Boyce Park ski area booming due to new boss

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Sochi, it is not. But there is plenty of snow at Boyce Park.

And on a recent weekday evening, there were plenty of people there, too.

Sharon Sidhu of Hampton, bound for the ski lift in full skiing gear, was with her two children, 10-year-old son Sammy and 8-year-old daughter Neena. They started coming to the 1,096-acre county park that stretches across Plum and Monroeville to ski about four years ago, Ms. Sidhu said, and now visit a few days a week during the winter season to practice.

"I think it's like a hidden gem," Ms. Sidhu said.

If a gem, it's one that only recently has been polished.

Boyce Park's skiing, snowboard and snow-tubing area, which in recent years had struggled with ski lift breakdowns and with making and maintaining enough snow to remain open consistently, this year has witnessed something of a turnaround.

It opened Dec. 6, its earliest opening day in years, and has remained open each day since -- except for the Christmas Day holiday -- with plans to remain open through mid-March.

Already this year, the park has set revenue records and is on track to surpass attendance numbers for recent years, said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

It's far from the Boyce Park Mr. Fitzgerald said he encountered when he entered office in January 2012.

The ski area was opening an average of 60 days each winter, but inconsistently, and was prone to unexpected closures due to circumstances such as a faulty ski lift or a lack of snow.

"That presents another problem because people aren't going to come back" if they make the drive out to the park only to find there's no skiing or snowboarding possible that day, Mr. Fitzgerald said.

The slopes were a money-loser. During the 2011-12 season, they lost $500,000, producing only $72,000 in revenues, Mr. Fitzgerald said. The following season, the park lost $400,000, with revenues of $180,000.

"There were some people recommending that we actually get out of the ski business: 'Let's close it, because it loses so much money,' " Mr. Fitzgerald said.

Instead, in October, Mr. Fitzgerald announced that the county would outsource parts of Boyce Park's ski operations to Mountain Works. The contract is $701,624 over three years. The company is run by Jim Shultz, who ran a snow tubing park in Finleyville for almost a decade and then worked making snow for Hidden Valley Resort in Somerset County for the past seven years.

Now the Boyce Park slogan is, "We know snow." By the end of January, Boyce Park ski revenues were over $300,000 for the year, with several weeks in the season, Mr. Fitzgerald said. He's not sure that the ski operations will break even this year, but he said the county will probably need to put less than $100,000 from the general tax fund into operations.

A steady snow operation gives Boyce a better reputation, he said.

"The other thing is, too, people know that it's there now," he said. "It's been reliable. It's been open every single day."

Part of the reason that the park has been able to open every day this year is new snowmaking equipment. The park has added 11 new, fully automated TechnoAlpin T40 snowmaking machines -- which Mr. Shultz described as "some of the best snowmaking equipment available for our climate" -- to add to its supply of 17 snowmaking machines to build up snow over 12 acres of ski slope.

"We have a lot of output capabilities on a very small footprint," Mr. Shultz said, which enabled the park to open early and stay open. His goal is to keep the park open -- and covered in snow -- through March 16, clocking the park's ski area in at 100 days compared to its average of around 60.

Of course, the fact that it has been a cold winter with multiple rounds of snow is a large part of the reason that the park has had success this year.

"The weather has been helpful in our favor, no question about it," he said.

Still, he is looking ahead to years when the weather might not be so good. Mr. Shultz's company is one phase into a three-year plan to replace the snowmaking pipe on the hill, which was leaking and contributing to inefficiencies with the snowmaking machines. And he's on the lookout for other techniques to improve snow output. He spoke to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from Vermont, where he was attending a conference for the National Ski Area Association.

"It doesn't matter," he said, that Boyce Park is small. "You still have to be plugged in to the industry."

Bringing in someone with expertise in snowmaking, such as Mr. Shultz, means that county employees who were assigned to the ski operation previously can now be deployed to do maintenance work in the county's nine parks, Mr. Fitzgerald said.

The improvement in snowmaking operations did not mean an increase in fees for the park this year, which are significantly lower than at typical ski resorts.

Mr. Fitzgerald said he will likely be speaking with the Allegheny County Council about adjusting the fees in the future.

For now, it's the Boyce Park ski area attendance numbers that are going up. There have been 11,676 visitors as of Feb. 2, closing in on the recent record set during the 2010-11 season, when 12,800 people attended, and well above attendance figures from 2011-12, when 3,800 visited the ski area, and 2012-13, when 6,200 did.

Matt Boast, 24, of Regent Square made the trip out to Boyce Park for the first time last week. A snowboarding enthusiast, he had heard about Boyce Park, but also heard that it frequently closed due to lack of snow.

But he had been checking the past few days, and it seemed as though it was reliably open, and so it was Thursday afternoon.

"It's a good price," he said.

This week, it seems fair to say there will be more attention to snowboarding and skiing at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, than at Boyce, but Mr. Shultz said his years in the snowmaking business have shown him that watching winter sports on TV makes people want to try out the same sports closer to home.

"There's a definite uptick in interest. It helps if the weather cooperates, too."

Kaitlynn Riely: or 412-263-1707.

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