The village of Ellicottville may be only one-mile square, but don't let that fool you. Here, there are few limits. Look around this rustic ski town and discover a world where colorful characters fit in. Maybe it's the mountain air that loosens these souls, but one thing is certain. This year, a record 1.25 million people - driving from Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Canada and Buffalo - are expected to converge on this arctic playground.
"You have to be a little bit different to fit in," says Joe DiPasquale, a 35-year resident of the village. "To ski, you've got to be willing to take chances and risks, and you have to like good times. And you have to like people because we're crowded a lot. And you have to have a social personality, which most of the characters in this town have."
Which is probably why Eric Clapton swung by last time he was in Toronto. Why George Steinbrenner just months ago was spotted at a local restaurant. And why Matthew Perry is more than friends with an area snow bunny.
Celebrity sightings aside, Ellicottville has become a bright spot in the economy of Western New York, even during this year's January thaw. But its appeal goes much deeper than the snow that blankets its slopes. It's a town with character built over a century by hard-working people with fun-loving spirits. Visitors can't get enough of the village's genuine brick structures filled with small restaurants, tiny shops and smiling merchants. That's the reason for the explosion of million-dollar chalets popping up all over the mountain; for hot tub parties on the coldest of decks; for that village ambassador who wags his tail against the sweet scene of falling snow.
Ellicottville is a 45-minute drive south on Route 219 that meanders past rural hamlets, roads with odd names and one blinking light that means you're almost there. Visitors to Ellicottville leave thinking they have discovered something special. Regulars recognize they have found a comfort zone.
"Get in your car and head south," says Steve Moeller of West Falls, who has been skiing Ellicottville since the Blizzard of '77. "Within 15 minutes you feel better. Within 45 minutes you're there, and it's a whole other world."
> Million-dollar Creations
Just how hot is the real estate market in Ellicottville? In the last three years, much of the existing housing stock has doubled in value. Last year alone, 500 building permits totaling $18 million in new construction were issued. Subdivisions including North Woods, Elk Creek and Creek Ridge are gobbling up the mountainside faster than a hungry mole. Even with all this new construction, the granddaddy of locations in Ellicottville - the town's money block - remains Greer Hill. Locals have likened it to Red Mountain in Aspen.
Greer Hill is a labyrinth of twisting, steep, snow-covered roads stacked with million-dollar creations. No wonder a custom-built $140,000 Hummer was purchased for emergency snow rescues by the local volunteer fire department.
Homes on Greer - including one built by laser eye surgeon Klaus Fichte and another originally constructed for former Tops executive Larry Castellani - range in size from 4,000 to 10,000 sq. ft. and can't be touched for under $600,000, according to David Blanchard of Holiday Valley Realty Co. Three years ago, one ice palace set a property sales record for Cattaraugus County going for a cool $1.5 million.
Within town limits, a three-bedroom, two-bathroom condo goes for a resale price of $275,000. A newly built condo runs $325,000, and the average house in the village commands $250,000.
"The real estate market started taking off right after 9/1 1," says Blanchard. "It was a security thing for people. They can come here and they don't have to fly. They can drive here and drive home."
Driving the current real estate explosion are buyers from Cleveland, Pitts-burgh and Rochester, notes Blanchard, who just built a home in Ellicottville. The last real estate frenzy in Ellicottville occurred 15 years ago, he adds, and was fueled by Canadians from Toronto, Oakville and Burlington.
"In the last six months, I haven't seen an increase in prices," Blanchard says. "I think they pretty much hit their peak."
Blanchard should know. Four years ago, he bought a one-bedroom townhome in Wildflower across from Holiday Valley for $65,000. One year later, he flipped it for $85,000. Today, he says, it's selling for $155,000.
Not all the development is taking place on the outskirts of town. Carl Paladino's Ellicott Development Co. sunk an estimated $7 million into the 83-room, four-story Wingate Inn, a project that rankled some of the village's 400 residents - but not a former mayor.
"A lot of people thought it should be three stories because when you walk out of Quality Market, you can't see the ski hill anymore," says John Burrell, mayor of Ellicottville from 1992-98. "What you used to see was an old sawmill and a lot of logs. People got used to that. It was part of the ambience."
Still, the brick hotel - the biggest development to hit the village in a long time, according to Burrell - boasts clapboards, double-hung windows and "fits pretty darn well."
> Hard to Stand Out
It takes a village to support the army of skiers whose descent on Ellicottville begins in October and lasts until March. Interestingly enough, non-residents (or part-timers as the locals describe them) return the favor by paying 72 percent of village and town taxes, according to Brian McFadden, executive director of the Ellicottville Chamber of Commerce. What is attracting all this out-of-town investment in a town whose population could fit inside Shea's Performing Arts Center, with room to spare?
"Ellicottville is full of character," says McFadden. "Look at what's happening to the ski industry with big corporations buying out ski resorts. They would build a village at its base, but it's still not an old-fashioned ski village with the characters and the structures."
Near the edge of the village's block-long central business district resides a blue-eyed ambassador whose popularity crosses state lines. When Blou (pronounced "Blue") the border collie landed in Ellicottville in 2002, he won the hearts of not only his owner Jay Monti, but the entire village and many regular visitors.
"People come in solely to say hello to Blou," says Monti, who taught French for 35 years in Pennsylvania before moving to Ellicottville and opening an art gallery. "Blou's got four fan clubs in schools in Toledo and southern Pennsylvania; he visits nursing homes, and he's raised $12,000 for the Pet Emergency Fund under the project name Code Blou."
