Inland Northwest ski resorts haven’t exactly distinguished themselves as safe investments lately.
Schweitzer owners recently chose receivership over bankruptcy, as 200 creditors lined up to collect $27 million in debt.
And Silver Mountain investors swallowed a $17 million loss when that resort changed hands earlier this year.
Meanwhile, Mount Spokane’s season was temporarily threatened by legal squabbling over who would operate the facility.
So why, it’s fair to ask, would a successful 35-year-old Nevada real estate developer with no experience in the ski industry buy 49 Degrees North and move into a modest single-wide trailer a snowball’s throw from Chair One?
“Because Thomas Jefferson is not proud of John Eminger building the identical home over and over again in the desert.”
Uhhh … say what?
It helps to understand that Eminger - who actually grew up in Spokane and occasionally talks about himself in the third person - has a degree in philosophy. You can tell, because he’s overtly concerned about something he calls “the intrinsic value of work” - as opposed to simply making money hand over fist, as he did (and continues to do) in Elko, Nev., where his ancestors homesteaded over a century ago.
It also helps to understand that 49 Degrees North somehow managed to turn a profit last year, while other area resorts were bleeding red for lack of white.
Since buying 49 Degrees North with his sister and mother last summer, Eminger has thrown himself into his new career. “I bet you’d be hard pressed to find the owner of any of the big resorts out there shoveling snow,” he says with obvious pride.
But it takes more than determination to survive in the ski-resort business, which explains why Eminger retained his old climbing buddy, Denny Burmeister, as general manager. Some locals credit Burmeister with almost single-handedly bringing 49 back from bankruptcy in 1991.
And Eminger’s enthusiasm for his new job is tempered by a healthy dose of reality that, in the long run, might prove to be his most valuable asset.
“I can’t stick another 1,000 feet on top of this mountain,” he says from his cluttered, attic-like office above the lodge’s kitchen. “But we can sure have a nice little north face where Spokane can come ski. We may be rough around the edges, but you’re not paying $44 a whack to ride the lift, either.
“There are a lot of (capital improvements) that would be nice to add,” Eminger muses. “A $2.2 million high-speed quad, for instance. But bottom line is, if you do that, you can get into a lot of trouble. I can think of a few examples right off the top of my head.
“Patience is a virtue in this businesss,” says the upbeat, XL-size entrepreneur who hadn’t considered buying a ski hill until Burmeister half-jokingly suggested it last winter when Eminger asked if any lots were available nearby.
“Ski resorts are similar to any other businesss,” Eminger asserts. “What makes them different is the environment they work in.”
And sometimes that environment - winter - can be unkind to even the best-intentioned operators. “When I crunched the numbers” before buying 49 Degrees North, says Eminger, “I figured success based on two good years out of every five.
“My little sister said, ‘But John, what if it doesn’t snow?’
“I told her, ‘Well Angela, if it don’t snow in the Pacific Northwest, then we have a lot bigger things to worry about than our little ski resort.’ “Besides,” says Eminger, never straying far from his philosophical core, “what is it they say? The more scared you are, the more fun you’re having.”
Forty-nine Degrees North features four chairlifts with access to 1,900 vertical feet of mixed terrain, including groomed routes, mogul runs, tree glades and a snowboard park.
New for snowboarders this season are tabletop, pyramid and quarter-pipe jumps, plus loudspeakers cranking out “alternative ” music. (“If you’re younger than 25, it’s the greatest music in the world,” explains Burmeister. “If you’re over 25, you might not call it music at all.”
Forty-nine continues its tradition of offering complimentary beginner lessons for alpine, snowboard and telemark skiers 11 and older who purchase a lift ticket. Also, free day care is available midweek, except during holiday periods.
Location: About 90 minutes north of Spokane via Highway 395.
Tickets: Adult $27; students and seniors $21; juniors (7-15) $19; under 7 and over 72 free. Weekday discounts available.
Day care: Free midweek day care (non-holiday periods only). Weekend rates $3.50 hour, with sibling discounts.
Lessons: Free beginner lessons. Group lesson $19 for two hours; private $35 an hour.
Nordic: 10 km total, 5 km groomed. Free.
Phone: (509) 935-6649. Snow phone: (509) 880-9208. Fax: (509) 935-4218.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Mount Spokane The icy rapport between Mount Spokane Skiing Corp. and the state Parks and Recreation Commission thawed enough earlier this month to allow the ski area to open for the four-day Thanksgiving weekend (snow permitting). Under the recent accord, Mount Spokane Ski Area will then operate weekends-only until Thursday, Dec. 19. The lifts will run daily from Dec. 19 through Jan. 5. During the rest of January and February, Mount Spokane plans to operate Thursday through Sunday, with night skiing Thursday and Friday. Weekend and holiday lift tickets are $22 for adults, $18 for students 13 and older with I.D., $15 for children 7 to 12, and free for those 6 and under. Weekday rates are $18 for adults, $15 for students and $12 for children. A special flat rate of $10 for night-skiing is available Thursdays and Fridays from 4 to 8 p.m. Season passes can be purchased by phone at (509) 238-6281. The cost is $199.99 for adults, $99.99 for students ages 7 to 25.