In Vermont, a town saved a mountain and a mountain saved a town

Jim Lyall quickly skied down Mount Ascutney, showing off the view eagerly. We were carving up a ski area in southern Vermont, but the c...


Jim Lyall quickly skied down Mount Ascutney, showing off the view eagerly. We were carving up a ski area in southern Vermont, but the chairlifts are long gone. At the top of the mountain we came to an abandoned ski patrol cabin and ski lift station. A cold breeze whipped the deserted structures. It had a ghostly, post-apocalyptic feel to it.

Mr. Lyall waved me up an old chairlift ramp. He scanned the panorama with his ski pole and pointed to the snow-capped peaks of Okemo and Killington, ski resorts within 30 miles. New Hampshire’s White Mountains were close enough to hit.

“I would often stand here and watch the storms dump snow on these ski areas and around Ascutney. We couldn’t win,” said Mr. Lyall, an avid off-piste skier.

At its peak, the Ascutney ski resort boasted 1,800 feet of vertical drop on over 50 runs and included a high-speed quad chairlift, three triple chairlifts and a double chairlift. But when it closed in 2010 due to lack of snow and poor management (twin killers of small ski resorts), it threatened to take with it the neighboring community of West Windsor, Vermont, which has 1,099 inhabitants.

“Property values ​​plummeted, condos on the mountain more than halved in value, and taxes went up,” recalls Glenn Seward, who worked at the resort for 18 years, once as manager mountain operations. The town’s general store, the community’s gathering place, also went bankrupt and closed.

“We were desperate,” said Mr Seward, who at the time was chairman of the West Windsor Selectboard, the equivalent of a city council in a Vermont town.

This desperation has led the community to associate its fortune with the mountain, becoming a model of how a small ski resort and its community can thrive in an age of climate change. Working with the state of Vermont as well as the nonprofit Trust for Public Land, the city purchased the ski area in bankruptcy in 2015. But instead of allowing a private company to run the mountain, by contracting out its operations, the local residents themselves would map out a sustainable and voluntary course plan for the ski area.

Seven years later, Mount Ascutney and West Windsor are attracting families and outdoor enthusiasts. Between 2010 and 2020, the city’s population jumped more than 20% and median sales prices for single-family homes more than doubled to $329,750. A bustling new general store featuring local produce has opened in the village of Brownsville, invigorating the center of the West Windsor community. The city and the mountain attract people all year round, from endurance runners and mountain bikers in the warm months to skiers in the winter.

At the heart of this revival is Ascutney away, a non-profit association with more than 100 volunteers that now organizes recreational activities on the mountain. Instead of high-speed quads and snowmaking, skiers take a tow rope or T-bar that accesses 435 feet of vertical skiing, found on 10 natural snow runs that are groomed. There is also a lift for snow tubing. A lift ticket costs $20 or $100 for a season pass. The lifts operate on Saturdays and Sundays when there is enough snow, and it takes around 40 volunteers to take care of a busy weekend.

The upper 1,300 vertical feet of the mountain, maintained by the Ascutney Trails Association, are reserved for backcountry skiers to ski in and out for free – although donations are appreciated. Thursday night ski races are held under the lights, and an after-school program takes the kids up the mountain every afternoon. The mountain is also home to 45 miles of renown mountain bike trails, many hiking trailss and Mt. Ascutney State Park. This is one of New England’s best hang gliding sites.

“When there is snow we ski, and when there isn’t we do something else,” said Mr Seward, who is now executive director of Ascutney Outdoors. “It’s a fairly easy model to maintain.”

Mount Ascutney (elevation 900 meters), Vermont’s most famous volcano, has been attracting skiers for decades. Skiing began at Ascutney in the winter of 1935–36 on the 5,400-foot Mount Ascutney Trail, pioneered by the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Windsor Outing Club. Early skiers scaled the mountain on their own, just like backcountry skiers today. The Mount Ascutney ski area opened in 1946 with tow ropes. A precursor to the struggles to come, the ski area endured several difficult winters and went bankrupt four years after it opened.

New owners came and went periodically, and Ascutney transformed into a resort destination, attracting tourists and second-home owners from New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. It was described in a 2005 New York Times article as “less fashionable than some of its competitors” with a “small and utilitarian” base pavilion. Local skiers have continued to be its faithful mainstay.

