Area resorts upgrade facilities on the slopes and off, and in most cases raise fees


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A new owner -- and long-awaited improvements -- at Hidden Valley.

A new six-passenger chairlift, refurbished hotel rooms and another No. 1 ranking for Seven Springs.

A new snowtubing park and an upgraded chairlift at Boyce Park.

Three new expert trails at Snowshoe Mountain in West Virginia.

And, with the exception of a few ski areas, increased prices -- up to $70 for a weekend lift ticket at Snowshoe -- to help cover the cost of some of those improvements.

These are among the many changes awaiting skiers and snowboarders when they return to local and regional slopes this winter, perhaps as early as mid-December.

Hidden Valley

Let's start with Hidden Valley, where the Buncher Co., a well-known Pittsburgh-based real estate developer, has been working nonstop since buying the 1,500-acre resort on Aug. 31 from the Kettler family for $12.4 million.

The financially troubled resort, the home of under-appreciated employees, waiting-to-be-paid creditors and unhappy residents and guests, had been for sale for several years.

Buncher's goal is "to return Hidden Valley to its glory days as a premier family resort and ensure a high standard of operation with amenities that cater to families and the [1,200 full-time and part-time] residents," said Bill Doring, company vice president and treasurer.

In a statement that energized employees, residents and guests of the Somerset County resort, Mr. Doring said attaining that goal "will be a long process" -- three to five years. "We will take our time and do it right. We will not cut corners. This is more than a challenge; this is a career."

Perhaps more than anyone else at Buncher, Mr. Doring, 51, knows the challenges that lie ahead. He is a skier and snowboarder, as are members of his family, and he has owned a second home at the resort since 1989.

At a resort where maintenance declined from deferred to deterred, Buncher has been blessed with good weather as it put new roofs on the ski lodge and other buildings, replaced decks and carpeting, upgraded roads and parking lots, restored the clock tower and installed new lighting, signage, wireless Internet and mountain cams.

On-mountain improvements include 30 new automated snowmaking machines and two new snowgroomers to move that snow around and prepare an easy-to-turn corduroy surface for skiers and snowboarders. New fanny-friendly seats have been installed on the side-by-side triple chairlifts that serve the slopes and trails on the front side of the resort.

Improvements also have been made to the other lifts -- a quad, three doubles and two handle tows -- that serve 28 slopes and trails. The lifts, inspected annually by the state, flunked their initial inspections last year.

Buncher has purchased new rental equipment -- Elan skis, Atomic snowboards and Solomon boots, bindings and poles. If it can improve the rental equipment experience, especially for families, there will be cheers throughout the Laurel Highlands. The former time-wasting process prompted some frustrated guests to rent equipment elsewhere.

A new full-service ski and snowboard shop, operated by Mike Demao, will be on the ground level of the Clock Tower building, across from the lift ticket windows. Mr. Demao ran Center Ski & Snowboard near Boyce Park for 24 years in a building owned by the Jacobs family. Jim Jacobs now operates the Peak Ski & Snowboard Center at that Center Road location.

Hidden Valley resort spokeswoman Tina Richardson said the Clock Tower restaurant will feature new menu selections "and a fresh look." A new bakery cafe will open in the ski lodge.

A new food franchise, John Harvard's, will offer a variety of sandwiches, wraps, pizza and a children's menu in the lodge. It also will operate a year-round, full-service restaurant at Outback Park along Route 31 near the main entrance and just below the popular snowtubing park. Included on the "bistro menu" are "old-fashioned chicken pot pie, backwoods Louisiana smothered fried chicken and ranch sirloin steak," Ms. Richardson said.

Buncher will unveil the first phase of its master plan Thursday.

It is expected to include information about the addition of up to 1,800 residential units -- condominiums, townhouses and single-family homes -- and an upscale gated residential and golf community on adjacent property Buncher owns along Route 31 in nearby Bakersville.

Seven Springs

Seven Springs, which once again was rated the No. 1 resort in the mid-Atlantic by readers of Ski magazine, also has been busy.

It installed a six-passenger chairlift -- the Gunnar (Goo-nar) Express -- to serve the Gunnar and Giant Steps slopes and the Lost Girl, Turtleneck and Yodeler trails on the North Face side of the resort. Gunnar is the middle name of Lars Skylling, who retired in 1997 as the director of skiing and snowboarding.

Seven Springs president Robert Nutting, whose family-operated Ogden newspapers company bought the resort in July 2006, said the decision to buy the $3 million "six-pack" was "based on feedback from our guests," many of whom have been clamoring for it for years to reduce long lift lines on busy weekends.

The 3,009-foot-long, high-speed Doppelmayr CTEC lift, which has deluxe padded seats and slows down to load and unload, will whisk its passengers to the top in four minutes. It replaces the Gunnar triple chair which took 12 minutes to make the trip.

