Rees Pinney gazes upward at the chairlift that stretches up a hill behind the Hermitage Inn in West Dover, the newest addition to the grounds of this 18th-century farmhouse-cum-inn. A half-mile above our heads, its upper terminus disappears over a ridge. “We’re pretty self-contained,” he says. “This is our little slice of heaven.”
With only 15 rooms in the inn, there’s never a line for this lift, which spirits its cargo to the base of four more lifts and 46 trails, which skiers also have mostly to themselves.
“We’ve all become accustomed to the skiing in Vermont — the waiting in line, the crowded slopes. You can’t find a seat for lunch. It’s become so much a part of the experience that they don’t think of anything better,” says Pinney, whose goal is to convince people to use this semiprivate infrastructure. “Here, one can have perfect corduroy at 3 p.m.”
Two years ago, the place we’re looking at — Haystack Mountain Ski Area — was reborn as the Hermitage Club at Haystack Mountain. A consortium of investors led by Pinney’s boss, entrepreneur Jim Barnes, are sinking millions of dollars into turning it into a sprawling, sumptuous private ski area, Vermont’s first.
When Pinney, the Hermitage Club’s vice president for membership development, calls it “a very special, unique place,” it sounds less like a hard sell and more like reality, at least in light of the group’s plans. Those include hundreds of new residences — with starting prices upward of $650,000 — a heliport, hotel, equestrian center, bubble lift, skating rink and tubing chute. And then there’s the 75,000-square-foot base lodge with two restaurants, a gym, spa, lap pool, salon and private movie theater.
Though the base lodge is still just a concrete slab, it hasn’t mattered to the 200 people who have so far plunked down $45,000 for a family membership, or $40,000 to become an individual member.
It’s a fee that will exclude many in southern Vermont who still remember swooshing down the slopes of Haystack Mountain Ski Area — at least, when it was open, which was less and less often as time went by. Though it shares the same mountain as Mount Snow resort, Haystack was always caught between ambitious visions and financial troubles. When it opened just before Christmas in 1964, its marketing slogan was “Ski Haystack before everyone else does!” Haystack intended to position itself as Mount Snow’s more upscale sister. The base lodge had a wine-and-cheese shop and a cocktail lounge, and a French restaurant was planned for the summit lodge — one that would be served by a gondola lift.
Both the summit lodge and gondola were never built. In 1969, the mountain changed hands for the first of many times. Snowmaking arrived here in 1977, but a few warm winters took their toll and the area closed in 1981. Local officials banded together to reopen it three years later, and both trails and skiable area increased dramatically. By 1991, though, Haystack was bankrupt again.
In 1994, the company that owned Mount Snow bought its “sister” area, but eventually cut opening hours to weekends and holidays. Finally, in 2005, the American Skiing Company sold the place to a development company called Tyringham Ridge with the stipulation that it would become a private ski club. At the time, Haystack had four lifts and 42 trails, and investors talked about how they would spend $450 million on a series of developments and improvements.
Membership sales were slow. Then came the crash of 2008. The mountain opened briefly for skiing in December 2009 but quickly closed again.
In the meantime, Connecticut resident Barnes — who had built his fortune via a waste and recycling management company named Oakleaf — purchased the nearby Hermitage Inn in 2007. As the Tyringham Ridge project faltered, Barnes bought both the mountain and its golf course in 2011, for the relative steal of $6.5 million. Barnes had one lift up and running for the 2012 winter, had 30 new members by the end of that season, and began developing plans for a complex of Vermont-y cabins and houses scattered in various places throughout the upper and lower portions of the mountain.
“This project lifts all the boats to the rising tide,” Barnes said a few weeks ago as he presented his plans to the public in nearby Wilmington. He said the club had already created 65 jobs, with 100 or so more to be added. “We believe it, we see it when members come up here and buy furniture, snowmobiles, skis, clothing, [and] are going to local restaurants.”
