LUDLOW, Vt. (AP) – Pulling on his hard hat, Dan Petraska leads a tour through the earth movers, carpenters, electricians and other workers who are transforming a previously unnamed, largely forested mountainside into the state’s newest ski destination.

The sprawling construction site, in less than three months time, will be a large new base area extending the reach of the Okemo Mountain Resort to the north.

Jackson Gore, with its ski trails, lodging and amenities, has long been planned at what is closing in on the second most visited resort in New England.

“It took us five years to get permits and 18 months to build it,” said Petraska, who’s in charge of development, as he stood beneath scaffolding where workers were installing a stone facade on the hotel.

The $55 million first phase of the project, while the largest currently under construction, is a symbol of the building boom in the ski industry that likely will change the face of the state’s ski mountains for the next generation.

Almost from one end of the Green Mountain Range to the other, new lifts are being erected, slopeside hotels and homes are under construction and golf courses are being laid out.

The goal is to build more business and expand the resorts’ traditional season from winter to summer and fall.

“What we’re seeing is our members are integrating the demand for slopeside amenities and resort-style amenities, but in a Vermont scale,” said David Dillon, president of the Vermont Ski Areas Association. “We’ve got capacity on the mountains,” he said. “What we don’t have is fresh bed base at many of the areas.”

Resort operators seem to be in a hurry to change that.

Okemo’s project will top out at $100 million when a new phase of condominiums and a nine-hole golf course are complete. New slopeside hotels also are planned at Stowe and Sugarbush, and site excavation and utility work have begun at both.

Condominiums, townhouses and single-family homes are under construction at Stratton, Okemo and Jay Peak and are planned at Stowe. Trees are being cut at Jay where a new 18-hole golf course will be built next summer, at the base of a planned network of new ski trails and lifts that will increase the size of the resort by a third.

There are several primary motivators for the building boom. Most importantly, the resorts don’t have enough available beds for rent in the peak of their busy seasons. Condominium owners who once put their homes in the rental pool increasingly are deciding not to rent them out.

So resorts have turned to the fractional-share concept, in which a particular unit is the owner’s to use for 13 weeks of the year – if it’s a quarter-share arrangement – and is available for the resort to rent to the public when one of its owners isn’t using it.

The hotels are being built at the base of the mountains because there are so few accommodations that have direct access to ski trails and lifts, a common attraction elsewhere.

And the resorts are adding a variety of activities that have nothing to do with skiing or snowboarding, aren’t dependent on snow or that can take place just in summer or fall.

That’s why golf courses and swimming pools are being built. They draw more visitors outside winter, filling beds, stores and restaurants that otherwise would go largely empty in summer.

“We have to see these resorts go into four-season operations,” said Jay Peak President Bill Stenger. “It’s very difficult to sustain the kind of winter operations we have without having a balance that really is that summer and fall. It’s just good business.”

But is it good business for everyone? And is it good social and environmental policy?

The number of skiers and snowboarders visiting Vermont resorts has been pretty much flat for years. So, without ticket sales creating revenue growth, resorts turn to another traditional source.

“That really means they’re not emphasizing the skiing or snowboarding as much as the real estate development,” said Tom Daniels, a University of Pennsylvania planning professor who has participated in Vermont development issues for environmental organizations.

“What you tend to find with these ski areas is they’re talking about some expansion of their trails, but it’s in conjunction with that real estate development,” he said.

With it, the pattern of development is changing.

Traditionally, ski trails, chairlifts, base lodges and scattered housing were built on the mountains. More intensive development was reserved for the villages away from the mountains.

Now there’s development high up the mountain, around the old base areas. Some wonder how that will affect traditional village centers.

“From a sprawl perspective, it’s good to see concentrations of development,” said Beth Humstone of the Vermont Forum on Sprawl. “One of the issues that has to be considered is how does this affect nearby communities where they have shops and hotels and motels that depend on skiers for sales.”

She and others also have been keen to protect wildlife habitat, upland streams and town governments that might at some point get stuck with maintaining sewer, water and road systems that are part of the developments.

A lot of housing built in ski towns in the 1970s and ’80s has become outdated and unpopular. That’s in part why the new developments are being built. But what happens to that now-undesirable housing?

“What happened to A-frames?” Humstone said, only half in jest, of one of the staples of ’70s housing in many ski communities. “As this changes over time, you’re coming up with new schemes for development patterns and the older ones get left behind and often get left vacant.”

Resort operators are well aware of the issues. Okemo, for example, originally planned a lot of retail development at the base of Jackson Gore. But after complaints and opposition from merchants in Ludlow village, it scrapped that in favor of concentrated recreation, including skiing and snowboarding, swimming, a health club, and golf course.

“What we realized was, do we want to compete with that?” said public relations director Pam Cruickshank.

The resorts also are mindful that they operate in an environment much different from their Western counterparts, which have created nearly whole villages in the mountains of Colorado and California.

“It’s important, always, for us to articulate the difference between our resorts to those (that) people see in Colorado,” Dillon said. “We’re not looking to replicate Vail or Beaver Creek or Mammoth Mountain. We have a very unique product here. Vermont has more 2,000-foot vertical mountains than Colorado. We have more vertical than all of our New England brethren and New York state combined. And we have the character of Vermont, which no one has.”

AP-ES-09-06-03 1500EDT


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