New manager oversees growth at Rikert Nordic
RIPTON — In February 2013 work to install snowmaking at Middlebury College’s Rikert Nordic Center was completed.
Before then, Mike Hussey, general manager of the two Middlebury College ski areas, said Rikert opened about 70 days a winter and attracted about 5,000 visitors a year.
But by 2018 Hussey estimated about 15,000 skiers annually made use of the Nordic center’s 55 kilometers of Ripton trails, and those skiers enjoyed an average of 140 days of skiing. Rikert, at the college’s Bread Loaf Campus, also hosts major regional championships every year.
And now Hussey said Rikert has made another move he believes will help the Nordic center take a step forward — hiring Cornwall resident, 1992 Middlebury College All-American Nordic skier, and longtime youth coach and Bill Koch League organizer Barney Hodges as its assistant director.
The decision means Hussey will spend more time at the college’s nearby Snow Bowl, while Hodges will oversee Rikert’s operations — and help chart its future.
Hussey said it’s a perfect match.
“We’re really excited about Barney taking over the reins,” Hussey said. “Being that he’s right out of town here and that he’s put so much energy into the local pieces adds a fantastic element.”
Hodges comes to Rikert after operating Cornwall’s Sunrise Orchards for two decades with wife Chris. Hodges said they have refocused that operation, and Chris Hodges will run the orchard, freeing Barney to apply to Rikert this year when the job formally opened.
Barney Hodges said he was thrilled to have the opportunity after so many years of coaching and skiing at Rikert with Chris and their children, two of them who ski for Middlebury College and one of them who skis for Middlebury Union High School.
“It’s been a passion of mine, Nordic skiing, at every stage, and I haven’t been part of the operation of a place like this. And so for me, my life has changed, and here’s a place where I can participate in something I love to do,” he said. “Knowing the people up here and being a part of Middlebury my whole life and loving the institution of Middlebury College and having kids here, everything lined up to say, wow, this is kind of ideal if I need to make this change. It’s a really good fit.”
Hodges believes 20 years of operating an orchard has prepared him for running Rikert.
“I come into thinking of it exclusively as a business, not as just another arm of the college, and it doesn’t matter. I view it completely as it matters, and we need to be managing our costs every step of the way, and our revenue. We can manage costs, but you can grow revenue,” Hodges said. “It’s better to grow revenue, and that’s what I’m seeing here.”
RIKERT NOW AND AHEAD
Certainly, there are pieces at Rikert already in place. As well as daily and season trail-pass sales, the Frost Mountain Nordic Club calls Rikert home, and has grown from maybe 15 members a decade ago to about 120 youth and family members.
Rikert’s ski school provides Saturday lessons for ages 3-13, and has an elementary school outreach program that according to its website puts hundreds of students a year on skis or snowshoes.
The center hosts on a rotating basis — along with the state’s other major centers such as the Trapp Family Lodge and Craftsbury Nordic Center — events such as the Eastern Regional youth and Eastern High School championships and the Bill Koch Festival, each of which draws hundreds of competitors and a couple of thousand family members. Hodges said he has helped stage all of those events in the past eight years.
To start with, Hussey and Hodges agreed marketing has been lacking.
“Since they’ve gotten things (snowmaking) going, they’ve opened in November every year,” Hodges said. “And what we’re not doing yet is promoting our November skiing.”
Hussey said with Hodges on board he would like to work with him to promote the college ski areas together.
“The Snow Bowl is in the same position. There, as well as here, we’re not getting the word out well enough,” Hussey said. “I see that as a combined effort between the two areas. It’s a great sister act here, right? You’ve got families that are alpine skiing families and Nordic skiing families.”
Both Hussey and Hodges would also like to work with college officials to see if the nearby 50-room inn on Middlebury’s Bread Loaf campus could be opened in the winter. For example, Hodges would like to offer early-season weeklong training sessions for competitive skiers over the Thanksgiving break, and the inn could host them if it were available.
“Because we have early snow, they look at this facility and they go, man I wish I could stay there,” Hodges said.
Doing so might seem simple, but Hodges and Hussey acknowledge the inn has never been open in the winter, and changing that status would mean not only finding staff, but also persuading the college to make an investment and maybe even a cultural shift.
“I know that using this facility and using the other buildings here that the college has invested in is something that Middlebury wants to figure out how to dovetail into various operations, including Rikert,” Hodges said. “How that’s done is above my pay grade. I’m going to start talking to people at Middlebury about how Rikert could start bringing business to that facility, meaning the inn here, and how the inn could bring business to Rikert.”
Ideally, Rikert could offer some of the amenities that the Trapp Family Lodge and Craftsbury already provide, Hodges said.
“These other venues have done a good job, when those people arrive, they bring them into their fold and they utilize the other things they have to offer,” he said. “I just know my Nordic community really well, and I know there’s an appetite for wanting to be at Bread Loaf for events.”
Hodges and Hussey also belong to the New England Nordic Ski Association, or NENSA, and have many connections among 2,000 members. Over time he also hopes to work with them to learn what could entice more visits.
“I view NENSA as an opportunity to help get that destination skier here,” Hodges said.
Hodges believes he can also grow local visitation by emphasizing the family aspect of the center and staging events such as community races.
“There’s a real opportunity for additional programming. This is such a family friendly place,” Hodges said. “With the barn, we could have some night skiing with family movies, because there’s a huge projector in that space.”
One critical improvement might be necessary, however, according to Hodges and Hussey. The snowmaking system’s water supply is limited.
Simply put, Hussey said Rikert needs a bigger pond: The current pond supports only 24 hours of snowmaking before it needs “recharging” for almost two days.
“When we built this system in 2012, ’13, it was the biggest system of its type on the East Coast for Nordic,” Hussey said. “We are now lagging behind some of the other systems that have been built since then.”
And that means, Hodges said, an investment of the type that allowed the original snowmaking system to be installed and race course to be upgraded — alumni donations. There is a reason it is called “The Tormondsen Family Race Course.”
“Hopefully there will be continued support like that,” Hodges said. “We need more water.”
Hussey said he is optimistic about obtaining that support, in part because he believes the right person is now in charge at Rikert.
“(Rikert) is staged to go to the next level, and Barney is a great guy to take it there, because he’s got the vision, he’s got great energy,” he said.
For Hodges, he finds himself in a job that blends pleasant memories, an enjoyable present, and an exciting future.
“My time at Middlebury was just the best,” he said. “And so that’s been a lot of fun, grooming trails already and sitting at my desk and watching the team go by, knowing I’ve got kids out there is pretty cool.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at email@example.com.