Pinney was working as a vice president with Walgreens when Barnes tapped him to come and work with him. “You hear Jim talk about this and you drink the Kool-Aid,” he says. Soon, he was making the trek from his home in central Connecticut to woo potential members at the inn, running them up to its peak on a Polaris to drink in the views. Pinney also began ping-ponging around the eastern seaboard, to events and cocktail parties in Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, Sag Harbor, Newport, R.I. and towns further afield, with his seductive message of finding “once-in-a-lifetime experiences.”
At a price, of course. In addition to the initiation fee, members will still pay $2500 to $5000 more each year in dues, and even more — from $25,000 to $75,000 — if they buy a home here. “If you love it, join. If you don’t, don’t,” Pinney says simply, though he encourages potential members to decide soon. The initiation fee is climbing incrementally, “and eventually will be in the six figures,” he says. “People who share our vision and trust in us will now get a spectacular value.”
That vision seems to keep growing. This spring, Barnes purchased the nearby Mount Snow airport, renaming it the Deerfield Valley Airport and drawing up plans to improve, extend and widen its runways to accommodate private jets that might arrive from New York, New Jersey and southern Connecticut. “There’s an unserved area for skiing out there in Wilmington, Delaware, in Baltimore, in D.C.,” says Pinney. “It’s a 50-minute flight from Wilmington [to West Dover]. And if you drive, there’s some frustration with 91 north on a Friday night.”
(Coincidentally or not, Richard Santulli, the founder and president of NetJets, is one of the club’s earliest members.)
The club’s land straddles Dover and Wilmington, Vt., and though Barnes’ plans are ambitious. They seem to be meeting with approval in the planning and zoning boards of both towns. “In Wilmington, 60 percent of the landowners are from out of state,” notes Alice Herrick, the town’s zoning administrator, and they’ve historically always been a part of the area.
Dave Cerchio, zoning administrator for the town of Dover, puts it this way: “We’ve always been a resort area, and we realize it.”
Though private ski mountains may seem to be the height of excess, they are scattered around North America, from the Yellowstone Club in Montana to a few in Ontario. “It’s a trend that comes and goes,” says Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association. “Windham Ski Resort [in New York’s Catskill Mountains] was a private ski club when I was a kid growing up in Dutchess County,” he recalls.
Berry calls Alpine skiing “a capital-intensive industry,” and it’s lack of capital that can sink a mountain such as Haystack, or even Mount Ascutney. So a well-funded private club might be the mountain’s golden ticket.
“There are two reasons why ski areas in the last 25 years or 30 years have disappeared,” Berry says. “One, they never should have been there in the first place. Two, the mountain didn’t lend itself to development. You also need to have uphill transportation and good snowmaking to be successful.”
Despite reports of unpredictable winters, ski-area visits are up to a near-record high of 52 million visits per year nationwide — and 4.5 million of those happen in Vermont each winter, according to Parker Riehle, head of the Vermont Ski Areas Association. In fact, last winter was the second best season on record.
“Back in the ’50s, when the ski areas were coming into full force, it was not unnatural for [areas] to not open until after Christmas,” says Riehle. “It’s what triggered and inspired the movement to snowmaking, to increase the length of the season.”
When it comes to snowmaking, the Hermitage Club is not messing around. Snowmakers lie in wait all over the property. “They’re spending a lot of money. That’s great for the local economy, and great for them. We wish them success in this endeavor,” says Riehle. “In the core metro market of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, there is the wealth there that can afford this. Some people pay the same amount at a private golf course, and here they’ll have a whole mountain to themselves.”
Yet Riehle bristles slightly at the idea that Vermont ski slopes are so crowded, skiers need to find refuge at a private mountain. “We get 4.5 million skier visits a year, and we have more than enough terrain to accommodate well in excess of 4.5 million,” he says. “Sometimes their only challenge is limiting parking capacity. Sometimes, there’s literally no place to put more cars.”
A problem easily circumvented with a healthy dose of spare change.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Rare Air"