Chris Smith has spent most of his life on small mountains.

Chris Smith has spent most of his life on small mountains.

He learned to ski as a 4-year-old on a farmer’s field on a homemade rope tow in western New York. As a teenager, he taught skiing at Swain Resort, a smaller ski area in New York. He eventually moved to snowmaking, grooming and coaching, and in 2007, become program director of the Casper Mountain Racers, a local racing club and ski school.

Most people associate skiing with thousand-foot drops, iconic, wind-swept peaks and deep powder. But smaller, local hills like Hogadon Ski Area, overlooking Casper, are also part of a mountain town’s lifeblood, he said.

“When I was a kid and my brothers and sisters and I started skiing, my mom sat in the parking lot and waited,” he said. “Then she took lessons and skied until she was 75 years old.”

Smaller areas don’t draw tourist crowds like Jackson or Vail. But they do draw people to a community, and convince them to stay once they’ve arrived.

They’re also a more affordable option for beginners and weekend warriors, Smith said.

The problem: They’re expensive to maintain and often lack lucrative real-estate options like the bigger resorts.

Hogadon faces a master plan with nearly $12 million in renovations. Some are optional, but a consultant says the ski area

requires more than $6 million in projects including building a terrain park and replacing the two chair lifts, ski lodge and maintenance buildings.

Hogadon isn’t alone. About 750 ski areas used to dot North America. Now only 471 continue to operate, according to Jamie Schectman, cofounder and CEO of Mountain Rider’s Alliance. Many of the ones that closed were small, community-focused areas unable to keep up with rising costs.

Some small Cowboy State areas are bucking the trend and trying to make it work. One is operating as a nonprofit. Another is run by local business owners as a stopgap measure. A closed resort is considering joining a consortium.

Skiers like Smith say small areas are what keep towns vibrant and healthy. Losing them would be like losing a piece of the future.

Alternative models

Traditionally, most U.S. ski areas were either privately owned, like Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, or owned by a municipality, as is the case with city of Casper-owned Hogadon.

Then Sleeping Giant Ski Area near Cody tried a new model.

A group of community members bought the property after it closed in 2004 and formed a nonprofit backed by grants. It reopened to business in 2009 and continues to expand its services with additional rentals and a small area for tubing.

White Pine Ski Area and Resort out of Pinedale faced a similar dilemma in 2010. The former owners were close to bankruptcy when a group of local business owners bought the ski hill.

Bills soon mounted with more money going out than coming in, said Dale Hill, co-owner of the ski area and owner of A to Z Hardware in Pinedale. They shuttered the lodge for the 2011 and 2012 season, but reopened it the next year.

The group doesn’t see itself as a permanent solution for the ski area. Its members just wanted to keep it running until they could find a buyer. Hill doesn’t know the long-term answer for the resort. Government or nonprofit ownership might be the most feasible option.

“If the same thing happened to our golf course, I would think about supporting it even though I’m not a golfer and I’m not a skier,” he said. “It is an amenity and brings business to town and provides something for our citizens to do.”

Ski areas as co-ops

Another potential solution recently emerged: Ski areas as cooperatives, owned by a holding company, but run by a co-op of local skiers, snowboarders, business owners and municipalities.

Everyone would own a bit of the area’s operations, said Schectman, with Mountain Rider’s Alliance.

“If you have a community investment and they aren’t expecting a return, they just want the future with a ski area,” he said. “The whole philosophy changes from what the next quarter looks like to next decade.”

Small areas have suffered in large part because of economies of scale. A resort the size of White Pine, for example, can’t get the same deals on groomers, rental equipment or insurance as a resort in Vail. Pool multiple small areas together, though, and they could see the same buying power and reduction in cost as the larger areas.

That’s the idea behind Mountain Rider’s Alliance, an organization formed in 2010 to offer a solution to North America’s mom and pop ski areas.

The group wants to make mountain playgrounds — ski hills with few crowds, cheap lift tickets and the ability to use renewable energy, Schectman said. The consortium of areas would spread out such costs as marketing and accounting.

A small ski area in Maine is the group’s first official project. More will hopefully follow, Schectman said.

Antelope Butte ski area in the Big Horn Mountains might be a candidate for this type of model, said Mark Weitz, president of the Antelope Butte Foundation.

The ski area closed in 2005 after filing for bankruptcy. A local community group has been trying to raise money to reopen the hill as a nonprofit. Weitz wonders if something like Mountain Rider’s Alliance, where the area could benefit from group discounts and institutional knowledge, could be Antelope Butte’s answer.

Worth the cost?

Schectman calls small ski areas breeder feeders. Skiers and snowboarders learn on slopes like Hogadon’s before progressing to bigger mountains like Jackson or Winter Park.

The average daily lift ticket in the country is $86.17, a lot for someone to fork over on a whim. Tickets to Hogadon, on the other hand, are $40. Sleeping Giant is $30.

“The mom and pops are part of the communities,” Schectman said. “It’s important for the overall lifeline of the sky industry.”

Hogadon is a recreational opportunity for people worth supporting, said Casper City Councilman Keith Goodenough. But council members must weigh if the area really needs $11 million in upgrades.

“It’s an enormous amount of money,” he said. “I do not support the full and total funding of the area, which is basically rebuilding the entire thing.”

He and other council members approved a magic carpet — a sort of conveyer belt for skiers and snowboarders — to replace the older Poma lift. The original lift was so difficult to navigate, new users weren’t coming back, said Doug Follick, the city’s leisure services director.

Hogadon also bought two new snow guns for making snow and plans to buy another two next year.

If the city continues investing in the area, more people will go, said Smith, the Casper Mountain Racers coach.

“Jackson is an awesome place, but the amount of people who can move to Jackson and find a job and survive there are a lot less than people who can move to Casper and ski at Hogadon,” Smith said. “Casper offers jobs and family lifestyles that people can afford.”