Ascutney Resort has been plagued by years of erratic snow levels. In the 1980s, a new ownership group, Summit Ventures, invested $55 million in ski lifts, condos, and snowmaking. A hotel was built at the foot of the mountain (it is now a Holiday Inn Club Vacations). In 1991, the ski area was forced into liquidation. The ski resort last closed in 2010 and sold its ski lifts. It was a blow to the community.

“We lost our ski resort identity,” said Mr. Seward, who grew up in the community and married his wife, Shelley, on the mountain.

Jim Lyall added: “You saw everyone at school, at the general store, at the post office and at the ski resort. We risked losing all four and becoming just a dormitory community.

Climate change poses an existential threat to New England’s ski areas, which now number 89 in six states. A study 2019 showed that in northeastern states, besides Vermont, at least half of ski areas will close by the mid-2050s if greenhouse gas emissions continue. A study published in 2021 in the journal Climate showed that New England is warming much faster than the rest of the planet. From 1900 to 2020, winter temperatures in Vermont have increased by 5.26 degrees Fahrenheit.

“That means more of our winter precipitation falls as rain instead of snow, less precipitation accumulates on the ground, and there’s more winter melt,” said Elizabeth Burakowski, assistant professor. research at the Institute for the Study of Earth and Oceans. , and Space at the University of New Hampshire.

New England is littered with the ghosts of abandoned ski resorts: According to the New England Lost Ski Areas Project, more than 600 ski areas have closed in the region.

Ski industry leaders warn that the survival of ski areas depends on political action. “It is absolutely critical that business leaders in the outdoor and ski industries come together to make a strong case for bipartisan climate action at the federal and state levels,” said Adrienne Saia Isaac, Director of Marketing and Communications. submissions from the National Ski Areas Association.

West Windsor was determined to reinvent a future that would not depend on the vagaries of winter. In 2014 West Windsor Selectboard asked the Trust for Public Land to help them buy and keep 469 acres of the former ski area to be used for cross-country skiing, mountain biking and other powered recreation human. The ski area would be added to the existing municipal forest and protected by a 1,581-acre conservation easement protecting the land from development. A special municipal meeting was held in October 2014, asking West Windsor voters to approve spending $105,000 on the $640,000 purchase of the former ski area, part of the $905,000 project price to return the land to a recreational use. The purchase was approved by a margin of three to one.

In 2015, a group of city dwellers got together at Jim Lyall’s home to launch Ascutney Outdoors. A new towline was installed the same year, followed by the riser tube in 2017 and a T-bar in 2020. The community raised funds to build the Ascutney Outdoor Center, a 3,000 square foot grassroots lodge , at the foot of the mountain.

Brownsville Butcher and Pantry is minutes from Ascutney Outdoors, and their fates are intertwined.

Peter Varkonyi and Lauren Stevens opened the store in November 2018 and, on a recent weekday, warmly welcomed a steady stream of customers and regulars. This is not your typical general store. It has a wall of Vermont craft beer and a butcher was carving a side of pork hanging from a meat hook in front of refrigerator cases containing Vermont Wagyu beef, fresh goat cheese and all the ingredients for sushi. In the nearby café, customers can choose from homemade bagels and homemade hot pastrami, a smoked beet veggie Reuben, and three varieties of burgers.

In 2018, a community group, Friends of the Brownsville General Store, bought the seized building from the bank for $95,000 and invested $250,000 to renovate it. The group then leased the building to Mr Varkonyi and Ms Stevens for $1 a year, with an option that the couple could buy it at any time for a cost. Chris Nesbitt, a Friends organizer, urged his neighbors to “think of this as the common good. You invest in the community.

Buying local “is the foundation of what we do every day,” said Ms Stevens, proudly detailing $35,000 in organic purchases from Edgewater Farm in Plainfield, NH, and $30,000 in lamb, goat and pork from Yates Farm just down the road. In 2021, she counted, “our small business has given $500,000 back to local businesses.” In December, the couple purchased the store from Friends.

Longtime community resident and teacher at the local elementary school, Amanda Yates, sat with her young son enjoying a burger night at the general store. Mrs. Yates gestured toward the bustling cafe and store. “I credit the store and Ascutney Outdoors for bringing the city back,” she said. “They brought places where you could meet, get good food, where you could see people in town again.

“They really brought this community center back.”


David Goodman is the author of “Best off-piste skiing in the northeast(AMC Books) and host of “The Vermont Conversation,” a public affairs radio show and podcast.

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Newsrust - US Top News: In Vermont, a town saved a mountain and a mountain saved a town
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