The Antelope Butte ski area in the Bighorn Mountains has been closed since 2004. Now, the Antelope Butte Foundation is raising money to reopen the ski-resort… this time as a nonprofit. The Foundation has applied for a Wyoming Business Council Grant to refurbish the resort. But the owner of the nearby Meadowlark Ski Lodge is worried that the competition could kill his business. Wyoming Public Radio’s Luke Hammons reports.
LUKE HAMMONS: Off of US-14, about an hour west of Sheridan snow falls on the still chairlifts of the now-defunct Antelope Butte Ski Area. Weak snowfall and financial troubles caused the business to fold nearly a decade ago, and the property went to the US Forest Service, which owns the mountain.
When the Forest Service failed to sell the ski area, a group of local ski enthusiasts formed a nonprofit, hoping to reopen it. Mark Weitz of the Antelope Butte Foundation took me up to the resort. Those are my snowshoes.
MARK WEITZ: Our mission is to reopen this, but our real focus is on making mountain recreation and skiing accessible and affordable to beginners and youth.
HAMMONS: It’s been a while since kids in the area have been able to ski close to home. The nearest ski area to Sheridan is at least an hour and a half away. Weitz says it will cost about 3 million dollars to get Antelope Butte up and running again. They’ll have to refurbish the lodge and chairlifts, as well as buy groomers, snow plows, and other equipment. They have help though. Big Horn County has joined the fundraising effort.
The County has applied for a grant from the Wyoming Business Council to reopen the Antelope Butte Ski Area. Business Council Spokeswoman Molly Spangler says having a ski mountain would benefit local businesses by making the area more attractive to outsiders.
MOLLY SPANGLER: It would be bringing back an asset to the area that has been underutilized for the past few years, and it would allow a space for people to come and recreate and gather, you know, not just through Big Horn County, but in Washakie and Johnson and Sheridan County and throughout the state.
HAMMONS: Skiers think having another ski area will be good too. On a bright Saturday after a fresh snowfall, there’s a healthy turnout on the slopes at Meadowlark Ski Resort, the other ski area in the Bighorn Mountains. Many of the skiers drove all the way from Sheridan to get here.
SHAWN BLANCH: I think I would enjoy both places, and I would go to both of them. It’s important to support your local… local ski lodge, and I love them. So I’d love to go to both, I think.
HAMMONS: But skiers splitting their times between 2 resorts is the last thing the owner of Meadowlark, Wayne Jones, wants.
JONES: If Antelope Butte opens up, I just don’t see how we have a chance in hell of surviving. I mean, how am I supposed to compete with a nonprofit? I mean, think about it. A nonprofit, they can sell their ski tickets as cheap as they want, and they can lose as much money as they want. All they’ve got to do, if they lose money, is go and recruit some more tax free money. We don’t have that option.
HAMMONS: Jones is worried that if Antelope Butte Ski Area re-opens… BOTH ski areas will go under. It wouldn’t be the first time. Meadowlark and Antelope Butte were both closed for a while. Jones bought Meadowlark at auction and re-opened a few years ago. He says business is growing, but he thinks North Central Wyoming lacks the population to support two ski areas.
But Emerson Scott, who used to run Antelope Butte, says that’s not necessarily true.
EMERSON SCOTT: When both Meadowlark and Antelope Butte were both running and running well, they both had their highest skier days then. And it created, in my mind, kind of a critical mass, where you had a lot of interest in the area, in the Central part of Northern Wyoming, and that… thus it generated more skier visits. And when one of those mountains would cease to operate it would actually hurt numbers at the other mountain because the overall interest rate died.
HAMMONS: Even though Scott thinks North Central Wyoming can support two ski areas, he says Antelope Butte is probably better off as a non-profit. That way, it would only have to break even–not turn a profit–and could get donations and perhaps state money to stay in business.
He says that Meadowlark could be able to sustain a for-profit operation… due to nearby lodging, its proximity to Casper and Gillette, and its ability to make snow.
The Antelope Butte Foundation has raised more than $150,000 from private donors, and they hope to get state grant money within the next year. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Luke Hammons.