Sublette Commissioners meet with Citizens group to discuss White Pine ski area
White Pine Lodge
White Pine did catering and hosted weddings and other group functions.
Pinedale Online file photo.
The Pro Shop under previous owners offered mountain bike rentals and sales. Pinedale Online file photo.
Mountain Bike Chairlift
The ski lift could be switched to chairs that accommodated mountain bikes during the summer. Under previous ownership, the mountain had a variety of challenging mountain bike trails and attempts were ongoing to improve the technical difficulty to build a summer destination for mountain biking enthusiasts. Pinedale Online file photo
Scenic Chair Lift Rides
The summer chairlift ride offered a spectacular view of the area and surrounding scenery. Pinedale Online file photo.
by Dawn Ballou, Pinedale Online!
September 19, 2011
The Sublette County Commissioners held a workshop on Friday, September 16th, to meet with the Citizens to Save White Pine (Citizens) group to discuss the future of the financially troubled ski area. The meeting was a workshop, so no decisions were made and no public comment was taken.
The Citizens members present were Ken Konicek, Rex Paulson and Bonnie Chambers. Not present from their group was Tony Chambers and Dale Hill.
Ken Konicek explained some of the history of how and why they became involved with the ownership of the ski area and their efforts to keep it operational. The owners said it was always their intent to provide a short-term effort to stabilize the ski area so someone else could move in for the long term to run it. Each of the owners has other businesses of their own that they do, and they really werenít and arenít interested in doing the long-term operation of the ski business themselves.
The Commissioners reiterated that they could not spend taxpayer money to help a private business, but they were willing to continue to explore options to try and find a way to keep the ski area going. Commissioner John Linn was the most supportive, saying he felt if the ski area were to be shut down permanently, it was unlikely we would ever be able to get it back. He said he felt it was a tremendous asset for the Sublette County area, and he wanted to make sure all the social and economic benefits were looked at prior to a final decision by the Commission.
The Commissioners asked the Citizens about any efforts to convert over to a non-profit organization. Bonnie Chambers said they have requested non-profit status, but the IRS has not made a determination on it yet.
Neil Stelting, currently the Sublette County Attorney, assisted with the legal set up for the group before his election to office last fall. Because of the issues with the timing delay from the government to get non-profit status, the group decided to do an LLC corporation so they could move forward with the purchase.
Rex Poulson said one thing that had been important to the group was to make sure people who had invested in the ski area under the previous ownership were paid off on their bills. "We paid hundreds of thousands in back debt," he said. Now there is no debt for the business.
With the business stabilized, the group members hope to sell the ski area, recoup their investments, and let another organization take over running the facility. "We donít want to be in the long-term ski business," Konicek said.
Attempts to sell the ski area have proven unsuccessful. Even with the support of the local community, it isnít enough to cover the costs of running the business in the winter. "The winter operation is precarious in breaking even in the winter season," Chambers said.
The group has approached many potential buyers, including area oil and gas companies. "The romance period with the community is over," Poulson said, "they are in production now." The business had also been for sale under the previous ownership.
"The community totally supported it," Poulson said about last seasonís skier numbers. They had 16,000 skier days and sold 550 season passes. Attempts to sell the ski area have proven unsuccessful. Even with the support of the local community, it isnít enough to cover the costs of running the business in the winter. "The winter operation is precarious in breaking even in the winter season," Chambers said.
Konicek made a strong argument for the county to buy the ski area. Pointing to other county holdings in the area (the Nordic ski hut and the telecommunications equipment at the top of the run). Konicek said, "It just makes sense for the county to stabilize that asset." He added the $1.1 million dollar asking price was a great deal for the assets there and would be a break-even number for the Citizensí investments.
Commissioner John Linn said the county does support things like the golf course, ice arena, and ag center, but each had involved a gift, such as the land, from a community member or the BLM as part of acquiring the asset. The county also helps support the retirement center and child care in the county, but pointed out that the organizations running those facilities are non-profits. Linn asked if the Citizens members would be willing to donate their investment into the non-profit reorganization? None of the Citizens members were. "Weíre not going to give White Pine away," Bonnie Chambers said.
Another option that was discussed was the formation of a joint powers board to run the ski area, such as the governing structure for the Pinedale Aquatic Center (PAC). It was pointed out that even though the County and Town of Pinedale are members of that board, they do not contribute anything financially to the operations of the PAC.
The Commissioners have helped the ski area by plowing the road to the facility during the winter and they also did some brush mowing on the runs last year to cut saplings down. They also looked into the cost of a groomer, which would be around a quarter of a million dollars, but acknowledged they could not purchase one if the ski area remained owned as a private business. Commissioner Linn said he questioned if it was appropriate for them to even be grooming the road, which benefits a private business.
Chambers said big costs for them were the grooming, lift maintenance, inspection, labor and insurance. It will cost $30,000 to get the lift inspected and ready to go for this winter season. Their insurance premium comes due in December for $20,000.
One source of revenue that has already been committed is from the Sublette County Recreation Board, which has pledged 10% of their annual budget, Rec Board member Dave Bell said. Bell, a former shareholder in the Citizensí group, ended his involvement in October of 2010. He said there were 18 people involved early on in exploring options for the ski area. The Citizens to Save White Pine group were the ones who took the financial investment gamble. They knew purchasing it was a risky investment and they all went into it with their eyes wide open, Bell said. "It was done out of the benevolence of a number of citizens who felt it was important to kids in Sublette County."
The Commissioners quizzed the group about the summer operation potential. The ski area was not open over the 2011 summer. They responded that the summer operation is really completely different from the winter activities. The owners have been so busy with just salvaging the 2010-2011 winter operations, plus running their own other businesses, they did not have much of a chance to explore anything for summer activities. It was, and is, their hope to find another buyer, preferably the county, who will take it over and figure out the long term operation model for a complete year-round season.
Ultimately, the Citizens will continue to look for a buyer and proceed with the non-profit status. T Commissioners said they would continue to think about things and they would hold another workshop in a couple of weeks. That was tentatively set for Tuesday, Sept. 27th at 6:00PM.
"Do we save this resort or not," Konicek asked. "Our final option is to liquidate."