Mt. Ashland Ski Area scrambling to expand

Back-to-back poor snow seasons causing concern for future

Mount Ashland's glacial cirque known as "The Bowl." February 2006. (Wikimedia Commons)
Mount Ashland's glacial cirque known as "The Bowl." February 2006. (Wikimedia Commons)

MEDFORD, Ore (AP) – Mt. Ashland Ski Area officials are looking beyond downhill skiing and snowboarding to keep the resort financially viable in the long term.

All options are on the table, including snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in the winter and mountain bike rentals in the summer, according to a Monday night discussion among board members for the Mt. Ashland Association, which oversees the nonprofit ski area in southern Oregon.

“We run four to five months out of the year when we could run nine or 10 months,” said Hiram Towle, ski area general manager.

The resort could potentially rent out snowshoes and cross-country skis. Snowshoeing and cross country skiing are popular on roads on the back side of Mount Ashland, although people have to bring their own equipment.

The ski area could also rent mountain bikes and sell supplies such as bike tire inner tubes to people attracted to the network of hiking and biking trails outside the ski area on Mount Ashland. Some Rogue Valley businesses already rent mountain bikes to tourists and run shuttle services to the top of the mountain for locals and visitors who are fans of downhill biking.

The U.S. Forest Service is considering expanding the trail network. Use has boomed from 16,000 people annually 15 years ago to 50,000 per year currently, according to agency estimates.

Audience members at the board meeting suggested other ways for the ski area to save money or generate revenue, including installing solar panels to cut electricity costs and selling food to spectators and participants in popular running races like the grueling Mt. Ashland Hillclimb.

“This is the second year in a row that we’ve had a difficult stretch,” Towle said. “We know weather is cyclical and we’ll have good snow years as well, but we know we need to build our summer business.”

The ski area was unable to open last winter due to a lack of snow. It was open for only 13 days this season before dwindling snow pack caused it to close down again in early January. Ski area officials are holding out hope late winter storms could allow the resort to reopen.

“We are operating in hibernation mode,” Towle said. “But there are two-and-a-half months left in the season.”

The ski area had 139 permanent and seasonal workers ready to go for this season, but is now down to a skeleton crew of five people after deep layoffs forced by the closure, according to managers.

Board members said they have looked into snow-making systems for the ski area, but the equipment is costly and the ski area lacks an adequate water source to create artificial snow.

During the 13 days this winter the ski area was open, it attracted 6,669 skiers and snowboarders and took in $269,109 in revenue, Towle said.

Those visitors made up 10 percent of the visitation the ski area would experience in a regular winter, he said.

Lift ticket sales accounted for $80,316 of this winter’s revenue and 3,503 tickets were sold. Other skiers and snowboarders who came used their season passes, he said.

Board members excluded the press and audience members from a more detailed discussion of the ski area’s finances, which took place behind closed doors.

In spring 2014, the ski area took out a Small Business Administration disaster loan of $750,000 to stay afloat. Payments are now coming due, with a $3,100 payment due in February. Managers have said they have budgeted money to make the payments.

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