Powder Ridge Returns for 2013-14 Ski Season
The work never seems to stop. Generators hum, hammers bang, saws spin and workers plant grass seed and carry old shelving out of buildings. Pick-up trucks drive up and down a dirt road. Bobcats dig where 1,400 parking spaces will soon be. With just about a month left to go before lights are set to come back on at Powder Ridge Mountain Park & Resort in Middlefield, time is running out.
“We will be open for the season,” vows Sean Hayes, the new owner, on a warm day in October. “We may not have all the services we would like, but we will be open.”
One of five ski areas in Connecticut, Powder Ridge offers a 525-foot vertical drop and a 2,000-foot run with 22 trails, from bunny hills to black diamonds. It’s the only ski resort in the state with a full half-pipe.
The southernmost ski area in New England—to some mostly known for its failed rock festival in 1970—has been closed since 2007, when owner Whitewater Mountain Resorts filed for bankruptcy. The town of Middlefield bought it for $2.55 million in December 2008 at a foreclosure auction. Four years later Hayes, who also owns Brownstone Exploration & Discovery Park in Portland, was able to acquire the resort from the town for $700,000 after voters overwhelmingly approved the deal via referendum.
As part of the deal, Hayes agreed to invest at least $2 million in permanent improvements to the property. His plan was to invest up to $5 million if necessary.
“I’m nuts,” he says about his decision to buy the place. However, with all the synergies between a ski area and his Portland water park, Hayes says he couldn’t resist the challenge. “They are only nine miles apart. We can reach 23 million people within a 90-mile radius.” Between the two properties, he’ll be offering full-time work for almost 200, including cooks, waitstaff, lift operators and ski instructors.
Hayes is passionate about his vision to restore the long-vacant Powder Ridge into a full-service resort, leveraging the unique attributes of the terrain like when he transformed a Portland quarry into an exciting adventure park. He describes the project as a “continuing vision that evolves when you get into it.”
“I’m a sculptor,” he says. “I’m the happiest when I’m on a bulldozer.” Plus, having the winter off was just “too much relaxation.” (Brownstone operates from May through September; Powder Ridge will be open from October through March, offering leaf-peeping tours starting next fall.)
When complete, Powder Ridge will offer skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking, obstacle courses, a swimming pool, hiking, tubing and a scenic parking area. The 19,000-square-foot lodge will have retail shops, and Hayes says he hopes it will be a place where parents don’t just drop kids off but stay to shop and watch the family ski on TVs in the base lodge.
“We will feature three levels of eating,” he says, laying out the floor plans: A market area on the first level with The Ridgeside Tavern bar and mountain views on upper levels, topped by a more formal full-size restaurant, Fire at the Ridge, headed up by celebrity chef Kevin Cottle, former executive chef for Jordan Caterers and a first runner up on Gordon Ramsay’s TV cooking competition “Hell’s Kitchen.” Hayes is hopeful the restaurant will be open by New Year’s Eve.
The resort will offer 10 “day rooms” that will be set up as living rooms with full-size queen sofa beds and can be rented for a half day, full day or overnight, or for special events like weddings, which will be offered at the top of the mountain in a picturesque gazebo featuring views of the entire Connecticut Valley.
Joseph Robison, who first learned to ski at Powder Ridge in 1992 when he was 5, will be teaching there again this winter. He’s excited to see the area get a second chance. “I can remember it hustling and bustling in full swing—people having fun, skiing and enjoying the mountain, and I can’t wait to be making turns down some of those runs once again,” he says. “All the lifts were spinning, busses from New York were bringing people in. The restaurant was open, you could grab a coffee and chowder and hang by the roaring fire watching the people ski. It really was a great atmosphere.”
Jennifer Sprague of Vernon says her Glastonbury High School ski team held weekly practices at Powder Ridge in the late 1990s and she has many fond memories of her time on the slopes. “Through skiing, I had the opportunity to be a part of a team sport with great people who shared my passion—it kept me active during the winter, instilled a sense of pride in myself and in my team, and helped me develop leadership skills when I eventually became a team captain,” Sprague says. “I am excited to see Powder Ridge reopening and to know that more kids will be able to have these great experiences.”
Powder Ridge will be the first mountain in the Northeast to implement a terrain-based learning center to help learn how to ski, which takes away the fear of falling, Hayes says. “This is a beginner-to-intermediate hill,” he says. “It’s a family park. We want people to get back outside and get healthy.”
Hayes had to make several structural improvements to bring everything up to code before opening day, with permitting delays every step of the way—it took almost nine months to just get power restored. He also had to deal with a severely vandalized property and $150,000 worth of copper being stolen from the site over the years. “It’s been an eye-opener,” he says. “It’s been educational. It’s been frustrating. But the passion, the vision, has not diminished.”
While there’s still a long way to go, he says, “I don’t give up easy.”
He did get one break: The lifts were in better shape than anticipated. By late summer, they had been inspected and were ready to go. Three lifts—two triples and a double—take skiers all the way to the top of the ridge. In the restoration process, the crew added a second, faster, speed; it now takes about 12 minutes to reach the top, Hayes says, “but they can be slowed down for leaf-peepers as needed.”
