Whaleback Owners Happy

Enfield — Despite a late December start followed by a rainy January, the new owners of Whaleback Mountain ski area say they are “very happy” with their first season.

“The weather cooperated and the community cooperated,” said John Schiffman, chairman of the Upper Valley Snow Sports Foundation.

In the report it compiled about its inaugural year, the foundation established a financial goal of keeping its first year operating loss at less than $100,000. With unaudited figures showing revenue of $536,000 and expenses of $590,000, the $54,000 shortfall easily came within that range.

The foundation bought the property from Randolph National Bank last fall after the bank foreclosed on its previous owners, a group led by former Olympic skier Evan Dybvig, that had defaulted on debts of more than $1 million.

In the coming year, the foundation hopes to continue making improvements to the ski area, adding more snowmaking equipment, night lighting and a surface lift that will carry skiers to a new area for novices and early-season trainers.

The property needed some “TLC,” General Manager Dick Harris said. Previous owners had desperately needed to make capital improvements, particularly to the mountain’s snowmaking abilities, he said.

Harris, a ski industry veteran, called January’s snowfall “a bust,” but said Whaleback managed to recoup much of its losses later in the winter, attracting about 6,500 visitors in total.

Gus DeMaggio, Kimball Union Academy’s ski coach, was one of them. DeMaggio, whose team practiced at Whaleback two to three days a week, said January was anything but a bust. His skiers have to be ready for any kind of conditions, so the month’s below-average snowfall was actually a help.

“Having Whaleback on our doorstep is great for these athletes,” he said. The next closest ski area to KUA is Mount Sunapee Resort, 40 minutes away, but the drive to Whaleback from KUA’s campus in Meriden takes only 10 minutes.

Besides being easy for local teams to reach, Whaleback offers them more space compared with bigger ski areas such as Sunapee, where athletes bump elbows with the general public, DeMaggio said.

DeMaggio, who is also a member of Upper Valley Snow Sports Foundation’s board of directors, hopes to bring more local teams to Whaleback. This season, Cardigan Mountain School practiced on the mountain, as did other teams and individual athletes from Ford Sayre Academy and Colby-Sawyer College.

For recreational skiers, improved snowmaking will carry the slopes through the dry spells next winter. To pay for the improvements, Whaleback hopes to raise $975,000 in the second stage of its campaign.

The foundation has applied for a grant of $500,000 from the Timken Fund of Canton, Ohio, and expects a response early this summer, Schiffman said.

While he didn’t expect Timken to award the full amount, Schiffman said, the Timken Fund had previously supported local nonprofits such as the Kilton Public Library in West Lebanon and the Upper Valley Haven shelter for the homeless in White River Junction.

When the new ownership purchased the ski area in 2013, it accepted an advance of $200,000 on a $600,000 matching grant from the Jack and Dorothy Byrne Foundation in Hanover. The nonprofit impressed its donors when it bought Whaleback for the comparatively low price of $640,000, so Schiffman hopes to meet the full goal this year as confidence in the new leadership increases.

Whaleback doesn’t intend to focus exclusively on winter recreation. This summer, the ski area plans to host mountain bikers, fitness trainers and a community crafts fair. It also plans to make its lodge available to rent for events.

The ski area didn’t open until Dec. 29 for the just-concluded ski season, but Schiffman and Harris expect to begin the 2014-15 season in mid-December at the latest.

When Whaleback does open, it can expect to see DeMaggio first in line with his 8-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter. DeMaggio and the other members of the foundation hope the community will continue to support the ski area.

“It’s a special place, and we shouldn’t take it for granted,” he said. “We’ve got to keep it up and running.”