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December 11, 2023

CT ski areas hope for more snow this winter, as industry sees nationwide post-pandemic boost

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED A ski instructor glides down a slope at Powder Ridge Mountain Park & Resort in Middlefield.

Ski areas nationwide have seen record attendance since the pandemic.

But not all venues have shared in those gains, including some in Connecticut, which were hit last winter by unfavorable weather, including little natural snow and rain that often washed away whatever hill cover they had.

That led, in some cases, to higher operating costs and fewer visitors.

“Last year was probably the worst ever since 2012,” said Sean Hayes, CEO of Powder Ridge Mountain Park & Resort in Middlefield.

Hayes referenced 2012 because that was the year he led the purchase of Powder Ridge through his company, Brownstone Exploration & Discovery Park.

Prior to that, the ski resort closed in 2007, and faced bankruptcy and foreclosure. The town of Middlefield bought the property in 2008, before eventually selling it to Hayes for $750,000.

As the southernmost resort in the state, it was difficult to make and maintain snow at Powder Ridge last year, Hayes said.

“Our product for the winter season is our snow, and without a product, you can’t sell,” he said. Revenue for the 2022-23 ski season was down 50%, he added.

But as a weather-based industry, “it’s going to fluctuate every year, you can’t expect good weather every year, and you have to have reserves for a bad year.”

Geographically, Powder Ridge is at a bit of a disadvantage; Hayes described Interstate 84 as an unofficial snow line. Ski areas to the south and east of the highway like Powder Ridge often get rain when others, like Mount Southington and resorts further north, get snow.

Higher up in the state’s northwest corner, resorts like Ski Sundown in New Hartford and Mohawk Mountain in Cornwall weathered last season better.

General Manager Dan Hedden said Mohawk was able to open 85% to 90% of its 24 trails last year, despite a lack of natural snow.

Visitor numbers have remained relatively unchanged over the last several years, Hedden said.

Long weekends and holidays in January and February are some of the busiest times for ski resorts, and inclement weather does affect the total number of visits, Hedden said.

Ski season outlook

In the late winter of 2020, the pandemic forced most ski resorts to close for part of the season, which typically runs from December to April. However, once ski resorts reopened, people flocked to outdoor activities amid lockdown and business closures.

The National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) said 65.4 million skier visits were tallied at slopes across the country during the 2022/23 season, ranking as the most active season since records started being kept in 1978.

That was 5 million more skier visits than during the 2021/22 season, which ranked second all time on the list, according to the NSAA report.

In the Northeast, 13.2 million skiers and snowboarders hit the slopes during the 2022/23 season. That was up nearly 5% from a year earlier, but only the 16th-highest annual ski visits tallied since 1978/79.

Connecticut has four operational ski areas, according to the NSAA. A fifth ski area in Woodbury has been closed for several years.

Hayes and other Connecticut ski slope operators said they’re hopeful this winter brings more snow and business. It’s not clear if that will happen: Experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are predicting a 40% to 50% chance of a warmer-than-normal winter in the Northeast.

However, Hayes said forecasts for this season are also showing more natural snow potential, along with ideal temperatures to make and maintain snow.

He said he anticipates a return to 2021-22 visitor numbers, or a 50% increase over 2022-23, and the increased ability to have snow on the ground, either naturally or man-made.

Investing in upgrades, offerings

Powder Ridge, unlike other ski areas in the state, is now a year-round adventure park, and offers all-season activities from skiing, snowboarding and tubing, to winter play areas for kids, mountain biking, paintball, summer concerts and more.

That diversification helps soften the blow from warmer winters, Hayes said.

Hayes’ company Brownstone has invested significantly in the property since its 2012 purchase. It spent upwards of $6 million in initial private investment, and close to $20 million to date, including nearly $2 million for a new snow machine, used for the first time this year, Hayes said.

The new machine guaranteed at least two trails were open by the day after Thanksgiving, which is often the unofficial start of the ski season.

The resort logged 150 skiers on Black Friday of this year, and 150 tubers at night, Hayes said.

To diversify, Powder Ridge continues to expand its winter, summer and fall activities. For example, it added a haunted trail this past fall and tubing and snow biking for the winter season.

Owners found that more than 90% of people who tried skiing or snowboarding for the first time did not return, Hayes said, so the business wanted to offer more outdoor activities to a broader customer base.

The build-out of Powder Ridge is about 90% complete, Hayes said, but operations are not running at a profit. Instead, owners will continue to grow and invest in the park and hope for good weather, he said.

This summer was also challenging for the resort as it rained 24 out of the 28 weekends, Hayes noted.

Mohawk is also investing in improvements.

Owners made upgrades to the kitchen area, offering faster food service and fresher options, with free Wi-Fi now available in the lounge. Workers try to keep lift lines short, and the mountain has added an electronic app for buying and showing lift tickets.

Mohawk also invested an undisclosed amount in a new snow machine, with high pressure water pipes and a super-efficient water gun. The machines also start themselves if the temperature dips below a certain temperature, which helps control usage, Hedden said.

New snowmaking and snow grooming equipment should allow Mohawk to open trails more quickly this season, Hedden said.

“We’re always optimistic about having a great season,” Hedden said.

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