Sixty-six snowmaking machines and six fan guns will be on-site. The pond at the bottom of the hill has been dredged and widened to double its capacity from 4 million to 8 million gallons, which Hayes says will be “more than enough for snowmaking.” It only has to be 38 degrees to make snow, but Hayes is hoping for a cold winter to make the resort as successful as it can be.
By mid-September, Powder Ridge had already sold twice as many season tickets as expected, offering 50-percent-off deals and combination summer-winter passes with Brownstone. “For a first year, we are doing well,” Hayes says, appreciating the fact that people are taking a risk, not knowing what to fully expect the first season.
Powder Ridge—then known as the Powder Hill Ski Area—first opened on Jan. 20, 1961, the same day President John F. Kennedy was inaugurated. New Haven appliance dealers Louis and Herman Zemel started formal construction in the late fall of 1960, after it had operated as a bunny hill with a tow rope for a year. Two years later, the installation of a new double chairlift transformed Powder Hill from a minor to a major ski area. At that time, a full-day lift ticket cost only $5; an eight-hour flex ticket for a weekend day or weekday will now cost $55.
In the mid 1960s the Zemel brothers introduced early-bird and night skiing, opening at 6:30 a.m. and staying open until 3 a.m. Some local residents even remember it being open 24-hours for a short time.
Powder Ridge staff received a note from Don Rupar, now 77, who remembers having a “roaring good time” skiing before and after work. “Nobody on the mountain except me and the snow groomers,” he reminisces. “My wife thought I was insane, and I probably was.”
Night skiing will be back this year, according to Hayes.
“There’s a really good feeling of tranquility on a mountain at night,” says ski instructor Robison. “Catching runs till 10 p.m. under the lights with your friends is super awesome. There’s not too many other places you can do this.”
The Zemels changed the name to Powder Ridge in 1970 and sought to expand the resort but faced opposition from zoning officials in both Middlefield and Meriden. Eventually, after some legal battles, they were approved for expansion and installed New England’s first quadruple chairlift in 1972. (The lift was converted down to a triple in 2001.)
Attempting to make some extra money during the off-season, the Zemels agreed to host a rock festival on the ridge in July 1970. It was set to feature Janis Joplin, the Allman Brothers and Van Morrison. However, a court injunction granted to local groups opposed to the event put a stop to the music two days beforehand. While none of the key performers showed up, about 30,000 visitors did—young people who had traveled from near and far and didn’t know the event had been canceled. They camped out, did drugs, swam in and contaminated the pond, leaving a mess in their wake. When the 1970-71 ski season started, the Zemels offered those with festival tickets the opportunity to trade them in for ski passes and promised the resort had been fully restored to its previous pristine condition.
In 1997, Iowa developer Kenneth Leavitt of Whitewater Mountain Resorts bought Powder Ridge from the Zemel family, with the plan of adding a water park to turn it into a year-round resort. The company struggled for years with the proposed expansion but eventually ran out of capital. In 2005, T.D. Bank started foreclosure proceedings on the ski area. The foreclosure was halted in April 2007 when Whitewater filed for bankruptcy, but a judge later agreed it could proceed, eventually paving the way for the sale of the resort.
In stepped Hayes, who negotiated for seven months before signing on the dotted line on Sept. 12, 2012, taking full ownership.
Middlefield First Selectman Jon Brayshaw told The Middletown Press at the time that he was “just thrilled that our town has a new business owner that’s putting a lot of effort and care” into the property and that “it was a real mess” until Hayes took over. “It’s not just any plot of land,” said Brayshaw. “It’s been the source of great pride to the town and its inhabitants.”
The property will be back on the tax rolls as of the 2013 Grand List, saving Middlefield the $250,000 it had to pay per year in upkeep and taxes to Meriden and Wallingford, since part of the ski area reaches into those towns. Middlefield will also receive 20 percent of ticket sales once Powder Ridge is up and running, as part of the agreement.
Hayes has a similar deal with Portland, a deal First Selectwoman Susan Bransfield says has greatly benefitted the town. Portland leases the Brownstone quarry to Hayes, and the town gets 15 percent of ticket revenue, which amounted to a total income of almost $1 million between July 2007 and July 2013. In 2012 alone, the town received more than $300,000 from Brownstone.
“Our public-private partnership is a huge success,” says Bransfield. “We are revitalizing a once dormant area of our town. We have revenue coming from a quarry that was abandoned and had stopped production a long time ago.”
While Brownstone is getting about 76,000 visitors per year, Hayes says he hopes to reach 110,000 visitors—peak performance for the previous owner—at Powder Ridge in a few years.
Despite some concerns about increased traffic and some objections to his deal with the town, Hayes says he has seen “no ill will.” “Everyone is looking forward to Powder Ridge,” he says. And while the length of his ski trails may not rival those of Killington or Mt. Snow in Vermont, Hayes welcomes beginners, families and those who wish to ski close to home once again.
“Some people might complain ‘Oh, there’s not 2,000 vertical feet, oh there’s not a lot of steeps,’” instructor Robison says. “What really matters is simple: it’s the fun that counts.”