Debt Breaks Whaleback: Enfield Ski Mountain Set to Close
Evan Dybvig takes in the Whaleback Mountain ski area from the top of a half pipe yesterday. Eight years ago, Dybvig took over the dormant slope planning to transform it into a year-round facility with an indoor skate park and training facility. The plans never materialized due to a lack of investment.(Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Evan Dybvig, at the ski area in Enfield. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Enfield — Eight years after it re-opened, Whaleback Mountain has fallen under a rising tide of debt.
Weighed down by more than $1 million in outstanding debt, Whaleback is moving to liquidate and sell off its assets, according to co-owner and two-time Olympic skier Evan Dybvig.
“We owe a whole lot of people a lot of money, and nobody wants to put good money after bad,” said Dybvig yesterday. “Nobody wants to come in and rescue us.”
Dybvig plans to sell assets to pay outstanding state, federal and local property taxes — among other creditors. Enfield town records show Whaleback Mountain LLC owing $73,000 to the town in taxes dating back to May 2011. He said his lender is unwilling to advance any further funding and is prepared to foreclose on the property.
Whaleback will close its regular season Sunday, but will be open the following weekend on March 23 for a combined motor sports and ski and snowboard event called “Motor Mayhem.” It will be open from 4 to 8 p.m. tonight for free skiing.
Reflecting upon his time running the ski area, Dybvig said that there were up years and down years, but the last few days have been “very difficult” as he has had to face the mounting economic realities.
“We probably in hindsight shouldn’t have even started eight years ago,” he said. “We thought we had the funding, we thought we had things in place.”
Dybvig grew up in Tunbridge and learned to ski at the Sonnenberg ski area in Barnard. From there, the 37-year-old eventually went on to compete in the 1998 and 2002 Winter Olympics.
Dybvig said Whaleback was operating in a difficult economic environment almost from the start. During its first year, he noted, the mountain was under pressure to open before the season even began, and sources of funding began falling through as several investors dropped out and the area lost a “critical loan” from the government-run U.S. Small Business Administration.
That initial fallout scuttled plans Dybvig and his co-owners — Frank Sparrow and Dylan Goodspeed — had for a year-round indoor skiing and snowboarding facility, and left the business “way undercapitalized.”
“To try and run an operation of this size and scope, it’s pretty hard to do on a shoestring,” said Dybvig. “It’s impossible.”
The inability to open on firm financial footing was compounded by other external challenges, ranging from unusually warm snow seasons in recent years to a ski industry that is shifting away from the community-oriented mountains model and toward destination-based mega-resorts. Dybvig tried other attractions, such as offering a place for paint ball games during the off season, but none were enough to offset the difficulties in the core business.
Whaleback Mountain sits on two parcels of land totaling 154 acres with a combined value of $946,600, according to records from the town of Enfield. When asked what was next for property, Dybvig said that former owner Tim Herbert, who loaned money for the mortgage, was in the first position on the mortgage for the smaller, 9-acre parcel. He said the Randolph National Bank is in first position for the larger, 145-acre parcel. Those two parties would likely have the most control over who moves in after Whaleback Mountain LLC moves out, he said.
As for his own hopes for what happens next, Dybvig said he hopes “that the community responds by stepping up and saying, ‘We don’t want to lose this, we don’t want it to go away.’ ”
“I hope that there’s either an individual or a group of individuals that want to come together and save the Whale,” he said. “Because I just think it’s such a great resource, for this community especially.”
Lebanon resident Matt Wolcott, who runs the Thursday night race league that has nearly 200 racers on a typical week, said the news of Whaleback’s closing was “really disappointing.”
“I think obviously there are external realities of the economy and the increasing difficulty for a medium-sized ski operation to maintain profitability,” he said. “It’s really unfortunate because I really do see Whaleback as a community resource that allows kids and adults of all socioeconomic backgrounds to get outside and learn and really enjoy a healthy activity in the winter months.”
Given its location just 10 minutes south of Lebanon and its affordable ticket prices, Whaleback Mountain has been an especially popular destination for school-aged kids.
Dybvig said that Plainfield sends three bus-loads of schoolchildren every week for after-school skiing and riding — about 150 kids and 40 chaperones, he said. Schools in Grantham, Enfield, Weathersfield, Windsor and Lebanon all have after-school programs as well, and some of those towns were considering setting up after-school buses for next season.
Lebanon Recreation and Parks Director Paul Coats said the closure of Whaleback would be “a sincere loss for quite a few people in Lebanon.”
“A lot of kids have maybe even started skiing at Storrs Hill who depend on Whaleback to be their place to get a little bit more terrain than some of the other places might offer,” he said. “It’s certainly a great place to be going after school.”
Coats added that Whaleback Mountain had developed “quite the niche for themselves” with its core team — a program that allows young skiiers to train with the former Olympian, Dybvig.
Another winter Olympian, Norwich native Hannah Kearney, said in an email that she was “very sorry to hear that this will be Whaleback’s last season.”
“The mountain was a unique Upper Valley destination, and my very first sponsor,” she said. “They gave me a season’s pass when I was 12 years old so that I could practice my acro skiing routine after school. When (Dybvig) bought the mountain, he found a list of hats, magnets and sweatshirts that they have given to me as part of the sponsorship.”
“Technically, that handwritten note was my first contract,” said Kearney. “I hope that the closing of Whaleback does not prevent the kids of the Upper Valley from getting out on the slopes.”
But Dybvig expressed worry yesterday that the closure of Whaleback could do just that, given the trend of smaller mountains closing and prices for the larger destination-style ski resorts climbing steadily each year.
“I think it’s really potentially going to be the downfall of the industry, because the number of people that can afford to take thousand-dollar ski trips is going to shrink,” he said. “If the Whalebacks close, you’re going to have fewer kids learning to ski. We’ve taught hundreds of kids how to ski.”
Chad Denning runs the “Winter Wild” series at Whaleback, where participants scale the mountain and race back down. He said that while most mountains attempt to attract “the masses,” Whaleback Mountain was all about “filling a need.”
“That’s why it was the local favorite,” said Denning, who added that kids “flock” to Dybvig to soak up his Olympic knowledge.
“The one thing that makes Whaleback so much different is that they really focus on the key components of honing these kind of skills in the alternative portion of skiing,” he said. “The free mountain skiing, trick skiing, that kind of bit that isn’t really focused on anywhere here locally. Whaleback took on that kind of role. It will be greatly missed.”
While Dybvig said that his company is at the “end of our rope,” he said he was hopeful that the mountain would live on.
“I don’t think it’s a closed book,” said Dybvig. “I hope that there are more chapters, especially now because there is a business here, and it does produce quite a bit of income. I think it can produce more, but it just needs to be restructured and revitalized.”
Ben Conarck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3213.