HANCOCK — By the time the Middlebury College Snow Bowl opens this winter, college officials expect a new $1.7 million, triple-chair lift will be ready to carry skiers and boarders to the top of the ski area, using the same route as the old lift.
The new lift will replace the 40-year-old Worth Mountain double-chair lift, which the college learned this spring no longer meets state licensing requirements. The lift in question is the ski area’s main route to the top, heading up the Allen Trail that overlooks the Snow Bowl’s base lodge.
Vice President for College Advancement Mike Schoenfeld — who skied the then-new Worth Mountain lift as a Middlebury College freshman ski team member in 1969 — said the choice boiled down to spending roughly $500,000 on repairs to bring the lift back up to code, or spending $1.7 million on a replacement.
Because a fix on the 40-year-old lift might last only a few years, Schoenfeld said President Ron Liebowitz didn’t wait too long to recommend to college trustees to make the larger investment — especially factoring in how big a role the Snow Bowl plays in the lives of both local residents and students.
“Do you want to spend a half-million dollars for what will last a few years, or do you want to spend $1.7 million for a brand new lift?” Schoenfeld said. “Essentially, it really was a no-brainer in terms of an investment in a facility that means so much to the community.”
In a June 24 e-mail to all college personnel, Liebowitz outlined several other reasons to proceed, including the 75-year-old ski area’s “economic importance” to Addison County as well as its recreation value.
“Countless children, students, faculty, staff and townspeople have learned to ski at the Bowl and enjoyed the thrill of winter sports over the decades. In recent seasons, the Bowl has recorded annually between 50,000 and 60,000 visits by skiers and snowboarders,” Liebowitz wrote.
He added, “The Snow Bowl is an asset that sets our college apart from other institutions. It also creates dozens of jobs — directly and indirectly — and generates hundreds of thousands of dollars for the local economy via meals, lodging, ski and snowboard equipment rentals and purchases.”
Still, because the college administration has asked all its departments to tighten belts in the past year as its endowment has shrunk, Liebowitz’s e-mail also addressed the “significant capital investment” in the Snow Bowl.
He noted that the college sets aside about $8 million in its budget every year in a reserve fund for campus infrastructure repairs, and said the school would “tap this reserve in order to begin work on the new lift immediately” without having a “direct impact on our operating budget.”
Liebowitz also pointed to $600,000 of donations already made toward the new lift, and said a major fund-raising effort will be undertaken to pay back the reserve fund. Schoenfeld said that $600,000 came in the form of two anonymous $300,000 gifts.
Schoenfeld and his advancement colleagues hope to raise the rest of the $1.7 million, plus more, by selling naming rights to the new chair lift’s 15 towers (for $50,000 each) and 104 chairs (for $5,000 each).
They also hope to sell 100 lifetime Snow Bowl passes at $5,000 each. Schoenfeld said he doesn’t expect all those sales to happen immediately, but if the goal is met that about $2.3 million will be raised, including the $600,000 already in hand.
“If we go above it, we’ll use it as an endowment to support the operation of the Bowl,” he said.
Information on the fundraising effort is available at http://go.middlebury.edu/worthmtchair.
Meanwhile, Snow Bowl manager Peter Mackey said the old lift’s towers, except for the bottom terminal, are already gone. He said although the lift as a whole did not meet existing code, that its elements retained value, and he found a company that agreed to remove it at no charge to the college. Some elements have already been resold to ski areas in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, Mackey said.
The central problems with the old lift at the Snow Bowl centered on 40-year-old concrete. Mackey said once officials started looking at replacing concrete, they realized they would have to deal with other elements of the lift, which while still safe and functional, had been “grandfathered” while ski lift codes had changed since 1969.
“The lift had outlived six code changes,” Mackey said.
That’s when the repair bills began to add up, and replacing the lift began to make more sense, he said.
“In the long term, it’s definitely the way to go,” Mackey said.
Doppelmayr CTEC, described in Liebowitz’s email as “an international firm that has built nearly 14,000 ski lifts in 80 countries” will provide the new lift, which officials said will have roughly the same capacity as the old lift.
Schoenfeld said the college was lucky that the company was available on relatively short notice, allowing the Snow Bowl to operate without major interruption or slowdown.
“Doppelmayr is the real professional on this,” he said. “We were really fortunate.”