Community Support Makes a Difference for Okemo, Magic, and Ascutney Mountains

While they are each very different ski areas with distinctive niches, Ascutney, Magic, and Okemo share symbiotic relationships with their respective towns. Community and skier support were present in their foundings and factor in their perseverance today with each area having surmounted a variety of challenges. In doing so, they helped their local economies, whose businesses in turn enhanced the mountain’s appeal by providing an array of services to winter guests as well as summer visitors.

In the 1930s, Vermont State Forester Perry Merrill began buying up land for the state with a goal of creating four-season mountain recreation. Plans for Okemo included a state forest park and a major “ski center.” In 1935, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built an auto road to the summit, cut trails for hiking and skiing, created campsites and picnic areas, and constructed a summit fire “lookout” tower. However, some members of the Vermont Legislature viewed Merrill’s plans as “frivolous” during the Great Depression, delaying Okemo’s debut.

A similar story unfolded for Mount Ascutney. The “monadnock”—a freestanding mountain—was popular for hiking and summit visits since the 1800s, and a CCC contingent built the Ascutney State Park on the southeastern side of the mountain with an auto road, campsites, picnic areas, scenic overlooks, and hiking trails. In 1935 they also built a one-mile ski trail and 30-meter jump on the northwestern side. Politics, again, delayed the mountain’s development.

Magic Mountain was a different story as founder Hans Thorner developed his ski area on 640 acres of private land in Londonderry in 1960. The ski instructor and ski film star designed Magic to be a mountain-based community, resembling a Swiss hamlet with Swiss-styled lodges and inns, lots for chalets, and trailside condos. In 1985, Thorner sold the area, and Magic faced many challenges under a succession of owners. Loyal skiers, dedicated leaders, and a supportive relationship with their local communities enabled all three areas to persevere. Ascutney achieved success by returning to its roots as a small local ski hill; Magic capitalized on its mountain community vibe as a mid-sized area; and Okemo fulfilled a vision of becoming a major ski center.

Carol Lighthall, the executive director of the Chamber, noted that Okemo’s, Magic Mountain’s and Ascutney’s success provided jobs for residents of the region but also attracted many businesses to Ludlow and surrounding towns. “In turn they offer goods and services that not only support winter and summer guests at the ski area but also make this a desirable region for visitors to move to,” she said, noting the symbiotic relationship that exists.

Okemo Vision Realized

With the 1950s’ promotion of skiing by the state and a desire to develop another going business for Ludlow, community members formed Okemo Mountain, Inc., in January 1955 to create “a major ski center.” Residents, skiers, and businesses supported the vision by purchasing stock, and Okemo opened in 1956 with two Pomalifts, one of which was the longest in America. The Okemo Board of Directors developed an ambitious expansion plan, and Okemo became a major employer and economic driver for the region.

Due in part to being a good mountain, Okemo became one of Vermont’s biggest success stories. But as with Ascutney and Magic, it would turn out to be the people who made the difference. Early founders, board members, and workers as well as new owners, talented leaders, and employees worked hard to provide family fun on snow and create a year-round resort. Dr. Ronald Neal was an early Director and avid skier, who taught his son John to ski and left a legacy of a key Okemo employee. Having started in the ski shop as a teenager, after college John worked in the racing program, raced professionally, managed Winter Place, and ran a couple of small areas before returning to Okemo as Director of Facilities Operations in 2013. As Director of Resort Operations since 2018, Neal works with a team of 65 in several departments. Board Director Oliver Tucker supported Okemo’s development by investing and doing construction on the mountain. His legacy includes son Barry, who rose through the ranks, becoming mountain manager in 1982 and Vice President of Mountain Operations in 1995. Daughter Barbara joined as accounting manager in 1984, became controller in 1988, and Vice President, Finance in 1998. (Both are retired now.)

Mary Davis, another local, worked gratis in the early ski shop in return for displaying her real estate sign. When Okemo failed to get $400,000 funding for a new base lodge, Davis and another Director spearheaded a group of supporters who funded the lodge and leased it to Okemo until the area could afford to purchase it. Okemo faced many challenges, but, with spirited tenacity, leaders and supporters found a way to move the area forward. Having purchased trailside parcels, Okemo made possible the construction of vacation homes, engendering a loyal family following (homes couldn’t be built on state leased land). From day one, Okemo’s founders, directors, and managers worked toward offering “one of the best family ski areas in the East.”

