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Editorial: The Whale Resurfaces; Ski Area Plans a Comeback

“How can I miss you when you won’t go away?” asked singer-songwriter Dan Hicks way back when, and the question’s logic seemed as apparent as its nasty edge. It turns out, though, that something doesn’t have to disappear altogether to arouse feelings of loss. In the case of Enfield’s Whaleback Mountain, the mere thought of permanently losing the ski area was enough to spur action.

Whaleback’s former owners announced the ski hill’s closing last March, after yet another challenging season. But if the Upper Valley Snow Sports Foundation successfully executes the plan it announced recently, the lifts will be humming again and skiers will be carving turns as soon as winter arrives for good. The Whale, as its supporters call it, won’t have missed a beat.

Those supporters were particularly in evidence when Evan Dybvig and his partners announced that their eight-year attempt to establish a viable ski operation had failed. Whaleback fans warned that its closing was a huge loss to Upper Valley skiers because of its comfortable size, affordability, convenience and its popularity with families and school programs. And Dybvig suggested that the endangered status of many such small ski operations represented a threat to the long-term health of the sport, which needs to offer alternatives to the high-priced resorts to widen its base and attract new generations of skiers.

The venture designed by the sports foundation is unusual but not unprecedented. It will run the mountain as a nonprofit, financed in part by a fundraising campaign now underway. The foundation has arranged initially to lease the mountain from Randolph National Bank, which foreclosed on the property earlier this year and failed to find any buyers when it put it up for auction. For operating cash, the foundation is now selling season passes and has launched a fundraising campaign with the goal of gathering $100,000 by Oct. 22. The foundation’s long-term plan is to raise and earn enough money to buy the property and upgrade the operation.

In a land where the private sector is generally assumed to be most capable of meeting consumer demand by marshaling the powerful forces of capitalism, the nonprofit model is increasingly being called upon to fill in the gaps — at least in the Upper Valley. At the same time that the Upper Valley Snow Sports Foundation is pursuing the reopening of Whaleback, some Cornish residents are exploring reopening the Cornish General Store by borrowing a model used to revive the store in Barnard — forming a public entity to acquire the property and leasing it out to a private party to operate as a business. Our assumption is that such an approach has the best chance of success for ventures where there’s enough demand to generate the cash flow to operate a modest business, but not enough to justify a significant investment. The public entity that steps in to cover much of the initial investment and lower operating costs offers a creative way of capitalizing on a community’s interest in maintaining certain services and amenities.

As it turns out, this wouldn’t be the first nonprofit community ski operation. The first to do so was Cochran’s Ski Area in Richmond, Vt., which is now 15 years in operation. A somewhat different model exists over in Fayston, Vt., where Mad River Glen has been operating as a cooperative since 1995.

One thing the Whale’s supporters are not lacking is confidence.

“It’s going to happen,” board member Mark Lindberg told Valley News staff writer Chris Fleisher. “There is absolutely no question in my mind it’s going to happen. It’s such an important community asset.”

As supporters of the small and the local — not to mention healthy outdoor recreation — we wish them the best. Those interested in sending along more than good wishes should visit their website at www.whaleback.com to learn how they can contribute.