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Cockaigne plans to reopen Wednesday; Ski resort rebounds from horrific blaze

The Cockaigne Ski Area plans to reopen Wednesday, eight days after the Chautauqua County landmark closed following the loss of its historic main lodge to a devastating fire.

Area resorts, local businesses and government agencies are pitching in to help reopen Cockaigne, which employs 200 and serves scores of Southern Tier students in school ski clubs.

For the rest of this season, tents, trailers, picnic tables, portable toilets and borrowed skis and snowboards will replace the facilities and equipment lost in the blaze, officials said Friday.

"It's more than a personal loss to me -- it's a loss to the community. We lost the building, but the spirit of Cockaigne is alive," said Cockaigne owner Jack Van Scoter. "We will be open, and we will proceed for the winter."

The resort, located on Thornton Road in Cherry Creek, has a loyal following of skiers and snowboarders, many of whom have been going there since they were kids.

Cockaigne's centerpiece was the ornate main lodge, which was built as the Austrian Pavilion for the 1964 World's Fair in New York City then disassembled and reconstructed the next year at the ski resort.

The fire, which burned Monday night into Tuesday morning, destroyed the lodge despite the efforts of 150 firefighters.

"It's heart-wrenching. That lodge is an icon in the area," said Assemblyman Andy Goodell, R-Ellicott, a ski instructor at Cockaigne and the resort's attorney. "It's a major employer in the area. It's almost like losing a member of the family."

Van Scoter said he wants to rebuild, but for now he is focusing on removing debris from the site and reopening as soon as possible with temporary facilities and borrowed equipment.

He's getting a lot of help from the community.

The New York State Army National Guard is providing a large tent that should be delivered by Sgt. 1st Class Charles Harrison on Monday morning.

The tent is used by Harrison's recruiting and retention unit, based at the Masten Avenue Armory.

"That's the thing about the Guard: We're citizen soldiers, we're all part of the community," said Staff Sgt. Troy LaPare, an Army National Guard member based in Jamestown who snowboards at Cockaigne.

Jeff Laumer, the director of disaster operations for the Southwestern New York chapter of the American Red Cross, was instrumental in arranging for the tent donation.

He recently left the active-duty Army, so he is familiar with military equipment. He found the unused tent after reaching out to his contacts in the local Guard.

"I'm a sucker for a good story," Laumer said. "I went to Cockaigne as a kid, for ski club."

Van Scoter plans to heat the Guard tent and fill it with picnic tables borrowed from Midway State Park on Chautauqua Lake. A second tent will hold rental ski and snowboard equipment.

The Chautauqua County Industrial Development Agency on Friday asked its members to donate wooden pallets for use in the floors in the tents, and Petri Baking in Silver Creek quickly pledged 100 of them.

The lodge's restaurant went up in flames, so the resort will sell food out of a trailer and also hopes to sell food and alcohol from a building across the street that once housed a restaurant.

And, most importantly, the resort will replace at least some of the skis, poles, boots and snowboards it lost in the fire. The Holiday Valley and Peek 'N Peak ski resorts are giving Cockaigne some of their own equipment.

Cockaigne doesn't have enough borrowed equipment to replace everything that was lost, Van Scoter said, but it should allow the resort to equip its instructors and the student ski clubs.

The resort's offices are temporarily housed in a trailer. The fire did not damage the resort's lifts or grooming equipment and its hills have a good snow cover, Van Scoter said.

Van Scoter said he will decide after this season whether to reopen permanently.

He said he has not been given a damage estimate for the loss of the building and equipment, and he would not comment when asked whether the lodge and its contents were insured.

County Executive Gregory J. Edwards said he wants to see Van Scoter rebuild because the facility means so much to Cherry Creek and Chautauqua County.

"I'm encouraged he's making this commitment and we'll help him any way we can," Edwards said.

Fire investigators from the Chautauqua County Sheriff's Office continue to probe the cause of the fire, said Sheriff Joseph A. Gerace, though foul play is not suspected.


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