The ski season of 2010-11 broke records nationally for skier and snowboarder visits and ranked among the best ever in Western New York.
The summer season has been even busier locally, as upheaval or upgrades have affected nearly every resort within two hours drive of Buffalo.
The change with the most visible and immediate impact is the Sky High Adventure Park built by Holiday Valley in the Tannenbaum area. The $2.5 million project is part of a planned expenditure of $5.3 million to upgrade the resort's operations.
The feature is made up of an aerial park and a mountain coaster. The aerial park, which opened in late spring, contains eight obstacle courses which begin on a single platform and take you to different levels above the forest floor. The courses are of varying degrees of difficulty identified by a color code much as the ski slopes are. Two are designated yellow, two are green, two blue, one black and one "commando" course.
"Not everybody will be able to get across it," said Jane Eshbaugh, the resort's marketing director, of the commando course.
Climbers travel from platform to platform via a series of rope bridges, wire walks, wood tunnels and zip lines that require balance, flexibility and some degree of fitness to navigate. They do so wearing a harness that keeps them connected to a safety line and there are guides to assist people who are having difficulty with a feature.
The Mountain Coaster, which opened in early July, "is on actual rails so you can't go off the track but there are handles on the side of the car with which you can control speed" as it zigzags through the woods, Eshbaugh said.
The element is next to the Tannenbaum Lodge and will be open all year.
The adventure park is part of a trend by resorts to avoid being season specific.
"We always have room for growth in the summer time," Eshbaugh said. "We would like to be a year-round resort; this will add to the golf course and the pools, giving us a family activity. Hopefully people who come will have more to do. We have learned some people will come because of the facilities. There are corporate groups that wouldn't come before thinking of doing team building and holding conferences here."
Other improvements include a quad chair to replace the SnowPine double chairlift, which will allow ski-in, ski-out access to the SnowPine Village condominiums, and a grooming tractor capable of adding moguls or shapes to slopes.
"We had a very good year, a record December and a record January," Eshbaugh said, adding it was the resort's third best ever. "We had wonderful, wonderful snow; 261 inches during the season, about 80 inches more than average. We were cross-country skiing in the woods, where we don't make snow, in April."
Cockaigne had a great start to its season, but it's a wonder it made it all the way through. A fire in late January destroyed the post and beam lodge, built for $1 million by Austria for the 1964 World's Fair and relocated to Cherry Creek in 1966, and everything in it: All rental equipment, ski school uniforms, computers (which contained season pass information) and other office equipment, and the food service equipment.
The resort was closed for 10 days while local people and businesses brought in temporary facilities. Jamestown Awning donated a tent and picnic tables. A 24-foot travel trailer was acquired on loan and used for the sale of lift tickets. Falconer Food Service pitched in a food trailer, and Port-a-johns and a computer were donated.
"The sprit of Cockaigne exists," owner Jack Van Scoter said. "We have a loyal customer base, over 20 employees have been with me 30 years or more and I'm proud of that. We have the snow and the people here at Cockaigne. I've been here 41 years and I have customers that have been with me for 41 years."
"We were in the best winter we had in years. What a time to have that happen," said Cockaigne spokesperson Linda Johnson.
Van Scoter said he had no insurance on the building because the $7 million it would take to duplicate it made the cost of insurance prohibitive. He will rebuild the building out of his own pocket.
"We are interviewing architects, we hope to take advantage of the programs that are available for energy efficient buildings," said van Scoter, who wants a deal in place so construction can start in September and be completed in November.
He said he rushed to reopen after the fire because "It was important to me to make good on my responsibilities to my customers, school groups and employees. We had another month of the winter to complete and we did. We got all our school groups in, our customers were happy."
> Peek'n Peak
By all appearances, nothing has changed at Peek'n Peak. Golf is being played and weddings are being held in the southwest corner of New York.
Behind the scenes, court appointed Chapter 11 trustee David O. Simon of Cleveland is fast-tracking a bankruptcy sale so the resort can have new ownership by the end of September. Bids are being accepted and several people or groups have shown interest, but Simon would not identify them.
Paul Kibler, the Ohio developer who bought the resort in 2006, filed for bankruptcy protection in Sept. 2010. Simon was appointed by the court in June to oversee the sale.
