Mercifully, the Inland Northwest’s ski season came to a slushy end Sunday.
For area resorts, the 1995-96 season will live long as one of the worst ever on the books.
“It was by far the strangest season I’ve seen this decade,” mused Don Walde, owner of Lookout Pass Ski Area, usually the beneficiary of some of the region’s best snow.
Fresh powder seemed to evaporate. Torrential rains washed away fragile snowpacks. Freak winds closed lifts and gondolas.
Added up, it meant that resort business was down up to 20 percent or more this winter compared with last, and last year wasn’t so hot either. The ski misery hits area resorts at a turbulent time for the resorts. Consider:
Schweitzer Mountain Resort had 21 percent less revenue and 17 percent fewer visitors this season. The resort has cash-flow problems and ownership has reached out for a financial partner to help keep the place running.
Silver Mountain Ski & Summer Resort saw about a 15 percent drop in business compared with last year, said Terry Turnbow, the general manager. The resort laid off all but four of its permanent employees and won’t open until it has new owners.
Mt. Spokane Ski Area had its worst season in recent memory, opening Jan. 13.
Owner Gregg Sowder said his losses were well beyond 20 percent compared with last year because he missed the meat of the season.
Sowder remains embroiled in a court battle over the concession to run the state-owned ski hill. A group of Spokane civic and business leaders wants to oust Sowder for not being responsive enough to skiers, and the court battle looks to drag out for months.
49 Degrees North in Chewelah didn’t fare particularly well this year either. General Manager Denny Burmeister was unavailable for comment Monday. Rumors persist that the ski hill soon will change hands.
Lookout Pass saw 20 percent less business than last year. The resort wants to expand its ski area to include more terrain, but has to work through the Forest Service to do that, Walde said. The poor season may lead his management to rethink some maintenance or expansion projects for next year.
Even powder legend Sun Valley saw a drop in skier visits this year, but thanks to aggressive marketing and the largest snow-making capacity in the country, the resort still made money.
Ingredients for a successful ski season include lots of moisture in the fall, which wasn’t the problem, and chilly temperatures, which finally showed up around Christmas.
The sight of dirt slopes for Thanksgiving slaked skiers’ thirsts for Christmas-week ski packages. That’s the week when resorts really clean up, the week that can make an otherwise cruddy season survivable.
“Once you lose those days, you just can’t make them up,” said Bob Hamilton, marketing director for Schweitzer. “We would have had snow up to the lodge windows for lack of 4 degrees.”
Schweitzer suffered a late-season setback when its Great Escape Quad chair lift shut down. The manufacturer ordered inspections of all the lifts after finding some cracks in the gripping parts of the chairs in a similar lift in British Columbia. One skier died in an accident on that lift.
To make sure the lift runs correctly, the quad will not run during the summer as it has in previous years, Hamilton said.
Fewer skiers up top means fewer heads on pillows for the ski towns below. Bookings and business were off between 15 percent and 20 percent compared with last year, said Nancy Hanson, president and chief executive officer of Sand-Ida Services Inc., Sandpoint’s largest hotelier.
“I’ve heard from a lot of the properties that there just wasn’t any business to be had around here this winter,” Hanson said. “Some of them are really hurting.”
Despite the slowdown, winter pales in comparison with the size of Sandpoint’s summer season. Sand-Ida can make up the difference with a rousing tourist draw, she said.
To the southeast in Idaho’s Silver Valley, summer activities at Silver Mountain are uncertain.
Von Roll AG, a big Swiss manufacturer, wants out of the complex financing that built the gondola and fancy lodge in Kellogg. Until new owners buy Silver, the resort won’t open, and the popular summer concert series on Kellogg Peak remains in doubt.
Some say the future of the ski business in the region appears, if not doubtful, at least subdued. A new study by the University of Idaho’s Resource Recreation and Tourism Department shows that growth in the business has been marginal at best.
Between 1977 and 1995, the study reads, the number of skier visits in Idaho has grown only 16 percent. That’s less than 1 percent a year for the period, a far slower growth rate than many other tourism businesses, the study reports.
But resort operators chalk up this year to fickle Mother Nature, and immediately turn their attention ahead to next fall. “There’s always going to be next year,” Sowder said from Spokane.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Ski resorts slide Schweitzer Mountain Resort, Sandpoint 1995-96 losses: Visitors down 17 percent. Revenues down 21 percent. Prospects: Resort lags behind on bills. Needs new financial partner to shore up finances. Silver Mountain Ski And Summer Resort, Kellogg 1995-96 losses: Business down 15 percent from last year. Prospects: Closed until bought by new owners. High operating costs may be scaring potential buyers away. 49 Degrees North, Chewelah 1995-96 losses: Exact numbers unavailable, but about the same as other area resorts. Prospects: Rumors swirl that the resort could be sold. Mt. Spokane Ski Area, Spokane 1995-96 losses: Greater than 20 percent. Jan. 13 opening was latest in resort’s recent history. Prospects: Court fight over who gets to run next 20-year concession could drag into next ski season. Lookout Pass Ski Area, Mullan 1995-96 losses: About 20 percent compared with last year. Prospects: Trying to expand ski area, may have to re-evaluate some projects because of tough year.