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Down-on-its-luck Wyo. ski area up for sale

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JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) -- Plenty of Jackson locals enjoy having Snow King Resort just a few blocks from where they work so they can make a couple quick ski runs over their lunch breaks.

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Such loyalty and ample snow over the past couple winters haven't kept ski operations at the resort from losing between $500,000 and $1 million a year. Now, after a nonprofit community group tried but failed to step in and run Snow King, the 72-year-old resort is up for sale.

Locals are left wondering what will become of Wyoming's first ski area. For many, it's not only the ski spot closest to home, but the one nearest their hearts, despite existing for decades in the shadow of the vacation destinations Jackson Hole Mountain Resort across the valley and Grand Targhee Resort across the Teton Range.

"It's in town. It's affordable. It's a great place to learn to ski for young kids and expose kids to skiing, a great place for families. It really to me is the center of the recreational community in Jackson," said Steve Sullivan, president of the nonprofit Friends of Snow King.

In a sense, Snow King's small-town charm also has been its downfall. Many of Jackson's youth used to ski at Snow King on the way home from school, said Manuel Lopez, managing partner of the resort.

Nowadays, not so many kids live nearby, and those who do have more options for winter recreation. Also, fewer people who ski at Snow King bother to buy lift tickets.

"It's a fashion to hike up the hill and ski down. But we are grooming the trails, we are making the snow," Lopez said.

He dismissed any suggestion that Snow King could put up a gate.

Nationwide, small ski areas near urban centers did relatively well during the recession, said Troy Hawks, spokesman for the National Ski Areas Association.

"Folks were just choosing to ski closer to home, maybe families that traditionally had taken a vacation at a destination area in Wyoming, Colorado or California," Hawks said.

Snow King somewhat offsets its wintertime losses with summertime activities including an alpine slide and miniature golf course. The hotel, conference center and other resort amenities at the base bring in about $3 million a year and keep the operation as a whole profitable, Lopez said.

Other local ski areas in Wyoming have fallen upon hard times in recent years. They include Snowy Range Ski Area west of Laramie and Sleeping Giant Ski Area west of Cody, both of which have succeeded in finding new owners.

At Sleeping Giant, it is a nonprofit. The Friends of Snow King nonprofit hired a consultant to review Snow King's operations, but talks with the resort's ownership group stalled last summer.

Lopez said the various community interests had conflicting visions for the ski area. Sullivan said the owners changed course after a plan had taken shape.

For a time, there was talk that Snow King might not open this winter. The owners decided instead to close the ski area on Mondays and reduce hours Tuesdays through Sundays. They also reduced the season pass price $10 to $149 through Oct. 31.

Town Administrator Bob McLaurin said the community and Friends of Snow King remain keenly interested in what happens with the ski hill and especially want to keep it open.

"If there's a new owner of Snow King, we're looking for somebody that's going to be supportive of the town hill and the community activities and be an important part of the lodging community here in town," McLaurin said.

Snow King opened in 1939. Located just six blocks from the famous antler arches of the Jackson Town Square, the ski area has been built up over the years with the hotel, conference center and condominiums. The mountain has three lifts and about 400 acres of skiable terrain.

"There is absolutely no other site in the region that can come close to matching Snow King's privileged location, assemblage size, entitlements, flexibility, conference facilities, and opportunities for expansion of summer and winter recreational activities," reads the for-sale ad at the website for the Denver-based brokerage Hospitality Real Estate Counselors.

So how much? Lopez said he isn't asking a specific price -- that will depend on which resort assets a buyer might want to purchase along with the ski area.

"The hotel we can sell fairly easy because it makes good money," he said.

As for the mountain: "The mountain loses money. Yeah, the mountain's being called the black hole. I do have some plans for the mountain, though."

Developing the slopes with more summer activities, such as with mountain bike and zip line courses, could further offset the winter losses while increasing the profitability of the entire resort, Lopez said.

He suggested Snow King could get public help. McLaurin said the best way to do that would be through a nonprofit.

"I'm not sure that we could just haul off and give money to a private corporation," McLaurin said. "No matter how much we think of Manuel and how much Manuel has done for this community over the years in terms of running the hill at a loss."

Lopez said he's received several inquiries, mainly from people in the lodging business. Friends of Snow King remains ready to help out with any future owner if needed, Sullivan said.

"It's just a wonderful, wonderful community asset. We don't want to see it go away," he said.

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