However, after Vermont’s devastating 1979-80 no-snow season was followed by another low snow year, Okemo was unable to obtain loans for a chairlift to replace the original Poma to the summit. The area had six Pomas and three double chairs so to succeed in the increasingly competitive ski industry, the Directors recommended selling in 1982. The new owners Tim and Diane Mueller updated the area to a major year-round Vermont ski resort, increasing employment opportunities and supporting the local community through initiatives like the Okemo Community Challenge Grant, college scholarships for employees, and numerous fundraisers for charities. Under their leadership Okemo thrived. By 1996, Okemo was one of the top 20 ski areas in the nation (as measured by skier visits), and by 2010 one of the top two in Vermont as well as the East and top 13 in the nation. By 2018, the resort featured 667 acres of terrain, 121 trails and glades, 98 percent snowmaking, a 2,200-foot vertical, 20 lifts, and the most trailside housing in Vermont.

Impressed by Okemo’s success and especially the focus on family and quality service, Vail Resorts made an unexpected offer and became the area’s third owner in 2018. One of the key leaders who had contributed to Okemo’s success is Okemo Vice President and General Manager Bruce Schmidt, who inherited his family’s penchant for supporting the mountain and serving the community. His community-minded grandfather ran a Ludlow lumber mill and after deliveries to Boston brought back Okemo’s Pomalifts at no charge to support the fledgling ski area. His mother Jackie, a part-time instructor at Okemo, carried Bruce in a backpack for his first ski outings. “I’ve been very fortunate to stay in the GM job after Vail purchased Okemo,” Schmidt said, expressing appreciation for working for a company that allows decisions ranging from operations to guest relations to be “made locally at Okemo.” Noting that Okemo’s community-minded  service has continued under the Epic Promise Foundation, Schmidt explained, “We have a budget to work with projects in the region which are decided on by a regional board here. I’m so proud to be able to do that.” He’s also “proud of how we’re supporting the region, the state, and our part of the world with a goal of sustainability and a commitment to Zero in 2030.” The latter is a goal promoted by Vail Resorts and ambitiously aims for zero in the landfill by 2030. Schmidt said increasing recycling; using washable plates, utensils, cups instead of plastic; decreasing diesel usage; installing efficient snowmaking; and having lifts that use less electricity are among efforts to achieve that goal.

Schmidt appreciates the strong contributions Okemo workers make supporting schools, recreation department, and various community organizations like the Okemo Valley Chamber, Ludlow Rotary Club, and Town of Ludlow Select Board. (Both John Neal and Schmidt served as selectmen.) After the July flood, the resort housed and fed many clean-up workers and displaced residents at the Inn at Jackson Gore and provided labor and water for local recovery efforts The cooperative community spirit extends to local resident and business support of the mountain as well. Guests like options for dining and shopping so there’s a synergy that makes for a partnership versus competition, Schmidt notes. Every November, Okemo hosts a mixer for the Okemo Valley Regional Chamber of Commerce to update their fellow members on their plans for the coming ski season.

Pride in the Team

Bruce Schmidt learned to ski by age five and began working in Okemo’s cafeteria at 15. “I worked at Okemo vacations, weekends, and summers while in high school and served as an intern during my college years,” Schmidt said. He returned to supervise a variety of departments before becoming general manager in 1998 and vice president in 2006. Although he got a bachelor’s degree in ski area management from Lyndon State College in 1987, Schmidt notes, “I learned more on the job—it’s a baptism by fire.”

Acknowledging that he enjoys the challenges of a demanding job, Schmidt, who spent one season as GM at sister resort Mount Sunapee after Vail Resorts purchased the two areas notes that he has always liked “working with people” from the time he handed out sodas in the cafeteria to today when he oversees an Okemo staff of approximately 250 summers and 1200 winters. Addressing Okemo’s considerable success as a resort, Schmidt said, “It has never been about one person. It is about all of us working hard together. There is a good mix of mature managers here as well as newer managers. With support from Vail Resorts, the team continues to focus on skiing and guest services, adding new things like tubing or summer activities to enhance their experience.” Perhaps that is why Schmidt thanks new employees for choosing to accept a position at Okemo — he takes pride in working with “a team that is focused on providing the Experience of a Lifetime.”