It takes a lot to stand out in Ellicottville, but when asked about town characters, one name often was mentioned: Joe DiPasquale or Joey D, the guy who dresses like a sheik and takes his camel for a stroll. His signature is bold trousers, more than likely plaid, with some lederhosen worn on the off-days just to shake things up. Early on, he earned the nickname "Laundronaut" for his ability to take a spin in the village laundry's dryers.
"I've had a house here for 35 years, and I'm still considered a tourist," laments the wiry DiPasquale, sitting in a Washington Street restaurant owned by his daughter Dina, a former ski instructor at Holiday Valley. After Dina graduated from Western State College in Colorado, she eventually moved back east and brought a bit of the West with her when she opened Dina's in 1991.
"In Western New York, there's not a place more relaxed," says Dina. "I don't know if people think they can hide and be anonymous, but a lot of people come and go. I travel a lot, because when you live in a small town you have to get out. The minute you get back to the flashing light, it's calming, comforting. One mile to go."
> Those Famous Parties
Three years ago, Ray and Kelly Jamison of Orchard Park purchased a single-family house on Maple Avenue in the village of Ellicottville. The two-bedroom bungalow serves many purposes: investment property, vacation getaway, party palace. The couple, married for almost 20 years with three children, make no secret of their party lifestyle.
"We were going to bring our hot tub, but we were afraid we would get stupid and drink too much and drown," jokes Kelly, 39, whose resemblance to a female version of Sammy Hagar is striking. "People come here to party. Everybody gets crazy, hugging and kissing strangers."
And while no one really knows what goes on in the Jamison house during Mardi Gras weekend (the girls-only event requires participants to sign a nondisclosure statement that reads: "What happens in Ellicottville stays in Ellicottville"), the collection of beads gathered over the years could stretch to Balloons Restaurant and back.
A party in the village becomes the village's party. In a house marked by bowling balls live artist Susi "Critter" McCormack and her partner Frank Richardson. They are part of the eclectic electric cast that defines this town.
"I like the eclectic oddity," says Richardson, who was born on the Salamanca reservation 52 years ago. "Ellicottville has a real taste for the artistic, and I don't mean physically creating, I mean mentally artistic people. This is one of the few places that I have not had a feeling of being judged. It's a good feeling."
McCormack's philosophy of party-throwing requires a theme. At their last party, for example, guests dressed as ducks and played quacket (croquet). Held on the Fourth of July, it was called the Firequacker Ball.
On a recent weekend, McCormack and Richardson were entertaining guests in their recently opened bed and breakfast called Looney Rooms. The Ball Room suite, complete with faux-eyeball decor, was occupied. The Checkerboard Bird Room (say bird as boyd, as if you belong in Brooklyn) was a work in progress. Original art (McCormack works in clay and stone) decorates almost every inch of space. Totem poles rule.
"I don't feel uncomfortable anywhere I go in town," says Richardson, right after downing a pair of lady bugs that had been floating in Merlot. I don't feel I have to put on airs. It's like magic dust. I mean I could sit and say a million things about Ellicottville and the people in it, but there's something here that is unexplainable."
> Maximum Lift From Limited Vertical
And then there's that vertical challenge. The good news is that Ellicottville's hills face north, so they hold their snow - even in spring weather when the snowmaking machines get cranking. The not-so-good news is that, with a vertical drop of 750 feet, Holiday Valley is the Mini-Me of resorts. Despite that, it retains its Top 10 standing in SKI Magazine's readers' survey of favorite resorts on the East Coast.
"Almost every year, Holiday Valley pops up, and much higher than anyone expected," says Joe Cutts, SKI Magazine deputy editor who oversees coverage of the eastern resorts. "It's obvious that people who do go there talk highly about it. The snow quality is terrific because you get a lot of lake effect. And don't forget the town itself and its charm. Our writers come back loving it. Despite the limited vertical, it does the most with its terrain."
Even the unseasonably warm temperatures in mid-January didn't dampen the Ellicottville spirit. Officials say the 10 days of warm weather followed a strong start of the season that lasted past the holidays.
"The reality is that it always does chill down," says Dennis Eshbaugh, vice president of the Ellicottville Chamber of Commerce and president of Holiday Valley.
Holiday Valley's fifth-place ranking put it ahead of Whiteface Mountain (sixth) in the Adirondacks and Vermont's Sugarbush (ninth). Mentioned in the Holiday Valley review: multigenerational ski clubs, tasty on-mountain food and the ability of skiers to picnic in all the lodges. One of the best aspects?
"People want a real village," says Cutts. "You see these villages that are soulless and antiseptic, and in Ellicottville, you have the real thing. It's not unlike Aspen, a resort town that has appeal because it's real. People want to be able to stroll streets and stop in bars and restaurants. It just makes it a pleasant experience outside of skiing."
Away from the slopes, it's business as usual in the village of Ellicottville, where every morning up to 25 members of the Breakfast Club meet at Dina's. Ranging in age from 30 to 85, they hash out the world's problems over coffee and bagels. "That's the way we start our day," says Burrell, the former mayor. "But now someone is trying to organize us, as to topics of discussion. Absolutely not. That's not what we want.
"We want spontaneity."
Jane Kwiatkowski is a features writer for The News' Life & Arts section. She considers herself an honorary Ellicottville part-timer.