday morning, though, the resort’s 50-odd remaining employees massed by the base lodge and refused to work, even when a county official instructed them, “Continue with your normal day.”
Grounds supervisor Matt Niolet would later ascribe the stoppage to the loyalty the employees feel for their bosses.
“They know this mountain,” Niolet said. “They know where every wire is and where every underground pipe is. If they’re not allowed to come back, the mountain is just going to have to close.”
The locksmith, meanwhile, was flabbergasted by the drama. Making a quick phone call to a colleague, he was heard to say, “It’s a civil war up here.”
The uproar at Gunstock is rooted in a power struggle — and in local politics. New Hampshire state Representative Norm Silber, a Republican from Gilford, has for years been publicly uncomfortable with Gunstock’s status as a county-owned business.
In 2021, in an essay for the Granite Grok, a website whose editors self-identify as “fire-breathing” right-wingers, he suggested that Belknap County “lease the Gunstock property and its entire operation to a commercial ski resort operator.”
That idea has never been popular. The letters section of The Laconia Daily Sun is often ablaze with anti-Silber rhetoric and a fear that Gunstock, a beloved local institution, could slip into the hands of a remote corporate behemoth such as Vail Resorts. When asked to name a local business that backed his plan to privatize Gunstock, Silber replied: “I’d rather not mention names.”
But in Belknap County, all 18 state representatives are Republican, and many share Silber’s taste for small government. And all hold sway over Gunstock: The delegation oversees a five-member volunteer body, the Gunstock Area Commission, which guides mountain policy. When the commission has vacancies, the delegation of state representatives fills them.
Since January, it has voted in two new commissioners favorable to Silber. Doug Lambert is the owner of a small welding company. David Strang is an emergency room doctor who, in 2020, joined in signing a letter arguing that New Hampshire should secede and become a “Free and Independent State.”
In recent months, Silber’s allies have held a majority on the commission and cast a vigilant eye on the day-to-day work habits of Gunstock’s paid staffers. In May, they established a committee to oversee Gunstock’s annual audit. This spring, the commission also asked Gunstock’s general manager, Tom Day, for the personal contact information of every Gunstock employee.
As Silber sees it, the commission’s vigilance constituted good governance — and was met with resistance.
“There was a refusal to share information, a refusal to cooperate with the audit committee,” Silber said Thursday, pointing to Day and his fellow managers. “There was a lack of transparency.”
Day sees things differently. “We were squeezed,” he said Thursday as he lingered in the Gunstock parking lot. “We were pushed to the max. Why else would we have resigned and walked away from our livelihoods, from a mountain we love?”
Day is particularly aggrieved with Strang. “He’s the most vocal at meetings,” he said. “He’s been so combative to our staff. He’s a doctor, not a ski area operator, but he’s very confident in what he doesn’t know.”
Strang did not respond to requests for an interview, nor did any of the other current Gunstock commissioners. New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu weighed in on the dispute, though, sending an open letter to the citizens of Belknap County, decrying the Gunstock Area Commission’s “inability and unwillingness to work collaboratively with the management team at Gunstock.”
Sununu, who himself was once the CEO of the nearby Waterville Valley ski area, praised Day and his fellow departed managers as being “among the best New Hampshire has to offer” and excoriated Silber and two other state representatives overseeing the Gunstock commission, Mike Sylvia and Greg Hough.
“These individuals have made bad decisions,” he wrote, “and until they are removed from their positions and replaced with good people who recognize the wonderful asset that Gunstock is, [Belknap] County will continue to suffer.”
In a written statement, Karmen Gifford, the president of the Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce, said, “We are grateful for the statement and support from Governor Sununu. … Gunstock Mountain Resort is significant to the vitality of our tourism economy. ... It’s important that this situation be resolved quickly.”
But there’s no telling when that might happen, or when Gunstock may reopen. Friday morning, employees planned to spend some time working. The park’s website simply stated, without explanation, “Gunstock Adventure Park is closed until further notice,” though upcoming music events, including Soulfest, a Christian music gala slated for Aug. 4-6, are still on the schedule.
Representative Silber insists that Gunstock’s future will be steady. “A new general manager will be hired. The mountain is not for sale,” he said Thursday. “There’s a possibility that the property could be leased.” The model for Gunstock operation, he says, could be Mount Sunapee, a New Hampshire state-owned ski resort that has, since 2018, been leased and operated by Vail.
Ski industry veteran Gary Kiedaisch can only shake his head in dismay. Once the CEO at Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont, Kiedaisch was, until recently, the last Gunstock Area Commissioner tilting against Silber. He resigned Wednesday night along with Day and his fellow managers.
“Gunstock is in trouble,” Kiedaisch said. “It lost its management team, and it’s now being run by a bunch of commissioners who know nothing about ski area operation. If you’re a Gunstock skier, it’s like you’re walking onto an airplane and being told that your pilot has never flown before.”
Kiedaisch takes solace only in knowing that Silber and his fellow state representatives — the entire 18-member body overseeing the ski area — are up for reelection every two years.
“This fall,” he said, “we just have to work like hell to vote them out.”