Magic’s Comeback Trick

Magic Mountain faced many challenges as the years progressed under various owners and closed in 1991 before bouncing back. Local businesses, residents, planning commission, and loyal Magic fans were supportive of the area’s return. According to Magic President Geoff Hatheway, the mountain spirit Hans Thorner fostered is still “a vital component of what makes Magic special. The terrain at Magic has always brought out some of the heartiest skiers and riders looking for a challenge.” Hatheway noted that Thorner created Magic because “Glebe Mountain provided the mix of steeps, classic fall lines and ridge lines, variety and interest that reminded him of his home in the Swiss Alps. Even when Magic fell on hard times and was closed for several years, people would hike it to ski. When Magic reopened, people came for the adventure and to share in helping keep the area open by volunteering to clear our glades and assist with projects around the lodge.”

Magic’s passionate following eventually led to SKI MAGIC LLC purchasing the area in 2016 and making capital investments to broaden the area’s appeal to local and regional skiers and riders. The capital improvements to snowmaking, lifts, learn-to-ski area, night terrain park, and the lodge/tavern have led to 100 percent increases in both visitation and employment since 2016, without changing Magic’s unique vibe. “As we invested money to make Magic better, we’ve seen a corresponding rise in support from our local community. They know they can rely on Magic as a local business that hires local; creates affordable passes for local Vermonters; and supports building a strong southern Vermont community spirit that helps all. People still come on fall Saturdays to spruce up tree runs and the lodge, and numerous ambassadors help and welcome people during ski season,” Hatheway said. “The resulting connections with the mountain run deep, and that’s why it’s so important for us to remain stewards of this spirit so Magic lives on for future generations. Keeping this alternative, independent spirit alive and flourishing for so many old and new Magic skiers and riders is why, despite all the challenges of running such a venture in today’s ski industry, I’m here today.”

Ascutney Revival

Local enthusiasts formed the Mount Ascutney Ski Club and cut a trail on private land on the mountain’s north side in 1938. World War II interrupted their climb-up/ski-down venture, but a local group formed Ascutney Ski Slopes Corporation in 1947, leasing land from a farmer and from the state, erecting a ski lodge and four tows, and providing skiing on several trails. Poor snow years were followed by new owners who improved the area. One owner installed primitive snowmaking on a lower trail, the first in Vermont in 1957. The 1960s saw ski expansion and mountainside homes built. The 1970s and 1980s brought a succession of owners, including a group who invested $50 million to transform the area to a resort with hotel, condos, sports center, childcare facilities, and mountain upgrades. But no- or low-snow years, upheaval in the economy, and changing tax laws were among factors that impacted the success of these ventures and the resort closed in 2010.

However, the Ascutney Trails Association continued to offer outdoor recreation with its 35-mile Ascutney Trails Network in the adjacent West Windsor Town Forest, where mountain biking, hiking, cross-country, horseback riding, backcountry skiing, and snowshoeing were popular. With the success of Ascutney Trails and a desire to reinvigorate the local economy, Ascutney Outdoors (AO) formed in 2015 with a goal to reestablish Alpine skiing and townspeople were quick to support AO’s plans.

The select board and volunteers fundraised and worked with the Trust for Public Land to acquire the resort’s 469 acres. With numerous organizations and town committees involved in the project, volunteers returned the lower mountain to its roots as a community ski hill, reopening in 2015 with a rope tow, several trails, and a yurt warm-up hut. Since then, AO has added more trails, a tubing area, the Ascutney Outdoor Center, and a T-Bar. The Ascutney Trails Association maintains the upper mountain for snowshoeing and backcounty skiing. “Reviving skiing and promoting other activities on the mountain has had an amazing impact on the community of West Windsor and surrounding areas. Year-round and second-home residents have been incredibly supportive of having their mountain back,” said AO Board Chair Shelley Seward. “West Windsor’s population has grown, and real estate values have recovered. Children learn to ski, giving us hope that future generations will keep the mountain alive.”

“The mountain revival was a catalyst for reopening the local store. Brownsville General suffered after the resort closed and ultimately ceased operations. A group of residents bought the building and partnered with a young couple who created Brownsville Butcher & Pantry,” Seward added. The store reopened in 2018 and has flourished as a community hub, collaborating with AO to bring activity and vitality to the area. The Ascutney success story is a mutually beneficial one, with Seward observing, “The lifeblood of AO’s operation is our volunteers. We have over 120 people who donate their time to make the mountain the place to be. This coupled with our generous donors has given rise to AO’s slogan “Community Makes it Happen.”

By Karen D. Lorentz