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If You Haven’t Skied Toggenburg Yet, You Never Will
Owner of nearby Labrador and Song ski areas buys and closes neighbor
A ski kingdom undone
Forty-one years ago New York topo maps rippled with ski areas, 75 in all, arching out of nearly every county in the state, mountainous or not. It was a hardscrabble kingdom of T-bars and ropetows and pomas. Spare snowmaking. This backyard improvisational version of skiing came at a discount: you could ski Bova Ski Slopes in Salamanca for $1.50. Plattekill was 12 bucks. Gore, $15. It was not glamorous but neither was 1980: snow levels stood so low a month out from the Lake Placid Olympics that organizers contemplated moving ski events from Whiteface to Canada.
That map now looks improbable, ridiculous. Fourteen ski areas dotted just north of New York City: Mount Storm, Silver Mine, Big Vanilla, Fahenstock. Skiing on Long Island. A map so thick that two ski areas – Belleayre and Highmount – stood on different faces of the same mountain.
There were some beauties in there. Thousand-plus-footers that now stand dormant and probably will forever: Big Tupper and Bobcat and Hickory. Taconic Trails roared 1,606 vertical feet (not all of it lift-served), which today would have tied it with Hunter and Windham for third-highest vertical drop in the state. Knots of runs twisted down 750-plus feet at Scotch Valley and Shu-Maker and Wing Hollow.
Thirty-eight of the 75 mountains inventoried in the 1980 White Book of Ski Areas are now extinct. That is most certainly an undercount. In that pre-internet era who knew what the hell was out there? Victor Constant, in service at West Point since 1946, is absent from the map, as are 14 other ski areas that were active just last winter.
Welcome to state-of-the-art skiing, circa 1975
Skiing New York State is a bit like visiting Havana, both places cemented in time. In the Cuban capital a warpzone to 1962, muscle cars brilliant with 1950s flourishes, amazing to see animate not in parade but in workaday hubbub. Upstate the same, antique machines creaking from lost decades. A pair of Hall doubles at Snow Ridge date to 1964. Greek Peak installed Lift 2 in 1963, the same year the push-button telephone debuted. McCauley’s oldest T-bar has been in place since 1959.
These machines are often beautiful, evocative of something nameless, a joy to look at and to ride. But like the duct-taped roadsters on that economically quarantined island, these lifts remain not for the sake of charm, but because there are no funds to replace them. And, like those antique cars, you have to wonder how long they’ll last.
New York has more than 50 ski areas. More than any other state, as we are endlessly reminded. But most of them are museums. There are more high-speed chairlifts on Vail Mountain – 17- than there are in all of New York State. And all 15 of the state’s detachable lifts are concentrated at seven ski areas.
Such a circumstance cannot endure indefinitely. Some of these ski areas, their infrastructure exhausted, will disappear. Earlier this week, Toggenburg became the latest to do so.
“I struggled with this” – Toggenburg closes after 68 years
The news came suddenly, as unpredictable as the lake-effect snows that keep New York’s ancient ski areas churning. Peter Harris, owner of nearby Song and Labrador mountains, had purchased Little Toggenburg, with its great big lodge and its 600 vertical feet and its collection of Cold War-era lifts, and would close it for skiing immediately.
Harris plans to absorb Toggenburg’s operations into that of Song and Labrador. As new strains of COVID emerge, there is still great uncertainty about future capacity restrictions and concerns about finding and keeping seasonal staff as many local companies continue to struggle to hire workers. …
Central New York’s population decline since 1980 resulted in excess ski capacity with these three resorts located within just a 12-mile radius of one another. By closing Toggenburg, Harris plans to make investments in infrastructure and equipment at Song and Labrador that will improve the overall experience for skiers and snowboarders. Both Song and Labrador have excess capacity, so an anticipated increase in traffic should have little or no impact on operations.
Harris, who has owned Song for two decades and whose family previously owned Snow Ridge for 33 years, bought Toggenburg from John Meier, who had purchased the mountain in 2015 and combined its operations with Greek Peak after engineering that ski area’s revitalization. Both say that it was an agonized surrender couched in a financial decision.
