Ski Lines: Next generation takes over Cunningham’s Ski Barn

Phil Johnson's latest column
Tyler Cunningham, left, is running Cunningham's Ski Barn.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Tyler Cunningham, left, is running Cunningham's Ski Barn.

Categories: Sports

Is it an icon? 

Or an eyesore?

Chances are, if you have ever driven north on Route 28 to ski at Gore Mountain, you have an opinion. 

Of course, I’m talking about the big bus — covered in blue and purple paint — that in winters has been stuck in a snowbank by the road outside the village for years. You can’t miss it, especially these days with a fresh new red banner advertising Cunningham’s Ski Barn just a quarter of a mile up the road draped across the frame.

Tyler Cunningham has lived with that bus most of his life. The 36-year-old is the latest Cunningham to own the family business, taking over from his father Pat a year ago. Before that, Pat took over from his father, who took over from his father who started selling winter gear back in 1909. J.E. Cunningham’s general store became a more dedicated ski shop in 1934 after the North Creek Ski Bowl was established, then became Cunningham’s Ski Barn at the current location in 1968 after a fire destroyed the former building. 

According to industry sources, Cunningham’s in North Creek is now the oldest, single-family-owned ski shop in the country.

Tyler, who grew up a Gore Mountain skier in North Creek, attended Burke Mountain Academy, and was a Division I college racer at St. Lawrence University in the early 2000s. After graduation, he went to work on Wall Street. Last year, after 15 years working in the financial world, he came back to his hometown to take over the family business. 

The next time you drive by the bus, ask yourself: Why would anyone do that?

Tyler’s answer: “A healthy choice.”

“It is a good life change,” he said recently, pointing to the transition from what was a 90-minute commute to work in his previous career, to home ownership less than a mile from the Ski Barn.

Certainly the ski business is not a slam-dunk by any means these days. For instance, there are no specialty shops in Schenectady County any longer; the last two — Goldstocks and Plaine’s — closed in the past two years.

But Cunningham is no Pollyanna. What he sees in the future is an emphasis on product knowledge and service, two areas where the hands-on appeal of an actual location can compete with the web. In addition to the store in North Creek, there is a Cunningham’s in Lake Placid where custom fitting is a major component of the shop business.

Then, there is the rest of the year when there is no skiing. Here, the Cunningham name is famous in the Adirondacks — some would say infamous — for its rafting operations, mainly in the Hudson River. Tyler’s dad Pat almost invented the activity when he opened his Hudson River Rafting Company at the Ski Barn in 1978. Multiple companies operating on the river today make it a popular tourist attraction in the area.

Growing up in North Creek, Pat Cunningham was trained as an engineer at Norwich University and was an accomplished ski racer in the 1960s before taking over the family business in 1968. He branched out at various times with operations at Big Tupper and at Ascutney in Vermont, and shops at Whiteface and at Gore. Along the way, he developed strong ideas that he shared freely about how the ski business should be run and that carried over into rafting, as well, which sometimes brought him into conflict with New York State regulators. In 2012, the death of a rafter who fell from one of his company’s boats nearly scuttled that business which is now closed down. 

In its place, Tyler founded The Hudson Rafting Company last year. New name, new start.

Tyler is not the only Cunningham in North Creek. Pat still lives there, but no longer has any involvement in the business. Uncle Tom and aunt Mary are retired and live in town. Brother David is a physician in Queensbury and brother Mark heads up a Connecticut-based human resources consulting firm, for which another brother Patrick is the chief operating officer. Sister Meredith remains local, working this winter with the ski school at Gore. 

The Ski Barn itself has changed little over Tyler’s lifetime. It is several clicks less than a fancy storefront. Instead, it is a folksy layout where in addition to the usual ski shop gear and clothing, you might find a replacement item for some old piece of equipment that most shops haven’t carried for years.

“Dad,” Tyler noted, “was a hoarder.”

Next up for both stores is work on the frontage. Tyler wants the appearance a little more spiffy. The shop’s roadside signs are already more attention grabbing.

So how about the bus? 

“Probably there for at least one more year.”

LAKE PLACID LOPPET

The region’s premier long-distance, cross-country race is set for Saturday, March 14. The 50K Lake Placid Loppet and the 25K Kort-Loppet will be held at the Mt. Van Hoevenberg Olympic site starting at 9 a.m. 

There is competition in both classic and skate techniques at both distances. Registration is available at www.skireg.com/lakeplacidnordicfestival or in person Friday, March 13, from 4 to 7 p.m. and before 8:30 a.m. on race morning. 

VERTICAL CHALLENGE 

The last chance to participate in this year’s Vertical Challenge (aka The Dew Tour) in our area will be Sunday at Bromley. The season-long series of fun events and competitions held throughout the Northeast will wrap up with finals at Jay Peak on March 28. 

2020-21 SEASON PASSES

Season passes for next winter are rolling out this month. These early season purchases passes come with options and incentive pricing, and most include the remainder of the current season. If you are a regular skier at a favorite place or two, or plan to take a multi-day ski trip next winter, season passes bought now can offer good value. 

Reach Phil Johnson at [email protected].

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