THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Down -- and out?

Ascutney, Tenney won't operate this winter, and forecasts for their revival aren’t optimistic

By T.D. Thornton
Globe Correspondent / November 25, 2010

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

Even before the end of last season, the warning signs loomed at Ascutney Mountain Resort in Vermont and Tenney Mountain in New Hampshire.

Tenney took the risk of forgoing snowmaking. By the middle of last winter, its website and social media feeds abruptly stopped getting updated. It became difficult to discern if the resort was even open for business.

Ascutney has been playing the same phone greeting since its lifts shut down in the spring. A cheery voice thanks customers for last winter’s “huge success’’ and to “think snow’’ for this season. If one is successful in reaching a live operator, the simple question “When will the mountain open?’’ is met with such evasion that one has to call corporate headquarters in Florida to get the answer.

It turns out neither Tenney nor Ascutney will be in business this winter. And the prospects are dicey for anything beyond 2010-11.

“Both have good access and both have been around for a long time,’’ said Jeremy Davis, a ski historian and founder of the New England Lost Ski Areas Project (nelsap.org). “But it just seems like they’ve been on a slow death slide the past seven or eight years. When you close for a year, you just lose all that business. It never comes back.’’

Tenney, burdened by a back-tax bill of $170,000, is scheduled for a Dec. 15 foreclosure auction. The various New York-based owners of the Plymouth, N.H., parcels that are on the block have leased Tenney’s ski operations to different companies over the past decade, with White Mountain Exploration most recently trying to make a go at Tenney by making it a four-season adventure resort.

The company that manages Ascutney’s slopeside lodging confirmed there will be no skiing this season at the Brownsville, Vt., mountain. But the hotel and time-share properties will remain open, scrambling to find ski deals at nearby mountains such as Okemo and Sunapee for guests who are locked into bookings.

“We’re in the dark as well,’’ said Stacey Sutherland, vice president of corporate communications for Orange Lake Resorts, which runs Holiday Inn Club Vacations on the Ascutney property. “We don’t know what the fate of the operation is.’’

The Vermont Standard reported in September that Dan Purjes, a Wall Street investor, bought out partner Steve Plausteiner, whose family had owned Ascutney since 1991. The $1 million deal was reported as part of a foreclosure proceeding, and a misunderstanding over past-due utility bills almost caused electricity to be cut off at the property’s 200 year-round residences. WCAX-TV reported this month that the Plausteiners owed nearly $2 million on Ascutney.

While not in the same league as New England’s major ski destinations, Ascutney and Tenney are both rich with history. They occupied a similar niche as midlevel hills with interstate highway access, the sort of mountains where one could catch a break from crowds to enjoy old-school skiing.

Plenty of history Hike-up trails, a ski jump, and a primitive electric tow existed on Ascutney as early as 1936. The mountain opened as a commercial operation in 1945.

Ascutney was a self-contained, no-frills area a few miles off I-91 until the 1980s, when a $65 million development boom added condominiums, a health club, and day-care facilities. But the quality of skiing never quite matched the new amenities. The previous owners went bust when real estate markets eroded, and Ascutney was forced to close.

In 1991, the Plausteiners were shocked when their $1.1 million bid was accepted at the liquidation auction. At the time of the sale, Ascutney’s bankruptcy trustee told the Globe the purchase price was “the bargain of the year, if not the decade.’’

Ascutney always had the allure of twisty, narrow trails offset by a few decent cruisers. But its altitude-challenged location meant that when blizzards rocked higher elevations in the Green and White Mountains, the Connecticut River Valley was usually out of luck in terms of natural snowfall.

Davis — whose hobby is chronicling why nearly 600 ski areas have gone out of business in New England over the past 75 years — said the move that “put Ascutney over the edge’’ might have been the addition of a high-speed quad several seasons ago. He said it was pointless to spend millions of dollars on a new lift that added only about 250 vertical feet without building enough new trails and terrain to go with it.

And while it is commendable that Ascutney’s corporate lodging partner is making an attempt to satisfy customers who can’t get out of rental agreements, deserted ski lifts and overgrown trails are hardly the ideal backdrop for selling winter resort time-shares.

“Who wants to stay at a hotel with an abandoned ski area in the backyard?’’ Davis asked. After pondering his own question for an instant, the diehard aficionado of bygone skiing quickly added, “Well, maybe me.’’

Area left behind Tenney opened in 1960, and had a lot going for it as an affordable option in a college town. But as the years passed, too many potential customers whizzed by en route to bigger and better-developed resorts up I-93. Tenney’s various operators attempted unconventional promotions (like nude dancing, licensed but never opened amid protests in 1992), and the litany of closures and bankruptcy filings eventually swirled into one big cycle of uncertainty.

Karl Stone, marketing director for the Ski NH trade group, said that while Tenney was not a member of that association, it was clear that the resort’s reputation for “waiting until the last minute’’ each year to announce whether it would open “didn’t instill any confidence in the guest’’ to pay in advance for season passes or vacation bookings.

“They operated on minimal expenses,’’ said Stone. “Other ski areas their size do well around the state. We would be hopeful that somebody would purchase Tenney with the intention of operating it. The ski area certainly has the potential. But it’s at a point now where it would need significant investment in the infrastructure.’’

Davis agreed. He said the last time he skied Tenney, it was a creaky, cold 15-minute ride to the summit.

“People don’t want to deal with that,’’ he said. “A slow chair to the top becomes a sign of the times of being left behind.’’

Ascutney and Tenney are examples of defunct ski areas “that kind of got caught in the middle,’’ said Davis. They aren’t mom-and-pop feeder hills where people first learn to ski, nor are they gigantic mega-resorts. They try to add amenities and perks to stay competitive, but this can create a tipping point at which customers are being asked to pay above-average prices for what they regard as just an average experience.

“It’s cyclical,’’ Davis said. “New England ski resorts have had a lot of good success the past 10 years. The more areas there are, the better the competition is.’’

Between the two, Davis said Ascutney has the best chance at a comeback.

Sutherland, from her Florida office, said she remains hopeful Davis is right. She added, “Unfortunately, there are a lot of ‘ifs’ in the equation.’’

For now, Davis will not yet add Tenney and Ascutney to his compilation of New England ski areas lost to the ravages of time.

“I’ll put them in a category called ‘on hiatus’,’’ he said.

“When I do it, though, it will be a lot of work, because there’s a lot of history to write for both of them.’’