“It was very difficult for me because I've got kids that grew up in the ski-racing program,” said Meier. “I know families, I know parents, I know kids. And I lived the brand. I ski 50 days a year. I'm on chairlifts. I know people in our restaurants and bars, or my kids are getting ski lessons. We know instructors, all the employees, I know them by their first name. I know their spouse's name. And they're my employees. So those sorts of things were difficult. In business you've got to look at where your focus is going to be. I love skiing and I love Central New York. Right. There's a tremendous investment and focus that's needed at Greek Peak, and we made the decision to put our focus there. So yeah, it's bittersweet.”
“I struggled with the decision,” Harris said. “After much analysis, it seemed to be a logical decision, and I sincerely think this is better for the Central New York ski scene. I think we're going to have a better experience, because obviously very we're going to have more resources to invest in the two remaining areas.”
Still, that two families so tightly knitted to Central New York skiing could so unceremoniously give up on a mountain that had been open since 1953 ignited fierce reaction online.
“The whole thing just reeks of shadiness,” a user commented in response to a Greek Peak Facebook post announcing the sale. “If they were going to sell last year, go public? Why not get a higher price? Because they both wanted it closed. Win win. Funnel everyone to their hills.
“Problem is, Evey [sic] time we went to Song or Lab last year, the lines for the lifts were super long and the parking was atrocious. Add thousands more and it will be a horrible experience.”
Greek Peak’s official position is to whistle with its hands in its pockets as it walks away. “We appreciate Peter Harris’s interest in Toggenburg and wish the best to him and the Toggenburg community,” the Facebook post reads.
“…this post from Greek was 6 hours ago? They already know Togg is closing and this post makes it sound like they’re unaware of that,” another Facebook user responded.
“Skiing doesn’t have to happen in New York State”
There is no evidence that the two owners colluded to eliminate competition. The suggestion is more emotional than rational anyway: if I own two cars and my neighbor owns two cars and I buy one of his cars, I can fill it with Styrofoam peanuts and push it into my swimming pool if I feel like it. People can do as they please with their property, even if that property serves a public interest. And ski areas are, mostly, private businesses. While many are on public land, Toggenburg was not, and that arrangement favors the owner’s will.
“Skiing doesn’t have to happen in New York State,” Meier said. “It takes an entrepreneur, it takes a business investor. You gotta want to do it, and you're not going to make a lot of money doing it. You're going to wonder why are you doing this? It's a very difficult business in general. It’s very capital-intensive business. There's a lot easier ways to make a buck. This is a labor of love for me.”
Look West, at liftlines wrapped around the mountain at Steamboat or cars backed up a dozen miles out of packed Crystal parking lots, and it’s clear that some states need more or larger ski areas. New York has the opposite problem. It has too many ski areas and too many small ones. That it also has the largest city in the nation is irrelevant; the majority of those Empire State ski areas are four hours or more from Manhattan, the same distance as the far larger – and for the most part far better equipped – mountains of southern Vermont. Stratton is on the Ikon Pass, has a 2,000-foot vertical drop, a fleet of four high-speed six-packs, an eight-passenger gondola, and consistent snowpack to open its extensive glade network. Mount Snow is on the Epic Pass, has 1,700 feet of vert, 20 chairlifts, and the best terrain park in the Northeast. Both are the same drive time from New York City as 650-foot Oak Mountain or 700-foot Song.
Vermont has 23 ski areas, New Hampshire, 30. The rest of New England combines for 37, and New Jersey and Pennsylvania together host another 30. Together with New York’s 50, that’s 170 ski areas in a relatively concentrated geographic area.
In an ever-changing country, there is probably no absolute right number of ski areas. But this culling has been taking place for a long time. Those same nine states held 244 ski areas in 1980 – again, almost certainly an undercount. Many of them, as Chris Diamon wrote in Ski Inc., probably never should have been built in the first place. In 1980, the Central New York ski corridor from Greek Peak up I-81 to Syracuse held nine ski areas. Long gone are Mystic Mountain (590 vertical feet on two faces), Ironwood Ridge (500 steep vertical feet), and Colgate University’s 370-foot Trainer Hill, which the school abandoned when its team started training at… Toggenburg.