Simon said of Kibler's bankruptcy: "Overexpansion with too little capital, visions of grandeur, a lot of housing development, new ski runs cut that aren't operative yet -- as near as I can tell that is the cause of it."
He also said poor timing hurt Kibler as the gap between the worth of the resort, with its 107-room hotel and nearly 1,100 acres of land with 27 ski runs, two golf courses, several on-site restaurants and a spa, and Kibler's debt increased as property values fell.
Simon said that he expects the entire property to be sold to one buyer, because "It doesn't make sense for anybody to buy less than the whole. It is an integrated property. In theory you could have three sales, but that makes no sense to me."
"The property has to be sold, as a practical matter, by Sept. 30 or it will be difficult for a buyer to be ready for the ski season. -- Prospective buyers seem to be ready to move quickly."
There are no plans to shut down the facility because its business remains strong and ceasing operations would make it worth less to an eventual buyer. In a worst case scenario, the resort can be run for another winter under Chapter 11.
"The place has an incredibly strong heartbeat, it is a great family facility," Simon said.
Scott and Jodi Carts and Shawn and Celeste Schoonover have run Swain on a lease-to-own basis since 2009, and are on schedule to close on the property this fall.
They have big plans for the little area.
"We are hoping to turn the little village of Swain into a weekend destination. We are just far enough away to make it a nice weekend destination," Scott Carts said.
They have started by making capital improvements, expanding snowmaking to trails that didn't have it, renovating the restaurant, planning a coffee bar, and fixing the lodge and developing the Swain Family Learning Center.
The big ticket item is a slope side subdivision with 25 property sites, 23 of which will be ski-in ski-out. There are also plans to add 10 to 12 slopes over the next five years.
An engineering firm has surveyed the property and laid out sewer and electricity. Nothing else can be done until the sale closes but plans are there will be a groundbreaking on some houses this fall and for others this spring.
"We found the Swain ski community is so supportive," Carts said. "There is a passion for the area.
"There is a pretty strong generational Swain family, they have strong ties. A lot of those families come for the weekend, stay with friends or in condos. That contingent has a strong desire for property. That crowd is pretty excited."
To attract visitors in the summer, Swain added a motocross series this year, provides lift surface for mountain biking (downhill) and is designing cross-country biking trails that will be turned into cross-country ski trails.
"When I did the original look through, it is part of the potential I saw for the area," Carts said.
> Expanding facilities
Bristol Mountain and HoliMont aren't experiencing anything as dramatic as a sale or a recovery from a fire, but both are undertaking major projects.
Bristol, which has greatly upgraded its on-the-mountain facilities in recent years, is turning its attention to its base area. The first step is upgrading its main lodge. Changes this year will include providing additional seating and moving all food service to the second floor, where there will be multiple offerings.
Eventually, the two-level lodge will add lockers and direct snow access from the second floor to the Comet Express and Rocket triple lifts.
Later improvements will target ticketing, rentals, additional food services, tuning, and the Sunset Lodge.
HoliMont got permission from its membership this year to purchase a high-speed quad lift to replace a slower, fixed-grip chair. It has budgeted $3.6 million for the new lift, which will mark the beginning of expansion plans for the private facility.
"We are adding one chairlift with the project primarily so we can move the terrain park and other kid friendly stuff," general manager Dave Riley said. "We are out of space, out of area, so we will dedicate it to this function.
"We want to update and improve the infrastructure that is here. We want to keep this place as a very vital area. We want to be a leading edge type."
Riley said there are plans to put a spa in the lodge, add a cross-country ski center, and expand parking and restaurant seating.
This will be funded through the sale of plots of land in Westmont Ridge, which will be a mix of condos and private houses.
The new housing units are not being built to expand HoliMont's membership, which is close to capacity, Riley said.
"We might increase a few members but we don't want to overload the mountain," he said. "We want to push the country club of skiing. The demographic of the people who are becoming members are more interested in finding the appropriate lifestyle. They want to come down and have everything ready. They want a vacation every weekend.
"Most important is to have the right place to live. They are asking for ski-in ski-out terrain. This project is all ski-in, ski-out terrain.
"In the ski industry if you are standing still you are moving backwards," Riley said.
This summer, the local resorts are heading forward.