A bankrupt ski resort in West Windsor could become a year-round haven for outdoor sports. But first the town, with support from a land trust, has to raise enough money to buy a big chunk of the land.
Long before developers started pouring millions of dollars into a luxury hotel, condos, and a fitness center, Mt. Ascutney was just a low-key affordable place for local families to socialize on skis. That’s what it could become again — plus an area for mountain biking, horseback riding and hiking — if West Windsor selectman Ted Siegler gets his wish.
Trudging to the charred remains of a ski lodge that burned in January, Siegler imagines a brighter future for the property.
“You’ll see a lift operating in the winter time and we will be skiing here again, that’s what we’re hoping and in the summer there will be mountain bikers riding here and it’ll become a vibrant small recreation area again,” he says.
But creating a community recreation area will take money — about $900,000. West Windsor voters agreed to allocate about $100,000 toward the purchase of 469 acres of the former Ascutney Mountain Resort and add it to the existing West Windsor Town Forest. The Vermont Housing and Conservation Board has just kicked in an additional $300,000, leaving about $500,000 to raise. The fundraising is being done by the Trust for Public Land, a national conservation group. Kate Wanner is the Trust’s project manager for Ascutney. She says the mountain, called a monadnock, teems with biodiversity as it rises from a valley at some interesting ecological boundaries.
"[It's at] the northern edge of some southern forest species and the southern edge of the northern hardwood species, so you’ve got a combination of red pine and oak with spruce and fir, all on acidic soils in a high elevation diversity. So there’s a lot of stuff going on on that mountain and a lot more to protect besides recreation,” Wanner says.
There’s also a lot at stake for a local economy devastated by the closure of the resort. Kathy Frazer is the new owner of a general store just down the road from the mountain.
She struggled to stay open this winter, after the lodge burned down and the resort foreclosure ground to a close.
“I looked at several businesses before I found the Brownsville General and it just felt like a good fit. And then the fire happened and it just seemed like everything went topsy-turvy from there," Frazer laments.
She says she loves the West Windsor village of Brownsville but it’s too small to support the store without the big influx of tourists that used to come to ski and even buy condos at the mountain. But these days, downhill skiing is declining, and back country skiing and winter biking are on the rise—literally. That’s one reason Jim Lyall, a mountain biker, has been rallying teams to build 35 miles of trails on Mount Ascutney--to help stem further economic decline.
“We’ve lost the ski area; with consolidation we could lose the school. With the Post office shrinking we could lose the Post Office. If we don’t have any kind of vibrant community here we could lose the general store and then we have nothing. We’d have no community here,” he worries.
So he and his neighbor, selectman Ted Siegler, see the rebirth of recreation on Mt. Ascutney as the town's salvation. They know there are those who think the town should not spend money on this parcel, and who fear that it will gobble up more tax dollars in the future. But they point to wide support for the preservation plan, which also includes an online crowd funding campaign with a July 1 deadline.