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Blue Hills Ski Area contract up for grabs again

The state will request bids soon to run the Blue Hills Ski Area in Canton. Ski Blue Hills Management had a five-year contract with a one-year extension to operate the slopes.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/file 2009

The state will request bids soon to run the Blue Hills Ski Area in Canton. Ski Blue Hills Management had a five-year contract with a one-year extension to operate the slopes.

Blue Hills Ski Area is closed for the season, and local skiers and snowboarders might be wondering what the future holds for the state-owned slopes now that the operator’s contract is up for grabs.

Off Route 138 in Canton, Blue Hills is the closest ski resort to Boston. With a modest vertical drop of 309 feet, it has long served as a wintertime destination for young skiers and their families, as well as local high school ski teams.

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For the past six years, the slopes have been operated by Ski Blue Hills Management LLC, the company that runs Campgaw Mountain in northern New Jersey, which is the closest ski area to Manhattan and, like Blue Hills, located on public property.

Vero Piacentini, general manager of Blue Hills Ski Area, says Ski Blue Hills Management wants to continue running the Canton ski area for the long term. “It’s our goal to return next year,” he said.

Ski Blue Hills Management previously held a five-year contract and was granted a one-year extension last year. Piacentini said the company would like to have a lengthier contract in place, so it has more time to make improvements to the ski area. In order to make major changes, such as adding space to the lodge, or putting in a new chairlift, the company needs to know it will be operating the facility for a longer period, he said.

As it stands, he said, “There’s no incentive for an operator to invest in the ski area.”

Because the state owns the property, every five years or so the Department of Conservation and Recreation puts out a request for proposals, or RFP, looking for companies that want to run the ski area. The company that submits the winning bid — based on criteria such as experience, lift ticket prices, compensation to DCR, and budget and finances — is given a permit to operate it for a set amount of time.

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The state agency has leased it to various companies in the past, with Ski Blue Hills being the most recent to take on maintaining the 60 acres of skiable terrain, a dozen trails, and a terrain park with boxes and rails for snowboarders. It’s an operation that employs about 350 people each winter.

“The ski area is very important to the community, and it’s very popular. It serves as a positive influence for the community,” said Judy Lehrer Jacobs, executive director of Friends of the Blue Hills, a nonprofit working to protect the Blue Hills Reservation’s beauty, natural habitats, and recreational opportunities.

Jacobs said the ski slopes deserve to be managed properly and a long-term lease will encourage the operator “to invest in the infrastructure.”

Skiing has a long history at the Blue Hills. In the midst of the Great Depression, Civilian Conservation Corps crews went to work developing alpine ski runs on Great Blue Hill in the 1930s. In 1951, the Metropolitan District Commission named the slopes after William F. Rogers, a Braintree town moderator who loved the area so much he was nicknamed the “Father of Blue Hills Reservation.” The William F. Rogers Ski Slopes (as they are still officially called today) underwent significant improvements in the 1960s: The two slopes were widened and a third was added, a lodge was built, and the introduction of man-made snow extended the skiing season. In 1962, the MDC awarded a 10-year contract to a Lexington company to operate the newly expanded ski resort.

Since Ski Blue Hills Management came on board in 2007, the management team has faced weather conditions that haven’t always been the best, as well as rising water bills from the town of Canton.

“The water costs have gone up significantly in the last 15 years,” said Piacentini. “Now the ski area has to make snow as budgeted, not as needed.”

Despite those challenges, Ski Blue Hills is looking forward to running the ski area. “We’re just waiting for DCR to release the request for proposals,” said Piacentini.

Edward M. Lambert Jr., commissioner of the Department of Conservation and Recreation, said the state is considering extending the term of the contract.

“We recognize there may be some utility for a bidder to have a longer-term agreement that would allow them to make infrastructure improvements and make the area more financially viable,” he said.

Lambert described Blue Hills Ski Area as “a great amenity to the region.”

“For folks who live in a metropolitan area, the fact that they can just take a 10-minute drive to have access to that recreational opportunity . . . we think it’s a great opportunity for people,” he said. “We have every intention of continuing it.”

Lambert said the state has been happy with the performance of Ski Blue Hills Management LLC. He said the request for proposals is being prepared, although he did not specify when it would be ready or when an agreement could be reached.

“We’re working on it now,” he said.

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.

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