Town vs. slope in Vermont: trade-offs in the ski industry

To the local people it's known simply as ''the mountain.'' And if, sometimes, it can seem a little domineering, well, they're prepared to accept that. Most of them can remember when it was just standing there not doing anybody any good.

''It'' is Mount Snow, one of Vermont's three largest ski resorts and thus among the front rank of those in a region famous for skiing.

Happily, for the 10,000 or so who flock here on winter weekends when conditions on the slopes are good, Mount Snow is the nearest major resort of its type to the huge New York-New Jersey-Connecticut market. It's almost a clear shot up I-91 from New York City - just a 41/2-hour drive if the roads are clear. Once here, there are 52 trails and 14 lifts capable of hauling 15,000 people an hour uphill so they can slide back down.

Apres ski, as the saying goes, there are 4,000 beds available in local inns and condominiums for those who want to stay overnight, with more condos coming on the market continuously. Some 25 restaurants stand ready to cater to the hungry.

And all of this in a pastoral setting unspoiled by trailer parks, honky-tonk roadhouses, video-game arcades, or fast-food franchises.

Moreover, the crime rate is low; people here feel free to go off and leave their houses unlocked and their cars with the keys still in the ignition. And there's a draft plan for future development that, if it passes, will keep densities low and poorly financed businesses out. Town officials suggest that there is probably enough land, water, electric power, sewage-system capacity, and room in the schools to handle at least double the current growth rate.

In short, as Mike Russo puts it: ''The area's a natural; no question about it. All we need is cold.'' Mr. Russo operates the local Mobil service station, builds condominiums on the side, and is the founder of the fledgling Mount Snow businessmen's association.

But Mount Snow - and the town of Dover's dependence on it as a supporting industry - has had a troubled history. As recently as the mid-1970s, the ski center was in bankruptcy and so was every other major business in town, including the lending institutions, says Dover selectman Don Albano. Jobs were few; confidence in the economic future was low. On top of that, a recession was in progress nationwide, as was the first of the gasoline crunches.

This area had even been held up as an example of the kind of development - A-frame houses on half-acre lots - that Vermont didn't need when Gov. Deane Davis (R) paid a much-publicized visit here prior to passage of the state's tough environmental control law, Act 250.

Then Sherburne Corporation, owner of the huge and prosperous Killington ski area near Rutland, Vt., entered the picture. In 1977, Sherburne bought the assets of Mount Snow for $4 million. Since then it has invested approximately twice that amount in upgrading the facility, increasing the lift capacity, and expanding the snowmaking coverage from 6 percent of the skiing acreage to 72 percent.

Business began to improve, and confidence in the future gradually returned. The town voted to drop zoning ordinances that posed an obstruction to growth.

Condominium construction took off, aimed at the affluent, professional ''skier-investor,'' as developers here put it.

Sales agent Missy Faas of the SnowTree Company, which has built and sold 70 units at the base of Mount Snow and has 46 more under construction, recalls that when her firm announced it would ask $75,000 for a new one-bedroom unit back in 1980 the local citizens were aghast. That kind of money would have bought a four-bedroom house on a generous-sized lot, she says.

According to various sources in state government and in private circles here, Sherburne Corporation has a tendency toward arrogance in its public dealings - especially with regard to expansion plans at Killington. Says one environmentalist on the state payroll: ''They don't tell anyone what they're doing more than a month or two before they're going to do it.''

But Sherburne installed as its vice-president and general manager at Mount Snow a man - Chris Diamond - who appears to have won the respect of most people here.

''I'm in what's considered by my compatriots in the business to be a very comfortable situation,'' Mr. Diamond says. ''We don't have public detractors. I don't get hate letters. When we go for a development permit, there aren't people standing up in the back of the room saying, 'no.' People here have seen hard times, and I think they're unlikely to put themselves in that position again.''

Diamond and Selectman Albano both speak glowingly of the communication between mountain and town. Diamond also serves on the Dover Planning Board; several Mount Snow employees are volunteer firemen. Of the roughly $670,000 a year that Dover will collect in property taxes this year, Mount Snow pays $114, 400. And it offers free season-long skiing passes to all elementary-school children in the area - each one a $240 value.

Albano says, ''The key with Mount Snow is . . . we're dealing with individuals who are aware of their responsibility of being the big guy in town. It's a dialogue; it's not a here's-what-we're-gonna-do type of thing.''

Still, there are islands of discontent and concern in this stream of harmony.

''I think there are people who do feel intimidated by the mountain,'' Albano concedes. ''People who farm, who log. It's an intrusion on their life style. Well, I shouldn't say intimidated; there are people who do not find the recreation industry to their liking.

''If you ask the things we fear,'' he continues, ''I will tell you that the thing I fear most is the depth of the person who will succeed Chris Diamond. The question, to me, is: Can the dialogue continue without the same set of personalities?''

Ann Cullen, who works as a realty assessor in Dover and whose husband is a local builder, says the Mount Snow management ''can be very high-handed. You have to work with them - because you can't work against them. Everything works out in concentric circles from the mountain.''

Another critic is Linda Kersten, who works at Kenyon Realty in West Dover and , with her husband, operates the 11-room Waldwinkel Inn not far from the slopes but off the main highway.

She says the Mount Snow Lodging Bureau, a promotional office operated by the ski center, tends to steer guests to overnight facilities in which the center has a direct financial interest. (Mount Snow Resort Ltd. owns the 105-room Snow Lake Lodge at the base of the the mountain and also holds the maintenance contract for SnowTree Condominiums.) This is despite the fact that all rental properties in the area that use the bureau's service are charged the same commission for it.

Whereas her inn drew as much as 60 percent of its business via referrals from the lodging bureau in the late 1970s, Mrs. Kersten says: ''I would say if 15 percent came last year, that was a lot. The rest was repeat customers. I am resentful that they tend to feather their own nest.''

In fact, Mount Snow distributed a five-page, single-spaced status report on the lodging bureau last July in response to ''comments and criticisms.'' The document says, in part: ''Ranking properties by the total dollar amount booked through the Lodging Bureau in 1982-83, Snow Lake ranks 9th and SnowTree 13th. Revenues from the Lodging Bureau account for only 2.9 percent of Snow Lake's winter revenue. Some properties do almost three times the business through the Lodging Bureau as Snow Lake.''

Even Linda Kersten admits, however: ''Most of the lodges have not had aggressive marketing. My feeling is, hey, it's time to regroup, fellas, and do something positive. But don't blame it all on the mountain.''

Adds Mike Russo, the builder-service station operator: ''In the past, people around here have assumed it was Mount Snow's responsibility to look out for business.'' Now, he says, ''We don't expect them to carry us. You have to almost operate as if the mountain didn't exist - and then anything else you get is gravy.''

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