Commentary: Borrowed Time for Gunstock?
Historical gem still a political football.
Gunstock, one of the nation’s oldest ski resorts, suffered a near-death experience over the summer. Management pulled off a heroic last-minute save, but right-wing politicians may still try to close the county-owned property.
Photo above: County-owned Gunstock Mountain Resort built the first chairlift in the East in 1937.
Organized recreational skiing in Belknap County, New Hampshire, goes back to the 1918 founding of the Winnipesaukee Ski Club, and the area soon became a hotbed for ski jumping. The Lake Region was already a draw for summer visitors from the Boston area, so it was natural for the Boston & Maine to run weekend ski trains too. When Alpine skiing caught on early during the Depression years, volunteers
began cutting trails: According to Carol Lee Anderson’s book The History of Gunstock (a 2011 Skade Award winner), ski club members cleared 15 miles of trails during the summer of 1931. In early 1932, Belknap Ridge Trail hosted the first Eastern Downhill Championship. There followed a whole series of Eastern Championship races, both Alpine and Nordic. The rope tow went up in 1935. County commissioners and the legislative delegation jumped on the chance to funnel federal Depression-recovery funds into the local economy. They formed a county-owned recreation district and put nearly 1,000 men to work building a 60-meter jump, and then, in 1937, a chairlift—paid for mostly by the Works Project Administration. Ski tourism became the linchpin of the local economy, supporting a burgeoning base of hostels and restaurants. Northland built a ski factory and hired 100 woodworkers. The region even put in a bid for the 1940 Olympics.
New Hampshire voters have long been a fiscally conservative bunch but they have a 300-year tradition of town-meeting democracy and have always supported public enterprises like schools, hospitals, fire and police departments, highway maintenance and parks (including the state-owned ski area, Cannon). They elect moderate Republicans to state offices (the Sununu dynasty, for instance) and, in recent cycles, Democratic U.S. senators and presidents. Belknap County is the most conservative region of the state; of its 18 state delegates, all are Republicans and half a dozen are “Free State” libertarians.
Free Staters believe that government should function only to protect life, liberty and property, which means they’re hostile to public education, libraries and recreation, and, perversely, even to public health and safety agencies. In New Hampshire, a county’s legislative delegation shares budgeting power with the elected county commission; in recent years, Belknap’s delegates have slashed funding for the county’s 90-bed nursing home (at the height of Covid, of course) and sheriff’s department. In neighboring Sullivan County, as reported in The New York Times, Free Staters on the Croydon school board cut its budget by 50 percent. The budget was restored in a town meeting by a vote of 377 to 2.
In 1959, the state legislature put governance of Gunstock Mountain Resort in the hands of the Gunstock Area Commission (GAC), whose five members are appointed to five-year terms by the county’s legislative delegation (the Belknap County Delegation, or BCD). Historically, the GAC is composed of local businesspeople with an interest in keeping a healthy flow of skiers coming to town. But the delegation’s role in budget-setting has, over the decades, kept the resort chronically undercapitalized and dependent on bridge loans to get through the summer. In 2017 and 2018, under the influence of Free State delegate Norm Silber, the BCD withheld those summer funds. Silber, a tax lawyer and nonskier, suggested that the resort be leased to a private operator.
Silber left office in 2018, and in November 2018, ski industry veteran Gary Kiedaisch, who had served as president/CEO at Stowe from 1989 to 1997, was named chair of the GAC. His revitalization effort included recruiting retired Waterville Valley CEO Tom Day. Day joined Gunstock in January 2020 (just in time for Covid), with a crew of experienced resort managers. They turned the business around, bumping skier visits to more than 220,000, with annual revenue in 2021 of $18 million—enough to remit $240,000 to the county (and $350,000 in 2022), over and above sales taxes. Far from needing summer funds, the resort sails into the 2022-23 season with $8 million in the bank. The GAC approved a three-lift expansion plan that would also double the skiable terrain.
Gunstock’s future appeared bright, but in November 2020 Silber—now chair of the county Republican party—returned to the legislature and to the BCD. What followed was widely reported in The Boston Globe and New Hampshire papers: Silber filled vacancies on the GAC with three more Free Staters, who tried to micromanage Tom Day and his employees. On July 20, 2022, Day and six key managers resigned, followed, in solidarity, by Kiedaisch. That proved to be a tactical error—it simply removed a rational voice, and vote, from the commission.
The remaining members of the GAC proved incompetent to operate the resort. Many line workers refused to punch in, leaving Gunstock’s summer business closed and preparations for the upcoming ski season hanging fire. On July 26, at a rowdy public meeting, the staff offered to return if GAC members Peter Ness and David Strang resigned. Instead, Ness and Strang fled an angry mob. On July 29, Ness resigned. The BCD called an emergency meeting for August 1; Silber and delegation chair Mike Sylvia called for a boycott, hoping to prevent a quorum, and with six other BCD members stayed home. But 10 of the 18 delegates attended and voted 9 to 1 to oust Strang and appoint ski instructor Denise Conroy to his seat. Tom Day and his team returned to work, just in time to save the ski season.
The crisis is by no means over. The BCD will fill two vacancies on the GAC, possibly with Silber allies. Silber, Sylvia and the anti-resort crew are still in place on the BCD, unless replaced by Belknap’s voters in November. The county cast 38,000 votes in November, 2020, 54 percent for Donald Trump. One might hope that attentive citizens concerned for the future of the resort, and for the nursing home, the sheriff’s department, and the public schools, might vote them out. Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has publicly encouraged voters to do just that.
One way to protect the resort from the Free State movement might be to sell it outright. The existence of an approved expansion plan could attract a buyer. Kiedaisch believes that Belknap citizens wouldn’t allow that. “They’ve seen what is happening at [Epic Pass resorts] Stowe, Sunapee, Attitash and Wildcat,” he said. “The assets would need to be unwound from the federal and county dollars invested, and, potentially, all the real estate taxes that were exempt because of county ownership.” The county, he said, should run it profitably, “like a business, just like the state runs the liquor commission and the lottery.”
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Seth Masia is president of ISHA and has skied in New England since 1972.