What the State of New York, Vail Resorts, and Netflix all have in common
That New York has to compete against Vermont is hard enough, but most independent operators are also competing against New York itself. The state’s Olympic Regional Development Authority operates the state’s two largest ski areas – Whiteface and Gore, the only mountains in the state comparable to the dozen or so megaresorts just across Lake Champlain – and Belleayre, which is smaller but situated in the heart of the Catskills, just two and a half hours north of New York City. These three ski areas account for nearly a third of the state’s high-speed lifts and all three of its ski-area gondolas (ORDA also operates an eight-passenger gondola at its Lake Placid ski jump facility). Some years the ski areas operate at a loss. ORDA’s capital budget for fiscal 2021 is $144.5 million, tens of millions more than Vail’s estimated $115-$120 million 2021 spend across its 37 resorts, many of which could slip all three New York ski areas into their pants pockets.
“Why is New York in the business of running ski areas?” said Meier. “They run everything inefficiently – what makes us think they could run a ski area more efficiently? When they have a budget gap, people like us get wiped out, or we have to go beg, borrow, steal money somewhere to do a new lift or a new snowmaking project, but the state bails them out with the new gondola. It's frustrating.”
The state has occasionally helped private operators, and subsidized a mass upgrade to energy-efficient snowguns over the past decade. Still, New York has an outsized number of family-owned ski areas. Western-based conglomerates own seven large Vermont ski areas: Vail owns Stowe, Okemo, and Mount Snow; Alterra has Stratton and Sugarbush; Powdr Corp owns Killington and Pico. Only Vail’s Hunter Mountain in New York’s Catskills has access to the sort of capital that comes with conglomerate ownership.
And though ORDA’s three ski areas run along New York’s I-87 corridor, its marketing encroaches on different regions – Harris points out that a “More Gore” billboard has sat on Interstate 81, the main route between Syracuse and Song Mountain.
“It's a little disheartening to see [ORDA’s] capital budget,” Harris said. “It's a little disheartening to see their [relatively low] lift ticket prices. It's a little disheartening that they're advertising right in my backyard.”
Other long-term factors may have conspired to change Toggenburg’s viability, which former owner Jim Hickey, whose family had owned the ski area since its founding, had said was profitable when he sold it to Meier. These include competition from megapasses and the rising cost and scarcity of labor. Dividing Toggenburg’s workers between Song, Labrador, and Greek Peak, as Meier suggested to me he would work with Harris to do, may help fill in some of these shortages while minimizing job losses.
Society, too, is evolving. “Frankly there's a lot more competition for people's time now,” said Meier. “Whether it's Netflix or travel hockey or travel soccer, it's a different world. And, sadly, the market is gonna react to that. That's called market dynamics. And that sucks, but that's capitalism, and that’s the system that we live in.”
“The math doesn’t work” – why Toggenburg languished
Still, it’s hard not to wonder whether this was all a little rash. Toggenburg as it was, frozen in some Reagan-era 1980s New York, may not have been viable. But investment drives skier visits.
West Mountain was a declining relic puttering along on 30,000 skier visits before Sara and Spencer Montgomery plowed $17 million into the place and tripled that number. When Berkshire East owner Jon Schaefer purchased Catamount in 2018, he launched an ambitious upgrade that included a new lodge, vast snowmaking improvements, new trails, and a lift-system overhaul that added a triple and will replace two old doubles with used quads. “I want to make this one of the best small ski areas in the country,” he told me on The Storm Skiing Podcast in 2019. Montage has increased its season passholder base tenfold since Charles Jefferson bought it out of bankruptcy in 2013.
Meier, who has invested $10 million into Greek Peak since acquiring it, never made comparable investments in Toggenburg – it’s no mystery why the place stagnated. Greek Peak’s investments are still paying dividends – Meier says the ski area added nearly 1,000 new passholders in April alone. But the sort of investment that would modernize Toggenburg doesn’t materialize out of thin air.
