The recent announcement that Colorado-based Vail Associates intends to spend $175 million on capital improvements at its resorts next year is just one more reminder that skiing is not just a day out enjoying the slide. It is a big enterprise with an international focus run by sophisticated business people with impressive backgrounds in management and finance.
Then, there is Jim Blaise.
Sure, his Royal Mountain in Caroga Lake is no Vail. But it is a just a short ride away and with well-prepared trails and modest prices, it is the kind of place that nurtures skiing throughout the country.
Royal opened in 1957, but had fallen on hard times by the late 1960s. A skier as a teenager, Jim was a recent graduate of Scotia High School and working on the floor at the GE main plant when he saw an opportunity to buy the ski area at public auction. The cost: $30,000. That was 1971.
Today, 47 years later, he is still at it, running a ski area that he has built from a T-bar and a rope tow dependent solely on lots of natural snowfall to a hill with three chair lifts, almost 100 percent snowmaking coverage, and a reliable ski season that these days routinely stretches from Thanksgiving into April.
Vail and the big areas throughout the country may be the dream destinations of every skier. But Royal Mountain and places like it are where people learn to ski and locals find a second home winter after winter.
For Blaise, the executive suite at Royal hasn't always been plush digs.
“The first couple of winters, I slept on the picnic tables in the base lodge. Then I moved downstairs where I had a bed,” Blaise said. “It was more comfortable, but it was still a pretty cold run down the open hallway to the bathroom.”
Blaise lived beneath the lodge for 10 years before building a house across the parking lot where he lives today.
There is no remote corner office at Royal. Skiers at the area get to know their man.
For years, Blaise took regular turns loading chair lifts. Sometimes, he could be seen tending the grill and flipping burgers in the base lodge. Today you may catch him fitting skis and boots in the rental shop, but more likely he will be at the counter just inside the lodge selling ski lift tickets and lessons.
He likes the new routine.
“I'm often the first person people see when they arrive at Royal,” Blaise said, “and I like chatting with the customers.”
For many years, Blaise did almost all the work at the mountain. Jim knew what it was like to tie snowmaking hose around his waist and drag it up the hill and he was a staff of one on the grooming crew.
Not anymore. Joe Mulyca has been with Blaise now for 20 years.
“The first time I saw him at the wheel of a grooming machine, I knew I would never do that job again,” Blaise said.
“Corduroy Joe” handles of all the grooming on the hill. Since Royal is mainly a weekends-and-holidays operation, he has the flexibility to get the most out of conditions.
Royal skiers have come to appreciate the effort, but Mulyca is much more than just a groomer.
“He can maintain and fix anything,” Blaise said.
Blaise knows how important that is.
“The first morning I opened in 1971, I burned out the motor that drove the T-bar,” he said.
Turns out, Blaise had forgotten to put oil in the generator.
"I was out of business by 10 a.m.,” he said.
The weather could be cruel, too.
"We had no snow in the winter of 1980,” Blaise said. “We opened only three days."
Business revenue is unpredictable in a weather-related venture. It is even worse when you have a seasonal business.
Then, 30 years ago, Blaise discovered motocross: motorcycle races that now keep Royal Mountain busy from Memorial day right through August. Today, Royal hosts races 12 Wednesday nights and eight Sundays throughout the summer. The business is now a year-round operation.
Facilities maximization, diversification — these are terms MBA graduates know and love.
Blaise understands reinvestment, too.
Snowmaking is the name of the game in the ski business today and snow guns cost about $22,000 each. There are 28 of them now at Royal, double the number of just five years ago. That's a big investment for a small local business.
With consolidation and increasing technology sweeping the business these days, it is much more sophisticated than when it began to build after World War II, then expand greatly to serve the baby boom population generation in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. Economies of scale are a driving force today.
But there are still reminders that sweat equity plays a part of success. Don't look for Blaise in a tie and jacket — he said he owns one of each — and there is no corner office at Royal.
But there is good, reliable skiing at his hill, the result of his instinct and hard work that have substituted for diplomas over the years.
The International Children's Winter Games are set for Lake Placid in January with 600 young athletes, ages 12 to 15 from throughout the world scheduled to compete in eight sports. It is the third time the International Children's Games have been held, but the first time in the United States.
The sports are Alpine, Cross Country and Freestyle Skiing, Snowboarding, Biathlon, Hockey. Speedskating, and Figure Skating. Volunteers are needed for the events that will run Jan. 7 to 10.
For more information, check lakeplacid2019.com.
If a leisurely winter snowshoe walk in the woods isn't enough this weekend, there is a 5K race set for the Gore Mountain Nordic Center at the North Creek Ski Bowl Saturday starting at 2 p.m. Registration is on site at the Ski Bowl Lodge up until race time.
OUT THE BACK WINDOW
The best ski area marketing is having snow in the skier's backyard. For most of us, that isn't working right now.
But don't let that fool you.
Early-season snowfall, improved snowmaking and low evening temperatures at ski area elevations have combined to give us the best pre-holiday skiing in the region in years. Enjoy!
Phil Johnson can be reached at [email protected].