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How Vermont’s ski industry is akin to Vermont’s farmers

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There’s good news in Vermont’s ski industry, and then there’s the weather.

The good news is that Vermont’s 18 ski resorts invested more than $25 million in upgrades and new facilities in 2006, and another $150 million was invested in real estate projects and recreational amenities. That substantial investment, however, runs headlong into another bit of news: November 2006 was one of the warmest on record and tied the record for having the least amount of snowfall.

Such enormous investments and such fickle weather remind ski diehards that ski resorts in Vermont, much like the farming community, ride a fine edge on the profitability slope. The ski industry, in fact, has much in common with Vermont’s farm community. An area ski area resort president even noted that ski resorts could be viewed as “snow farmers.�

It’s not that far a stretch: Ski resorts prep their slopes to create the smoothest surface possible; spend hundreds of millions of dollars on snowmaking equipment and hire crews to run ever-more sophisticated machinery; and groom their harvest for the best possible product like a farmer nourishes his crops.

And there are other similarities. Both industries are heavily dependent on the weather. Both are key to preserving an abundance of open land that gives Vermont its special character. And both spawn a tremendous amount of economic activity that feeds off their respective industries. (Take away the ski industry and see how many contractors and those in the building trades, restaurants, bars, outdoor recreation shops, real estate offices, gift and clothing businesses would close throughout the state — and how many individuals might choose to leave because a primary winter recreation activity would no longer attract those people to live here.) Suffice it to say that if either industry went belly-up, the state would be irrevocably changed for the worse.

One significance difference, however, is that the farm community is seen as integral to the state’s persona, while the ski industry is not. That difference, as played out in state policy, is telling: A quick look at the state’s tax laws sees farm land treated at below commercial value (as evaluated under Current Use), while second homes that make up much of the ski industry’s clientele are taxed at a premium.

No one expects the state to suddenly subsidize ski resorts in ways similar to the state’s cherished dairy farms when times are bad, but Vermonters in general, and the Legislature in particular, could be more appreciative of the economic activity, the visual aesthetics, the quality of life amenities and the recreational opportunities that Vermont’s ski communities provide.

That appreciation, in turn, could lead to a better understanding of the economic pressures facing Vermont’s ski industry and the relatively cost-effective measures that could be taken to strengthen their hand. Issues that range from restructuring property tax laws, to re-evaluating workers’ compensation provisions, to streamlining building regulations could make an enormous difference in the ability of Vermont’s ski industry to keep pace with its competitors in the East as well as those out West.

Vermont has the third highest number of skier days in the nation, behind Colorado and Utah, and the industry is an enormously important part of the state’s economic engine. A general recognition of that fact within state government might well lead to ways that could help the ski industry thrive — rather than operate in seeming opposition to state policies. With record warm temperatures this November providing a slow start to the ’06-’07 ski season — and the threat of global warming on the horizon — a legislative committee established to study those issues might be more than just well-considered: It might be key to keeping a vital state industry healthy.

Angelo S. Lynn

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