BURGESS JUNCTION – At the base of the abandoned ski resort, Mark Weitz looked up at the chairlifts and powder-covered runs.
“For those of us who have been up here, it’s hard not to hear the laughter of the kids,” he said. “It’s like a ghost town.”
Weitz leads of a group of residents from the communities around the northern Big Horns — places such as Sheridan, Basin and Greybull – who are trying to reopen Antelope Butte Ski Area, which closed after the 2003 ski season.
Weitz and other members of the Antelope Butte Foundation estimate they need about $3 million – half to repair the ski lodge, which has water and mold damage, and the other half for equipment such as Sno-Cats to groom the 23 trails.
They’ve raised almost $170,000 thus far, Weitz said.
If all the money is raised and the U.S. Forest Service permits operations, the ski area will be open year-around. Ideas for summer activities include concerts, mountain biking and hiking and restaurant and bar visits.
School children in the communities miss learning to ski at Antelope Butte, said Roberta Young, owner of three lodges in the area — Bear Lodge Resort, Elk View Inn and Arrowhead Lodge.
“People use to stop here for breakfast on their way to ski or for dinner or lunch on the way back,” she said. “They were always enthusiastic, looking forward to skiing or talking about the day they had. We do miss them.”
A Wyoming corporation called Fun Valley Inc. operated the ski resort from 1960 until it closed in 2003. Technically, the U.S. Forest Service leased the land and owned the property, including the ski lodge and garages, Weitz said
Emerson Scott, a partner in Fun Valley, said the resort closed after a few years of not having enough snow.
It took a while for the Forest Service to list the property and when it did – in 2008 – few investors stepped forward. The country was in recession. Banks had tightened lending, Weitz said.
A man from Powell made an offer but retracted it in 2011, Weitz said. That’s when locals decided to form the non-profit foundation to guarantee profits will be reinvested in the resort.
“Nobody will get a dividend,” Weitz said.
The Antelope Butte Foundation has studied potential profits and estimates about half will come from concessions — especially beer — and the other half will come from lift tickets.
About 60 percent of the expenses would be wages. Utilities, fuel, advertising, equipment and insurance are other expenses, Weitz said.
Weitz likes to describe Antelope Butte as a mom-and-pop ski resort. It’s certainly not a Vail Ski Resort in Colorado or a Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort in Utah – with upscale condos and town squares.
Michael Berry, president of National Ski Areas Association in Lakewood, Colo., calls them “community-based hills.”
Cody has Sleeping Giant Ski Area. Casper has Hogadon Ski Area. Towns throughout the United States are dotted with small ski resorts.
“People don’t want these wonderful assets to sit idle,” Berry said.
Wayne Jones, who purchased and reopened Meadowlark Ski Lodge in the southern Big Horns, is not thrilled he may soon have competition.
“We don’t have enough population in this area,” he said. “I’m not even convinced we have enough to support one ski lodge.”
Jones explained the economics of his business: An average lift ticket costs $30. If he can get 7,000 skier visits, he’d get $210,000 gross income, out of which he pays 15 salaries and buys diesel, electricity, propane and insurance.
“In my opinion, the people who are pushing for everything to be nonprofit, they’re socialist and there’s a fine line between socialism and communism,” he said. “If the government is no longer going to support anything, it is no longer the US of A.”
Berry, of the National Ski Areas Association, said ski resorts do better when they’re clustered near each other. People learn to ski at one resort and then try another.
According to Forest Service data provided by Weitz, there were 15,237 skier visits at both resorts in 2003. In 2002, there were 18,195.
“The ski industry is growing,” he said. “Wyoming’s population is growing.”