July 18, 2012LITTLETON — The dream of renewed skiing on Mount Eustis has persisted, even with last winter's disappointing snow totals. A business plan to revitalize the abandoned skiing hill was presented at a public meeting last Thursday.
Dave Harkless, the owner of Littleton Bike and Fitness, provided an overview of the plan to the Park and Recreation Commissioners and a dozen other attendees. He said the idea to bring skiing back to the mountain "started with a conversation and gained momentum." Harkless lamented, "a whole generation of kids has grown up without using it."
The plan's market analysis suggests that renewed skiing on the town-owned hill could benefit schools. With funding problems, some ski programs have been cut. "We feel that our easy access and low cost will help grow the school programs," the plan states.
Mount Eustis could benefit residents and tourists, as well. According to the plan, "the charm of a small volunteer run ski area will be another useful experience for tourism marketers to market to their clients."
Mount Eustis attracted skiers for more than four decades. Declining interest and uncooperative weather contributed to the end of skiing there about 30 years ago.
The proposal would bring skiing to the hill for the upcoming season "with no taxpayer impact," Harkless said. Maintaining operations in later years "with minimal tax payer impact" is one of the main objectives in the ski plan that Harkless discussed on Thursday.
A non-profit entity, Mt. Eustis Ski Hill, would be formed to manage operations. Tax-exempt status has not yet been requested, Harkless said at the meeting.
Harkless said that the best option would lead the town to lease the hill to the non-profit. He believes that approach "puts the burden of liability on our organization," rather than Littleton taxpayers.
Harkless said that the current business plan has been provided to the three Select Board members. Nonetheless, Harkless said that the plan includes "a lot more guess work" than most business plans.
Selectman Michael Gilman attended the meeting, along with Town Manager Fred Moody. Several abutting property owners were also in attendance.
The plan estimates $50,000 in start-up expenses. Keys to success, the plan states, are donations, creating a sense of community ownership, and an expansion of the number of young people who learn how to ski or snowboard. Corporate contributions are considered an important way "to add to the financial resources of the non-profit."
Harkless said that a new building would be highly desirable at the site. This would serve as a warming hut for skiers. Harkless said that ads could appear on the outside walls of the building to "recognize any support we have financially."
Harkless said that the size and scope of the building would be based on fundraising. He hopes that the building could house bathrooms, the warming area, and trail grooming equipment. Harkless also desires lighting on the slope to facilitate night skiing.
The primary point of discussion at the meeting was the fate of snowmobile access on Mount Eustis. Currently, the snow machine club has an agreement with the town to access the location. No members of the club were at the meeting.
Abutters expressed concern that the business plan calls for moving the snowmobile trail closer to their homes. Paul Smith said he expects recreation on the hill, but snowmobiles create excessive noise and undesirable fumes. Commissioners agreed with the public's consensus that a meeting with the snowmobile club is vital to the future of Mount Eustis.
A berm would be created to decrease snowmobile noise. This would require a great deal of earth moving up the hill. Some in the audience suggested that would be difficult to accomplish. According to information presented at the meeting, dirt for the berm could come from the planned expansion of the current parking area.
Herb Lahout, who is listed as a "key member" of Mt. Eustis Ski Hill, said that the town has "been very generous to the snowmobilers." He suggested that it was time for skiers to take back the hill completely.
When commissioner Bryan Hadlock noted that snowmobilers are good for Littleton's economy, Lahout answered back, "This is a ski hill." He said that Hadlock's focus on the economic benefits of snowmobiling was a "stupid thing to say."
Insurance to cover the organization's liability was another key point of discussion. This was a very important issue to Moody. "The insurance is a key issue," he said.
Greg Westcott discussed the insurance question. He is affiliated with the Mount Prospect Ski Club, as well as owner of Marshall Insurance in Lancaster.
Westcott said that Lancaster voters approve paying for the club's insurance. He informed Moody that Mt. Eustis Ski Hill should be able to "get the insurance without any problem." An annual liability premium would likely cost the club more than $30,000.
Although Harkless hopes to have snowboarding on the hill, Westcott said that such an activity would make insurance more expensive. He added that liability insurance for snow tubing is much more expensive than just coverage for skiers.
The level of needed insurance coverage is often "what you can afford as a volunteer organization," Westcott said. Liability "puts things out of business," he noted. A second insurance policy would be needed to cover any new building on Mount Eustis.
Moody said that he would like to see the insurance policy when available.
Discussions about the level of tree cutting in the plan led to some concern on Thursday. Plans for the site call for "a significant amount of tree and brush clearing." This includes a new ski trail, as much as 150 feet wide, which would be cut to the left of the existing rope tow.
Whether or not changes to Mount Eustis should be subject to a town vote was another part of Thursday's meeting. Moody said that gaining consent from a town meeting may not be required, but he said such a move would be "a wise idea."
The town meeting approach would put an end to the hopes of renewed skiing on Mount Eustis for the upcoming season. But the organizers of the plan seem determined to make their dream a reality again. How soon it happens, and the extent their goals can be realized, will be will be answered only after more discussion with a variety of interested parties.