It was late February, 2002, the heart of the ski season at Marshall Mountain. Missoula skiers and boarders were carving turns at the 65-year-old resort just minutes from downtown. The mountain with some of the best ski bargains in Montana was bustling. It had a 62-inch base and a good month left in the season. But at Marshall, there was something growing deeper than the mountain’s snow pack. Debts were piling up for the owners and on Feb. 22, the Internal Revenue Service came calling.
That day, the IRS seized Marshall Mountain from Bruce and Kim Doering for failure to pay back taxes. The 160-acre ski area—with an additional 320 acres of skiable terrain leased from Plum Creek and the U.S. Forest Service—remained open while the IRS prepared to auction it off. Only one buyer expressed interest and a month after its seizure, it looked like the resort would be sold for the minimum acceptable bid: $143,962.29.
Then last summer, Vision Properties of Provo, Utah, defaulted on the sale and the Doerings opted to seek protection under a Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The Doerings still owe the previous owner more than $800,000 for the area, which is valued somewhere around $1.5 million. Since the ski hill’s seizure by the IRS, Bruce Doering says he and his wife have restructured their personal finances and business commitments so that Marshall is now their top priority.
The couple owned a gas station on East Broadway Avenue and the Big Sky Drinking Water Company. Those assets were liquidated over the past 18 months and the Doerings are preparing to sell off some property near Grant Creek. Money from that sale should help Marshall erect the secondhand lift that’s sat in pieces next to the parking lot for the last couple seasons. With the new lift, which the Doerings purchased from Jackson Hole Ski Area in Wyoming, Marshall’s vertical drop will jump to 2,000 feet (Snowbowl boasts a vertical drop of 2,600 feet).
Installing the new lift next summer will cost around $200,000. That’s a major expense for the Doerings, who got into the ski business after abandoning the idea of opening a roller skating rink in Missoula. With the mountain’s financial restructuring, and the continued support of loyal skiers who contributed around 10 percent of the new lift’s $75,000 purchase price a few years ago, Marshall’s owners think the area is poised for a comeback.
“People are rooting for Marshall to do great, to have Marshall here another 65 years from today,” says Bruce while leading a tour up the hill in his Ford F350 pickup. It’s early November and the lower slopes are mostly snowless. Only near the top is the base beginning to fill in. Past where the chair and the T-bar top out, Doering gazes up at the knob that will be accessed by the new lift. Challenging trails drop through the pine forest. Off to the northeast, where elk bed down near Marshall’s current boundary, Doering points to where he wants to one day put a third chair.
“It’s laid out where we can do some absolutely fantastic expansion here, depending on how high we can go,” says Doering, looking out at skiable slopes now being logged by Plum Creek. In the coming years, says Doering, the expandable terrain holds the twin promises of great skiing and more revenue for cash-strapped Marshall. “The amount of vertical, and the aspect where it holds snow…This is just the first step. We have plans for five additional lifts here. This could be a regional ski area.”
The former Army ski instructor turned snowboarder prefers Marshall’s easy groomers to its black diamond terrain. But Doering isn’t timid about talking up his ambitions for Marshall: expanding night skiing, improving base facilities and continuing to cultivate new skiers through the mountain’s highly successful ski school. “The expansion never can end,” insists Doering. “At any ski area, you always have to see ways to solve problems. People want bathrooms and parking. It can never end.”
“People just demand more,” adds Bob Brandenberger, a retired ski area engineer with the Forest Service in Missoula.
Brandenberger first hit the slopes in 1948, back when “you’d get there and line up to side step the hill to groom it. You couldn’t get anybody to do that now.”
Brandenberger, who helped design the new lift and slopes at Marshall, says it’s hard for small areas to meet the demands of modern skiers. “But when you’re 10 minutes from town,” says Brandenberger, “people come.”
When there’s good snow they do. Marshall’s proximity to other ski areas and low elevation is a liability, says Hugh Knapp, a ski equipment broker based in Vermont who’s spent years studying the unique challenges faced at mountains like Marshall.
“Bruce is doing everything he can possibly do,” adds Knapp. “But he’s working with a limited location situation.”