“Toggenburg is one-tenth the size of Greek Peak, but it would require the same amount of capital,” Meier said. “In my opinion, $10 million to bring it up to speed. The math doesn’t work. And I can tell you, bankers aren’t going to just drop money out of the sky. They’re going to expect that you have an ability to repay that, and with what I know about being a businessman for the last 25 years and owning Toggenburg for the last six years, there’s no scenario by which there is any return on investment for that.”
Only Harris knows the financial status of Song and Labrador. Both resorts have a charming but rusty quality about them. He recently built a new restaurant at Song, and he’s made snowmaking, grooming, and lift upgrades at the ski area, replacing the Thunderbird T-bar with a triple and upgrading the beginner area with a double chair (replacing an antique J-bar). He also remodeled the lodge at Labrador and added nearly 100 new snowguns, though the mountain’s newest lift is a 1985 Borvig triple and the rest of its fleet predates America’s bicentennial. Harris declined to provide specifics about planned improvements to Labrador and Song, but said they are “never-ending,” and that some of Toggenburg’s snowmaking and grooming equipment was likely to be redeployed at his other mountains. While Harris has relocated three chairlifts in the past, he said that Toggenburg’s lifts “probably aren’t a fit” for Song or Lab.
“You have to know that how capital-intensive ski centers are,” said Harris, “Snowcats are $400,000 apiece. Chairlifts cost a million and a half dollars, even at little places. Snowmaking is supremely expensive. New restaurants and main lodges are all very expensive. The cost of doing business in New York state is very high. So this is what this is about, is being able to compete again billion-dollar companies. They can spend 10 million or 30 million or a hundred million dollars on new places. I can't do that.”
Combining all three ski areas onto one pass – as Harris did with Song and Labrador immediately upon purchasing the latter – could have been a compelling offering. But Harris clearly doesn’t see the business case, even if Toggenburg is not in nearly as an advanced state of decline as West Mountain was when the Montgomerys took hold of it. He stopped short of ruling out a future re-opening of Toggenburg, however.
“You’re asking me to predict the future, and it’s very hard to do that,” Harris said when I asked him whether there was a scenario in which he would re-open Toggenburg if business accelerated at his other ski areas. “There’s no scenario that’s off the table. If we needed more space, more trails, because we were just out of capacity, then certainly that would be an option.”
Perhaps Harris is just getting ahead of the inevitable. Where new owners have declined to invest in established ski areas – Brodie, Ski Blandford – they have shuttered them in short order. What would the point be in operating Toggenburg for a few years at a loss? Just to show he tried? Just because the ski area was profitable six years ago doesn’t mean it is now, and Harris and Meier both declined to provide specifics on the ski area’s finances. These are businesses, and they need to make money to keep surviving.
“I think there may be fewer mountains, but they may be fewer, stronger mountains that are better off financially and better able to invest for the future, so that my grandkids can have the same experience that I had growing up,” Meier said.
Well that’s all gone now
I hit Toggenburg in the midst of February’s endless storm cycle, the mountain empty and almost fully open on a single-digit Friday. The snow stood deep and almost untouched in the trees and I spent the day winding through them. My last run of the day was a straightline down Ole-T Alley, the best run on the mountain, a nevergroomed slice of pure fall line trenched halfpipe-style through the forest. The run was technically closed but in the lackadaisical way of New York Patrollers this seemed unenforced, and someone had constructed a kicker toward the bottom. As I maneuvered the bumps angling toward this a kid of maybe 12 or 13, upbound on the adjacent double, yelled, “hit the jump.” And in the way of homegrown ski areas everywhere I knew this to be something more than a suggestion, some transfer of local knowledge freighted with necessity, an urgency born of intimacy with the mountain. If I did not hit this jump that was the jump that these kids lapped all day and talked about endlessly then how could I have said I skied their mountain at all? I hit the jump and skied back to my van and drove away.
That was, I guess, the last time I’ll ski Toggenburg. Harris told me he doesn’t think the place will be open for skinning even when natural snow allows. Death sometimes gives you warning, but often it doesn’t and you just have to cope. Those kids are going to have to find another jump on another mountain, because this one is done.