Ski area needs $400,000 to buy equipment

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Cochran’s Ski Area hopes to soon have a weapon to fight the fickle fates of winter.

The Richmond ski area recently received an Act 250 land-use permit for snowmaking. Drawing water from the Winooski River, Cochran’s plans to use snow guns to cover slopes with artificial snow.

The ski area has been hurt in recent years by its lack of snowmaking capability. Last year, bare slopes kept it closed for the first half of the season. The previous year was even worse.

Despite heavy snow in the second half of last season, Cochran’s officials still wondered whether they should close for good.

“For us, the last couple of winters have been pretty devastating,” said Steve Kelley, president of Cochran’s board of directors. “Two years ago in particular, we went almost the whole winter without snow from top to bottom.”

The state permit allows installation of a snowmaking system that draws up to 500 gallons per minute from the Winooski River. The system will be capable of covering slopes with up to 6 inches of snow. Cochran’s current system can only produce a couple of inches of snow on the beginner’s slope using water from a nearby stream.

It’s been a tough couple of seasons for Cochran’s, Kelley said. Sales of season passes dropped. Few people made day trips to the ski area.

Worse, area schools were forced to cancel outings. Williston Central School’s program, for example, was able to visit Cochran’s on only two of its scheduled 10 weekly trips during the 2005-06 season, Kelley said.

That had Cochran’s governing board wondering if it should permanently close the ski area. After all, as a nonprofit, its mission is to promote skiing by offering families and children an affordable alternative to the bigger ski resorts.

“We decided either to close the place or start a capital campaign to buy snowmaking equipment,” said Kelley.

Much has changed in Vermont’s skiing business over the past 20 years, said Dave Healy, Cochran’s executive director. With virtually every other ski area now using snowmaking to supplement natural snow, customers no longer tolerate patchy snow and rocky slopes.

“Word of mouth is the best advertising,” Healy said. “When people say that Cochran’s doesn’t have any snow, that’s not a good thing.”

The inconsistent conditions prompted local high schools to abandon Cochran’s as a training ground and ski meet venue over the past couple of decades. Healy and Kelley think the acquisition of snowmaking equipment could bring those teams back.

The fundraising effort to date has brought in about $220,000, Kelley said. About $400,000 in cash is needed, with the remaining cost covered by in-kind donations of goods and services.

The goal is to raise most of the remaining money – or at least enough to make a commitment to buying the equipment – during an event this weekend featuring members of the U.S. Ski Team.

Eight or nine of the team members, including gold medalist Ted Ligety, will hold a “meet the athlete” session and a dry land skiing clinic. T-shirts will be sold that team members can autograph. The free event starts at 12:30 p.m. at Cochran’s and is open to the general public.

A cocktail party will be held that evening. A “who’s who of the Burlington area” will attend, Kelley said. The idea is to draw big-money contributions to supplement the many smaller donations already received.

Cochran’s was founded in 1961 by Mickey and Ginny Cochran. The ski area helped train three generations of Cochran children, some of whom went on to join the U.S. Ski Team.

Thousands of other children have learned to ski and honed their skills over the years at Cochran’s, which features relatively gentle slopes and low prices compared to bigger ski areas.

“The whole philosophy is to provide affordable skiing for Vermont kids,” Kelley said.