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Chipping in to save the magic of a mountain

Humble ski area tries to go co-op

By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / February 8, 2010

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LONDONDERRY, Vt. - At Magic Mountain, children slide down the slopes on cafeteria trays and play video games in the lodge while their parents ski. Most of the 375 season-pass holders, many of whom grew up gliding down the mountain, are on a first-name basis.

But the magic of this humble ski area with two chairlifts and no lift lines has not extended to its financial well-being. The mountain, prized for its steep, wooded terrain and narrow, winding trails, has struggled for years. It was closed for the most of the 1990s and reopened in 1998 but never fully recovered.

Now, the skiers and snowboarders who spend their winter weekends here are being called on to keep it from closing again: For $3,000 apiece, they can help save the mountain.

Taking a cue from the Mad River Glen resort 85 miles north, thought to be the only cooperatively owned ski area in the country, Magic’s president, Jim Sullivan, has been offering shares since last summer and has sold 146 so far. He needs to sell about 150 more by Aug. 1 to raise nearly $1 million, or Magic may be no more.

“A lot of people would mourn its passing,’’ said Sulli van, a former lawyer and ski racer. “It’s really kind of the last standing area in Southern Vermont, in my opinion, that represents traditional Vermont skiing.’’

Magic did not invest in snowmaking as heavily as its competitors did in the 1970s, meaning poor conditions on its 40 trails sometimes cost the mountain precious customers, who head to nearby Bromley Mountain, a resort of similar size with five more lifts and far greater snowmaking ability, or Stratton Mountain Resort, which has 92 trails and a high-end ski village.

This season, Magic is open Friday through Monday only, to cut costs.

Sullivan does not exactly have a marketing budget, so he’s relying on his mailing list of about 3,000 condo owners and season pass holders - and on the passion of Magic Mountain devotees like Greg Williams.

Williams, 38, learned to ski at the mountain in 1978 and still skis there every weekend in the winter. He wasn’t content just to buy a share - he started a campaign, selling Save Magic T-shirts, beer cozies, and bumper stickers and raising enough money to buy two additional shares.

Williams rents a house each ski season with a group of friends who drive to Londonderry - population 1,700 - from Connecticut, New Jersey, and Massachusetts to ski and hang out at their regular tables at the lodge, right next to the bar.

His high school friend Jay Henneberry and his wife, Lisa, scraped together $3,000 to buy a share in Magic Mountain. When Lisa, a nurse at Yale-New Haven Hospital’s open-heart intensive care unit, asked for more shifts, her supervisor asked her if she was redecorating her house.

“Something much more serious,’’ Henneberry told her. “I need to buy a mountain.’’

Becoming a shareholder doesn’t come with many perks - 20 percent off season passes, as well as discounts on lift tickets and ski lessons, and a vote on major issues facing the mountain.

The biggest selling point? “You get to continue skiing Magic Mountain,’’ Williams said.

Once the initial million-dollar goal is reached, the title for the ski area will be transferred from the current owners, the Nelson family, to the Magic Partnership. The money will go toward updating the snowmaking equipment, ultimately bumping up capacity to 75 percent of the mountain from 40 percent, which would in turn bump up profits.

Sullivan’s business plan calls for selling at least 1,000 shares in four years to raise $3 million, which would allow the partnership to take over as a full-fledged co-op.

Magic was founded in 1961 by Hans Thorner, a Swiss-born ski instructor who built a miniature Swiss-style village at the base of the mountain, and it changed hands several times before ending up in foreclosure eight years ago.

Larry Nelson, a New York lawyer who owned a home at Magic Mountain for 40 years, bought the ski area at an auction on the courthouse steps, his son John said. Larry Nelson died last year, and his family decided to get out of the business. But they are honoring Nelson’s wishes by doing what they can to keep the mountain open.

“He wasn’t just looking for a business venture,’’ John Nelson said of his father. “He did this because he loved Magic Mountain.’’

Skiers are drawn to Magic’s throwback charm - no valet parking or American Express lifts - and its freewheeling spirit.

No terrain is off limits at Magic, and hardy skiers can trek up the mountain on their own for free. But mostly they come for the 1,700-foot vertical drop with twisting trails that have not been widened to make way for snowmaking.

But more snowmaking is exactly what the ski area needs to survive.

A recent rainstorm washed away 70 percent of the snow on some trails, exposing rocks and treacherous sheets of ice when temperatures plummeted again - shutting down all but six trails.

The storm also washed away most of Magic’s clientele, who stay away when the snow isn’t flying. The weekend before the deluge, Magic had 1,333 skiers; the weekend after, 551 showed up.

At Stratton - run by the skiing giant Intrawest, which owns 10 resorts, including Olympics venue Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia - and Bromley - started by Fred Pabst of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer - skiers crowded onto the lifts.

Maryland resident Jon Tumler has been skiing at Magic for 30 years, and he knows its limitations.

“If this place has snow, I like coming here,’’ said Tumler, 61, who was having a beer in the lodge on a recent Saturday. He has not bought a share in the mountain, and isn’t sure he will. What would it take? “Probably not working for a start-up company,’’ he said, laughing.

Indeed, getting people to plunk down $3,000 hasn’t been an easy sell during a down economy.

Linda Stevens remembers the skiers who used to crowd into her Londonderry diner, Stoddard’s, for omelets and burgers in the 1980s.

She’d welcome the added business if Magic started booming again, but she hasn’t pushed customers to buy a share and has no plans to buy one herself.

Sullivan isn’t surprised that he hasn’t gotten much support from local business owners. “Unfortunately, Londonderry is not a particularly affluent area,’’ he said.

Regardless, forming a co-op is not an easy task. Mad River Glen, which has been cooperatively owned since 1995, has almost 2,000 shareholders and is free of debt, said president Jamey Wimble.

But it took enthusiasts of the Waitsfield, Vt., ski area three attempts to form the co-op.

“The first 500 shares were easy to sell,’’ Wimble said. “The second 500 was a whole other story.’’

At Magic, Greg Williams is trying to get his fellow skiers to understand the survival of a Vermont classic is at stake.

“People need to realize,’’ he said, “that it’s now or never.’’

Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at johnstonchase@globe.com.