Vermont Resorts Prepare to Take Back Market Share : Tourism: New England ski operators fund improvements and appear no longer willing to concede to West as prime vacation destination.


The 50-foot-wide swath of newly cleared forest that cuts through Sugarbush Resort is designed to connect two separate ski areas.

It's more like the ski industry's link to the future.

This narrow clearing, where a new chairlift is being built, is one of the keystones of the resort's ambitious $28-million revitalization, and on a larger scale, part of a building boom among Vermont ski operators.

Just months after finishing one of the area's most disappointing seasons in recent memory, practically every resort is doing something: adding a chairlift or trail, buying new grooming and snow-making equipment, or boosting the power of existing snow-making systems.

When it's all totaled, more than $50 million is being invested on the ski slopes or in the equipment and amenities serving them.

"This level of activity after such a tough winter shows the tremendous commitment the areas have not only to their skiers but to the state of Vermont," Vermont Ski Areas Assn. President Joe Parkinson said.

Skiing is a capital-intensive business that requires frequent updates to keep up with technology and the competition. So the resorts with the biggest bank accounts are leading the building frenzy this year.

The Stratton resort is installing the first six-person chairlift in the East; Killington is cutting 75 acres of new back-country skiing; Mt. Snow is adding 100 acres of tree skiing; five other resorts are adding at least one trail to their mix.

Stratton is owned by Intrawest, a Canadian company known for modern resorts with plenty of guest amenities. Killington and Mt. Snow's parent company, SKI Ltd., traditionally has tried to stay ahead of the competition with the newest innovations.

But the work at Sugarbush is catching most of the attention.

Sugarbush, once known as one of the best skiing mountains in the East, had suffered from little or no investment for more than a decade. It was on the brink of closing three years ago.

A new owner with deep pockets and plenty of ski experience took over last year. Under Leslie Otten's ownership, the resort is undergoing a transformation: seven new chairlifts, the first phase of a 63-million-gallon snow-making pond, dozens of miles of underground piping to make snow all over the mountain, an expanded base lodge and an aggressive marketing plan.

"Basically what we're doing is the rebirth of Sugarbush," president Allen Wilson said.

Sugarbush's construction is by far the biggest ski expansion in the state, perhaps the biggest single-season North American expansion ever, by the estimate of chairlift manufacturer Dopplmayer.

Signs of construction are all over Sugarbush's base lodge areas in Warren and Fayston. Since August, a helicopter has been buzzing over the Mad River Valley a couple of times a week ferrying concrete to form lift tower foundations or to install the towers that will hold chairlift cables. Parking lots are littered with new chairs waiting to be hung from the cables and the old equipment destined either for the scrap heap or a smaller ski area.

The activity stands in stark contrast to last January, when the slopes snaking down Lincoln Peak were mostly brown, their snow cover melted by a freak warm snap. Statewide skier visits were down to 3.7 million for the season, a far cry from the peak 1986-87 season, when there were 5.2-million visits.

Sugarbush, which once had more than 400,000 annual skier visits, was down to roughly 300,000. Otten and Wilson believe their investment will pay off quickly. The goal for the upcoming season is 400,000 visits, Wilson said.

"We're very bullish on where the industry can go. We're not afraid to put our money where our mountain is and we think the skiers will come," he said, echoing one of the resort's new marketing themes. "You've got a helluva mountain. Add snow making, add lifts and you've got a winner."

An industry watcher said that kind of attitude has been missing at many of the premier Eastern resorts. It has cost the region business, said Greg Berry, editor of the Ski Industry Letter.

"Any kind of expansion of this size gets national attention and therefore improves the reputation that the East has as a destination," Berry said. "For several years, New England has conceded to the West the destination vacation. I think that's a mistake."

Stowe is adding to the attraction of a Vermont vacation, Berry said, with more than $4 million in improvements, primarily to snow making, and others waiting in the regulatory pipeline. It and Sugarbush are the closest resorts to Burlington International Airport, and the improvements are bound to rehabilitate New England's skiing image, he said.

Stowe is banking on that, also, highlighting in its media packages work at rivals Sugarbush and Jay Peak as well as at Mt. Mansfield. "By raising the status of the region of northern Vermont as a whole, it helps us individually," said Stowe spokeswoman Linda James.

That's the vision at Sugarbush, also. Even the view from the new lift line in Warren seems to support tying resorts together as a destination. Off in the distance, just beyond the eastern shoulder of Camel's Hump, looms the summit of Mt. Mansfield.

"I think certainly a vibrant, revitalized Sugarbush and Stowe help make a better case for a New England destination vacation," Berry said.

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