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Harris Hill competition cancelled over health concerns

Pandemic prompts organizers to kill the annual ski-jump contest and turn attention to celebrating the event’s centennial in 2022

BRATTLEBORO—The Harris Hill Ski Jump had cancelled its annual competition a dozen times in the past century for a variety of reasons — World War II (1943–45), a lack of snow (1930, 1932, 1937, 1980, 1981, and 1998), and reconstruction of the ski jump to meet international competition standards (2006–08).

And now, joining the list of extenuating circumstances that can remove a beloved local tradition and major winter sports institution from the calendar: the coronavirus.

Organizers last week decided to cancel the February 2021 competition due to the COVID-19 pandemic and turn its attention to planning for Harris Hill’s centennial in 2022.

“The committee considered the health risks to jumpers, coaches, committee, volunteers and, of course, the thousand of spectators who come from all over New England and beyond,” event co-director Liz Richards told The Commons in an email interview.

“I believe, at this time, the maximum number of attendees for even an outside event is around 150,” she said. “That just wouldn’t work for an event our size.”

The ski jump has been a local tradition since its inception in 1922 by Fred Harris, the founder of the Brattleboro Outing Club and the Dartmouth Outing Club.

“Fred H. Harris of Brattleboro, to whom a large share of the credit is due for the success of Brattleboro’s first ski carnival, gave a splendid exhibition of form in his jumps, and he came in for a good share of the applause by the crowd,” the Brattleboro Daily Reformer reported on Feb. 6, 1922. “The onlookers, especially the Brattleboro residents, knew that but for him the ski jump project never would have come about.”

Since its start, Harris Hill has attracted ski jumpers from North America and Europe who leap off the 90-meter hill. The jump is New England’s only Olympic-size venue and one of just six of its size in the country.

The Cedar Street site has hosted 18 national and regional championships. In 1992, it hosted the National Championships.

Richards said October is usually when preparations for the event start picking up speed. However, with coronavirus cases again on the upswing in Europe and the chances of seeing an effective vaccine still months away, she said it would be “irresponsible” to make plans for a 2021 competition.

“Before we went public with our cancellation release, I sent notice to all the sponsors, town officials, key volunteers, and vendors that we would not be holding an event in February,” Richards said. “It was very heartwarming to hear back from so many who echoed that, although very difficult, this was the right decision given the health crisis in our country.”

Local economy could feel impact

With most of the expenses — travel, lodging, food, snowmaking, advertising, and prize money — directly related to actually running the event, the change in plans will have a minimal financial impact on the group that puts on the Harris Hill jump each February during the Presidents Day holiday weekend, Richards said.

The big impact, Richards said, will be to the local economy. Harris Hill has traditionally been the centerpiece of the annual Brattleboro Winter Carnival.

“I think it is without a doubt to say that our two-day event over a major winter holiday weekend brings a lot of out-of-state visitors to Brattleboro,” she said. “Local restaurants always comment how the ski jump brings tons of customers into their establishments.”

Because of “great weather and a great gate over the past few years,” the Harris Hill nonprofit is on solid financial footing, Richards said.

That financial strength, she said, helps with the year-round expenses, like mowing the hill several times during the summer, tree trimming and removal, and paying the property taxes and electricity.

That last item is important, because the Brattleboro Fire Department maintains radio relay equipment at the top of the take-off.

As for 2022, Richards said the Harris Hill committee will start meeting in November “to explore how we can give our community a special weekend that celebrates 100 years of ski jumping in Brattleboro.”

“I think Fred Harris would be quite proud that his vision has reached this milestone.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #584 (Wednesday, October 21, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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