That translates into more time on the snow, said Dick Barron, director of ski and snowboard operations. He said the new lift can carry 3,200 passengers an hour, almost double the capacity of the old chair.

It was successfully load-tested on Sept. 18, a month ahead of schedule.

Other mountain improvements include a new "urban specific park" -- elements to ride up, down and around -- to The Spot, the four-acre terrain park it opened for skiers and snowboarders last season. The resort also added new boxes and rails to its other three terrain parks.

The Arctic Blast Children's Area has been improved "to keep the kids entertained," and a new Magic Carpet lift has been installed at the snowtubing park.

Each of the rooms in the 10-story hotel has been refurbished, an overdue upgrade that will please longtime guests, a number of whom have been lobbying for it for years. The hotel had 418 rooms, but some have been combined and transformed into executive suites.

In Ski magazine's ranking of resorts in North America, Seven Springs ranked fourth in family programs, fifth in terrain parks and 10th in on-mountain food. Those rankings, along with top 10 recognition for its dining, apres ski, lodging, service, access and off-hill activities earned it its 13th consecutive ranking as the No. 1 resort in the mid-Atlantic.

Chief executive officer Scott Bender said the resort "is committed to providing the best guest experience, and we pay close attention to guest feedback."

Boyce Park

Boyce Park, the Allegheny County-owned ski area in Plum that is one of the best and least expensive areas to learn to ski and snowboard, was closed last year for a $1 million upgrade.

The work included the complete refurbishing of one of its two double chairlifts, the dismantlement of the other one, the installation of a 10-lane snowtubing park served by two Magic Carpet lifts (slow-moving, rider friendly conveyer belts), the addition of seven new snowmaking guns and extensive electrical and sanitation improvements.

Kevin Evanto, spokesperson for County Executive Dan Onorato, said the work on the surviving chairlift is complete, and it has passed state inspection. The Magic Carpets are expected to arrive this month.

The installation of the long-discussed snowtubing park is a big plus for Boyce Park; the removal of the second chairlift is a big minus. Expect lift lines out to the parking lot on busy weekends.

Snowshoe

Snowshoe Mountain's three new expert trails were the result of a serendipitous partnership with Sawmill, the resort's newest development. The resort had planned to cut two trails on the basin side of the area near the Widowmaker slope. But, when the trees started coming down, "a spectacular gladed area emerged," said spokeswoman Laura Parquette.

The new trails -- Camp 99, Sawmill and Sawmill Glades -- will be served by the year-old Soaring Eagle Express, a high-speed quad. Sawmill Village developers contributed about $1 million to the 11-acre expansion, an addition that will provide ski-in, ski-out access to the residents of their gated South Mountain community.

Snowshoe also added a Magic Carpet adjacent to the Skidder slope that will be used by beginner and novice skiers and snowboarders.

Canaan Valley, Timberline

Canaan Valley and Timberline, about three miles apart via Route 32 in eastern West Virginia, are offering the Ski The Valley Pass, a two-day lift ticket that offers guests the option to ski both areas when and how they want.

"We want to make it as easy as possible for guests to fully enjoy all the winter recreation our area has to offer," said Troy Cardwell, general manager of Canaan Valley Resort. "We think this is a step in the right direction."

The pass ranges in cost from $40 during value season (Dec. 14-24 and March 17-23) to $65 on weekdays during prime season (Jan. 1 to March 13) and $95 on weekends during prime season. It won't be offered during the Christmas season or the Presidents Day and Martin Luther King Day holidays. For more information, go to www.SkiTheValley.com.

Other resorts

Here's what's new at other local and regional ski and snowboard areas:

• Ski Sawmill -- Completed the Group Mountain Lodge that can sleep up to 80 people, purchased four new snowguns, bought 100 sets of rental skis and 50 sets of snowboards and built a dinosaur rail for the terrain park.

• Whitetail -- Bought a Prinoth BR 350 snow groomer and more automated snowmaking equipment; opened a beginner ski and snowboard area parallel to the Velvet trail and added more private party rooms at the snowtubing area.

• Wisp -- Purchased snowmaking equipment and built a snowtubing building, said spokeswoman Lori Epp. The resort will celebrate its 52nd birthday on Dec. 9-10 with $7 lift tickets, a $14.50 group lesson and ski and snowboard rental for $16 and $18, respectively.

• Oglebay -- Added five snowmaking hydrants, moved its terrain park to a new location and designed elements for it, bought sets of skis and snowboards and made room for a fire pit and barbecue area just outside the upper level of the ski building.

• Timberline -- Purchased 40 additional snow guns to complement the 60 it bought last year. General manager Tom Blanzy said the resort's snowmaking capability and 4,200 foot elevation on the Eastern Continental Divide attracted skiers and snowboarders whose resorts weren't open during the warm weather last December and early January.


Lawrence Walsh, who covers recreational snowsports for the Post-Gazette, can be reached at lwalsh@post-gazette.com and 412-263-1488.


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