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Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune A skier takes advantage of fresh powder late in the last season.

'Miracle March' keeps Mt. Ashland in the black

Despite only half a normal season, the Mt. Ashland Ski Area refrained from dipping into its reserves — thanks to a “miracle March” and staff who kept operating expenses down, said its general manager.

“At the end of the day there was not a shortfall,” said Hiram Towle, general manager of the ski area operated by the nonprofit Mt. Ashland Association.

What Towle termed a “miracle March” with good snowfall resulted in 23,547 skiers and riders, more than any month in the 2016-17 season. Unlike other recent years, the mountain stayed open all days of spring break week and offered $25 tickets. In March 2017, the area recorded 13,471 visits.

“There was some pent-up demand and the skiing environment was really good,” said Towle.

Over a 46-day season, the ski area saw 35,586 skiers and riders compared with 80,849 in 2016-17 when the area was open 90 days. Snowfall totaled 173 inches for the season, compared with 368 inches in 2016-17.

“The board continues to be amazed at the resourcefulness of our management team, both in making the most of low snow in terms of moving snow around and making otherwise poor conditions much better, but also in terms of managing the fiscal and human resources,” said Chris Cook, association secretary.

The area operated with only essential people as required by conditions, said Cook. Towle and his team have developed good relationships with employees who will come back when their services are needed, she said.

Mt. Ashland Ski Area opened Jan. 26, but then closed after eight days. It reopened again on Feb. 23 and operated through April 22, except for the first weekend in April because of rain.

After the ski area’s failure to open in 2013-14 and a short season the following year, the board committed itself to a maintaining a reserve of $800,000 to $1 million going into a season. The area began last season with about $800,000 and will be at that figure next winter, Towle said.

Some revenue figures fell to about half of what was budgeted for a full season. Ticket sales brought in $622,000 but had been budgeted for $1.13 million. Food and beverage sales brought in $241,000 against a budgeted $365,000. Rentals of equipment totaled $86,000 but had been budgeted at $150,000. Retail sales of gear, apparel and souvenirs totaled $86,000 against a budgeted $132,000.

“That department performed very well, due in large part to the fact that we had 50 percent off sales,” said Towle.

Ski and boarding instruction bought in $61,000 but was budgeted at $180,000. A lack of night skiing (just six sessions were held) impacted visits by after-school groups, which affected instruction income, said Towle.

Renovation and expansion of the lodge, a $1.7 million project, was completed in time for the season. An additional 1,000 square feet of seating space was added, the main floor rearranged, interior spaces opened up to expose the original wood and the food service setup revamped. The rental operation was moved into the lodge basement from another, less convenient location.

“It was certainly more comfortable to be in the lodge,” Cook said. “As people are spending more time they are probably spending more money as well. We got tremendous feedback from people on the new space.”

Even when there wasn’t enough snow for skiing, the area stuck with its event schedule. A planned January event with music also featured a small terrain park that staff put together with farmed snow.

“We did the right thing by getting people on the snow, whether it was good or not,” said Towle. “Invite them up and they show up.”

Pass holders numbered 2,500 during last season but sales this spring for 2018-19 have been 1,345. Towle said that’s usually the situation after a poor snow year.

Crews are putting a new roof on the lodge now, but larger capital improvements planned after two good snow and revenue years won’t be undertaken this summer.

“When we come out of a year like we have, we don’t generally jump into a major capital project, but there are many that we are looking at,” said Towle.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.

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