LONDONDERRY—On the way into Magic Mountain Ski Area, drivers pass a sign declaring that “you’ve now officially taken the road less traveled.”
That’s a key marketing slogan for the property’s new owners: They’re trying to differentiate Magic Mountain from much larger competitors by emphasizing a less-crowded, “throwback” ski experience.
But administrators also are hoping a lot more people see that sign in the years to come. To that end, they’ve submitted state Act 250 applications for major upgrades to snow-making operations, lifts, and other projects aimed at boosting skier visit numbers as soon as possible.
While Magic Mountain just completed its first season after last year’s change of ownership, Ski Magic LLC President Geoff Hatheway expects skiers will “see a lot of differences” when they return for the second season.
“We’re doing a lot in a very short amount of time,” Hatheway said.
Magic Mountain dates to 1960, when it was founded by Switzerland native Hans Thorner. Known for its terrain, Swiss ski instructors and nightlife, the Londonderry resort flourished.
“When New England skiing really started to take off in the 1960s and 1970s, Magic was an integral part of it,” Hatheway said.
But Magic Mountain eventually fell on hard times and closed after the 1991 season. The ski area reopened six years later and has stayed open since then, but that run apparently was set to end in 2016.
“Magic would have not opened [for the 2016-17 season] if we hadn’t come along and bought it,” Hatheway said.
The new ownership group is called Ski Magic LLC, and the sale officially closed in late November. While a purchase agreement signed several months before had allowed some important repair work to begin, Hatheway acknowledged in November that “the late closing of the purchase puts us a bit behind the eight ball prepping for the new season.”
That turned out to be an understatement, as administrators found additional work that had to be done. Repairs to the “Black Chair” summit lift, for example, extended deep into the ski season.
The new owners also replaced the leaky base lodge roof and undertook critical snow-making repairs.
Despite those challenges, Magic Mountain’s tubing park opened in mid-December, with skiing opening by the end of that month.
“Given all the obstacles, the season went very well,” Hatheway said.
In fact, February was “probably the biggest month Magic has ever had since it reopened in 1997 in terms of skier visits and revenues,” he added. One day, administrators had to stop selling tickets because the ski area was so busy.
“Obviously, we want to have more days like that,” Hatheway said. “But to have that so early ... was really a nice response from the public and the customer.”
Magic Mountain has been attracting about 20,000 skier visits in a good year. But Hatheway wants to see a big increase, believing the property can comfortably host 36,000 skier visits per year on its approximately 195 skiable acres.
That’s where the planned improvement projects come in.
Ski Magic LLC has submitted two applications under the state’s Act 250 land-use regulations: One for snow-making upgrades and another for general improvements.
Cost estimates in those two documents add up to $875,000, though that price could rise.
Expanding the reservoir
For snow-making, Ski Magic wants to boost the capacity of its reservoir from 4.7 million gallons to 8.7 million gallons. The documents show Magic Mountain administrators expect to use about 30 million gallons of water in any given season to consistently make snow on about 80 acres of terrain.
Hatheway said Magic Mountain still will rely heavily on natural snow. But he believes that, “to make this ski area economically viable for the region, we needed access to more water than currently is in that pond.”
Other planned snow-making improvements include reconstruction of the reservoir’s dam and installation of 5,100 feet of pipe.
The other Act 250 application includes refurbishing the mountain’s so-called “Green Chair” lift. While equipment for that lift was purchased under previous ownership, “it was never completed, and it basically lay dormant there for a decade.”
The green lift will be an important project for Ski Magic, as it’s designed to be a base- to mid-mountain lift catering to those who don’t want to go all the way to the top.
That opens up more intermediate and beginner terrain. It also “creates a smaller footprint for us to make snow on, so that we can open earlier,” Hatheway said.
Ski Magic also wants to add a 240-foot surface lift in the property’s beginner area.
Additional projects proposed in the application include upgraded lighting for snow-tubing; replacement of an exterior deck at the base lodge; and installation of a new ski patrol building and a guest services yurt.
Investments in sustainability
It’s a fair amount of work for a new ownership group, but Hatheway said there are now 16 investors involved in the Ski Magic effort.
“We didn’t start this without the capital already set aside,” he said.
That’s not to say those investors are simply throwing money at the mountain. There are no plans, for example, to install a high-speed lift or to cover the majority of the property with snow-making.
Instead, Ski Magic is looking at “investments that are going to count long-term in terms of sustainability,” Hatheway said.
“We’re not looking to change Magic’s character to something else that would require tens of millions of dollars,” he said. “We’re looking to keep Magic’s character, but broaden its appeal.”
Ski Magic administrators believe that appeal lies in the mountain’s challenging terrain and in a back-to-basics approach that emphasizes skiing rather than retail or real-estate development.
Magic Mountain was one of several Vermont ski resorts to change hands last year. But a key difference is that the Magic Mountain deal didn’t involve multi-resort conglomerates or hedge funds.
“We are taking a different approach to the ski market, but it’s one we think is incredibly viable in part because of what’s going on in the ski industry,” Hatheway said. “The ski industry has definitely homogenized itself.”