Marshall is located at the geographic junction of three other moderately priced areas: Snowbowl next-door, Lost Trail to the south and Discovery to the east. Those areas often have better snow than Marshall, which motivates Missoula skiers to drive the extra distance. Bruce counters, saying Snowbowl and other nearby areas are not Marshall’s competitors: “It’s not the Bowl. It’s not the Bowl…It’s more the Carmike 10, the Internet, other choices that people have to spend their time and money on.”
Knapp agrees: “You combine those things together and there’s an effect on the entire ski industry. It’s a fact that the world is changing around these people.”
One thing that’s changed, according to statistics compiled by the National Ski Areas Association, is the number of small mountains like Marshall. In 1975, there were 745 ski hills and resorts scattered across the United States. By 2000, that number dropped to 509.
Knapp says, “The market share got up and left and went to the larger hills,” where they could find high-speed quads, groomed trails and ever-expanding terrain.
Marshall has a decidedly different target market than the larger resorts. The area is inexpensive ($4 an hour lift tickets for night skiing) and for families, says Doering, dropping the kids off at the hill is “cheaper than baby sitting.”
Behind the scenes, however, there’s nothing cheap about running a ski area. The rising cost of doing business is in part due to what Knapp calls “the perfect storm of problems.”
First, there’s liability insurance, which protects Marshall from lawsuits like the one it’s still trying to resolve with a teenager who was paralyzed at the mountain in 1999. At some resorts, owners have seen their insurance premiums double. Next come rising labor and equipment costs, followed by the need for capital improvements. These improvements, says Knapp, must be done in balance with the specific needs and limitations of each resort. He recalls how one resort back East sunk $20 million into new lifts only to realize that the road to the area had reached its carrying capacity. There were new chairs and terrain, but no way to get more people onto the mountain. “They built it and nobody came,” says Knapp.
There are other examples of expansions like those envisioned at Marshall paying off. Outside Helena, in the mining town of Marysville, is the old Mount Belmont Ski Area. In 1985, it was owned by a local ski club and had only 12 trails, which snaked past old mine shafts and generated about 6,000 skier visits a year. By comparison, this winter Marshall expects 33,000 skier visits—about half the number expected at Snowbowl—and far fewer than Big Mountain where skier visits typically exceed 200,000.
Back in ’85, Belmont was clearly the smallest of the small. It was also $10,000 in debt when Kevin Taylor approached members of the local ski club. At the time, Taylor was enjoying a successful run as GM and president of Terry Peak in Deadwood, S.D. He wanted a ski hill of his own, so he offered to pay off Belmont’s debts in exchange for ownership of the area. Taylor threw in half-price season passes for life to all then-current members of the club and the deal was sealed.
Today, Mount Belmont is known as Great Divide Ski Area. Its skier days have grown from 6,000 to 70,000 and with the recent installation of a fifth chairlift, Great Divide now has 149 named trails. “It’s all about lift capacity and types of terrain,” says Taylor, explaining how a resort’s expansion can lure in more skiers. But there’s a point of diminishing returns when it comes to resort expansion. At Great Divide, “we’re done,” says Taylor, “we’re not in that mode anymore.” Instead of looking for vast new tracts of terrain, Taylor has gone in search of new skiers. But for every new person introduced to the sport through discount packages like the 1,2,3 program promoted by the Montana Ski Areas Association, there are some long-time skiers who drop out of the sport due to age or other interests.
“You’re not going to create all your skiers,” says Taylor. “So you’re trying to rob them from someone else.” If any ski area in Montana is capable of breeding its future customers, it’s Marshall. The mountain’s ski school is already one of its chief revenue generators and the combination of its convenient location and gentle terrain makes it attractive to beginners.
Like the two long-gone tow lifts that once drew skiers up Pattee Canyon and the now defunct Diamond Mountain near Potomac, Marshall Mountain attracts Missoulians who want their winter fun to remain cheap and accessible.
“We’re refocusing and really trying to figure out what Marshall can do best,” says Doering in a voice that’s nfailingly upbeat. “Steeps and deeps, that’s somebody else. But what we can do is night skiing, and our location being close to town and the paved road, that helps. Our ski school is the best in the state. The talent is amazing.”
Climbing back behind the wheel of his F350, high atop Marshall Mountain, Doering’s thoughts are racing as fast as the skiers he hopes to win over. Trying to say it all at once, he ends the tour with this: “From ski school, to telemark to whatever, we’re going to really excel here at Marshall.”