Bozeman is home to close to fifty nonprofits. Together, they contribute to our social and economic well-being and offer an arena for civic involvement. Nonprofits offer public goods free from the constraints of the market or government regulation. Nonprofit organizations produce incalculable benefits. Bridger Bowl is one such example. Yet, I am concerned about the future of skiing in our community and especially for those who can no longer afford our local ski hill.
Bridger is one of many nonprofit community ski areas started after WWII. The men of the 10th Mountain Division returned from Europe infused with the alpine culture of the Alps. They were harbingers of our national ski industry. Thanks to post-war affluence and high-profile marketing, the baby-boom generation embraced skiing. By the mid-1970s, almost 750 ski areas were up and running, many as community nonprofits. By the 1980s the rising cost of skiing caused a slump in the industry; it is still recovering. However, for many, skiing is no longer affordable.
Free or cheap rent and lower tax burdens for nonprofit ski areas historically provided the community with access to affordable skiing. Today, there are only five community nonprofit ski areas left in the nation. Two demonstrate how to sustain affordable skiing for locals in rural communities.
Mount Holiday in Michigan started operation in 1949. Their mission statement is to keep lift tickets, rental equipment, food, and lessons affordable -- especially for kids. They ensure that kids have opportunities to try skiing by maintaining two “skiership” funds: “No kid will be denied a chance to learn to ski because they can not afford the sport.” These two funds allow five kids a day to ski at no charge. They provide lift tickets, rentals, and lessons. An adult season pass starts at $261 and a day pass is $25.
Lookout Pass in Idaho has provided a free ski school since 1935. I am one of thousands that learned to ski free there. No ticket is needed for ski school, and transportation to the area throughout the Silver Valley is free; the hour bus ride from Coeur d’Alene is only $10. An adult season pass starts at $199 and a day ticket is $25.
Neither area spends money that does not directly enhance the skiing experience. They develop more terrain, modernize or expand the number of lifts, and most importantly -- subsidize the learning experience. Like Bridger, both areas operate on public land. Both have adequate though rustic lodges.
Bridger’s mission statement is to “plan, develop, and maintain facilities and services for Bridger Bowl [to] provide for the best possible skiing experience at a reasonable cost to local, regional, and destination skiers....” Compared to Holiday and Lookout, one could legitimately ask if Bridger is fulfilling its legal mandate with day passes costing $37 and adult season passes starting at $520. Lessons are $30 and up. In addition, it is difficult to understand how the elaborate new lodge adds to the skiing experience.
Bridger’s strategy resembles that of a for-profit operation. During the 1969-70 season, 71 percent of Bridger visits were people who lived within 50 miles of the area with the remainder being nonlocals. Today, with a national marketing strategy that targets Minnesotans to Floridians, the ratio is about 40 percent locals and 60 percent nonlocals.
The ski industry converts only about 15 percent of first-timers into long-term participants. They need to increase it to at least 25 percent if they are to survive as a sport. For-profit areas can increase marketing budgets and try to improve the quality of their ski area operations. That is the essence of competition.
A not-for-profit ski area like Bridger will never compete with the deep pockets of the big ski corporations -- Vail Resorts, Intrawest, and American Skiing Company. Bridger can’t and shouldn’t compete with the likes of Park City, Sun Valley, or Big Sky -- true national destination areas. Rather, it should abide by founding principles and provide affordable access to the sport for locals. By pricing the ski experience so high, Bridger precludes access for many residents of the Valley. U.S. taxpayers implicitly subsidize Bridger Bowl, yet many locals can’t afford to ski there. Has our nonprofit strayed from its mission?