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Smaller ski areas retain workers with help of federal coronavirus stimulus money

Granby Ranch, Hesperus, Loveland, Monarch, Powderhorn, Purgatory, Ski Echo, Ski Sunlight, Silverton Mountain and Wolf Creek qualified for a cumulative $5 million to $13 million in PPP loans
A skier enjoys a run at Powderhorn Mountain Resort, which received $400,000 in PPP loans, allowing the ski area to keep 16 year-round staff on the payroll, including staff working on the resort’s summer bike park.

At least 10 of Colorado’s smallest ski areas together received at least $5 million – and as much as $12.7 million – in federal loans from the Paycheck Protection Program.

While the big-league operators like Alterra Mountain Co., Vail Resorts and Aspen Skiing were too large to qualify for the federal stimulus loans, the so called “gems” — or independent, smaller resorts — were able to collect millions and protect more than 900 jobs.

“We were able to keep all our full-time employees and a few of our seasonal employees,” said Tom Hays, the general manager of Glenwood Springs’ Ski Sunlight, which received between $150,000 and $350,000 in a potentially forgivable PPP loan to protect 44 jobs. “I would much rather that, than see them go on unemployment and maybe find another position. We thought it was really important to keep our employees on the payroll. It costs so much to retrain some of these folks that it’s best to just keep them onboard.”

Sunlight joined Granby Ranch, Loveland, Monarch, Powderhorn, Purgatory, Ski Echo and Wolf Creek in qualifying for PPP loans. Silverton Mountain and Hesperus received less than $150,000 and was among the more than 90,000 small Colorado businesses not named in the federal Small Business Administration database. The money saw the ski areas paying workers for work on projects, renovations and protective measures in preparation for the coming season.

Monarch received $800,000, and the Chaffee County ski hill was able to retain 50 of its summer employees. Beyond payroll, general manager Randy Stroud said the ski area worked on “adjusting our environment up here to the new protocols both inside and outside.”

This included new configurations of counters for drinks, food and ticket sales. Plexiglass barriers for employees. New signs helping visitors stay distanced. Hand-sanitizing stations. The ski area remodeled its base lodge bar and eatery to keep visitors separated.

“Anything, in essence, that will get help get us closer to a touch-free environment,” Stroud said.

Powderhorn ski area on the Grand Mesa received $400,000, which allowed the ski area to keep 16 year-round staff on the payroll, including staff working on the resort’s summer bike park.

“The vast majority goes to paying wages and benefits,” said Powderhorn owner Andy Daly, “while a small amount will be spent on related operating expenses.”

Wolf Creek ski area qualified for a $1 million and $2 million loan, according to a federal database of PPP recipients. Durango’s Purgatory qualified for a $350,000 to $1 million loan, which becomes a grant when businesses meet certain thresholds for employment.

Purgatory was able to keep all its year-round employees on the payroll with the PPP support. The resort, part of investor James Coleman’s Mountain Capital Partners network of eight resorts in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, also was able to install new fiber optic cable, build a new mountain bike park and upgrade its ski and mountain bike rental fleets. (Mountain Capital Partners’ resort management and hotel operation, Purgatory Recreation I, LLC., qualified for a loan from $2 million to $5 million.)

“Without the PPP loan, all of these efforts to improve Purgatory Resorts and its overall guest experience could have been in jeopardy,” resort spokeswoman Tiona Eversole wrote in an email.

The economic impact of the early closure of ski areas in mid-March was painful. Arapahoe Basin’s parent, Canada’s Dream Unlimited Corp., reported an CA $8 million year-over-year loss for the first quarter of 2020, citing the shuttering of its only ski area. Vail Resorts reported a $140 million loss from the early closure of its 35 North American resorts. Collectively, the U.S. resort industry estimates the country’s 460 ski areas lost at least $2 billion and maybe as much as $5 billion when resorts closed in March just as spring break crowds descended.

The initial impact of the pandemic could pale in comparison to the extended costs as resorts struggle to retain workers in pandemic-pinched rural economies and the 2020-21 ski season remains unclear. Colorado’s resort industry was struggling with hiring challenges long before COVID-19, as record unemployment and a critical shortage of affordable housing choked the flow of seasonal workers needed to run ski areas. An additional shutdown of visas for temporary workers by the Trump Administration promises to further strain resort hiring for the upcoming ski season.

Melanie Mills, the head of the Colorado Ski Country trade group, worked with federal policymakers to make the PPP program more friendly to seasonal businesses. Those adjustments helped winter businesses that might not be fully stocked with employees in the summer months meet federal employment benchmarks later in the year, allowing their PPP money to transition from loan to grant.

Mills said the PPP support “is really critical after shutting off revenue so abruptly in mid-March.”

“So many key year-round employees would have been furloughed or laid off and the negative impact on planning for what’s ahead and on all of our lift maintenance would have been significant,” Mills said. “Our employees are the linchpin to our being able to reopen and recover and the PPP gave these smaller ski areas a real lifeline that kept folks on the payroll.”

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