Pennsylvania’s Whitetail Ski Resort, the newest ski resort in the nation, had an impressive list of features when it opened for the 1990-91 winter season. A beautiful base lodge inspired by Deer Valley. A high-speed quad, the first in the Mid-Atlantic. A vertical of 935 feet - one of the highest in Pennsylvania. A wide variety of trails from beginner to expert. An extremely friendly staff and commitment to customer service. An ideal location only 90 minutes from Baltimore and D.C.
And, for awhile, Whitetail had snow during the winter.
Then, tragedy hit. Despite state-of-the-art snowmaking, Whitetail - and other Mid-Atlantic resorts - suffered through a horrible 1996-97 winter season. Precipitation fell as rain, not snow, and temperatures remained too high for effective snowmaking. Such winters are not abnormal in the Mid-Atlantic, but two in a row? The following season, El Niño effectively stole the 1997-98 winter season from area resorts, although West Virginia resorts actually saw an increase in snowfall.
More established resorts in the region were able to “weather” the string of mild winters, but Whitetail - saddled with expensive start-up loans - began to worry. Whitetail’s ownership began searching for a new buyer, and this search proceeded for over a year with several unsuccesful leads. Whitetail ultimately was placed on the auction block this summer, despite a profitable 1998-99 winter season. Today, it was announced that Snow Time, Inc., which operates nearby Ski Liberty and Ski Roundtop, would become the new owner of Whitetail, ending a month of speculation over who would buy the resort - or whether the resort would even remain open.
The transfer of ownership is scheduled to complete in September after mountains of paperwork are filled out. If history is any lesson, there’s a chance this sale will fall through - witness Whitetail’s aborted sales to various Pennsylvania counties and Seven Spring’s aborted sale to Booth Creek Ski Holdings earlier this summer. But this sale is likely to end in success. In many ways, it’s a case of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” - Whitetail’s sale to the Dauphin County General Authority last summer ended in failure last summer after Snow Time, Inc. filed suit, arguing that the resulting county-owned tax status of Whitetail would result in unfair competition. Indeed, harsh words were shared between Whitetail and Snow Time at the time.
This volley of harsh words hinted at a deeper conflict between Whitetail and Snow Time. Prior to Whitetail’s construction, Ski Liberty and Ski Roundtop enjoyed their status as the closest resorts to the Baltimore/D.C. region’s huge population of skiers. Each winter, day skiers flocked to the two resorts.
Then, Whitetail opened, offering a higher vertical, state-of-the-art facilities, a high-speed quad, and a location just as accessible to area skiers. You can be sure that Ski Liberty and Ski Roundtop were a little concerned; the number of skiers in the region wasn’t growing at a significant rate, so it was inevitable that some skier visits would be lost to Whitetail.
Whitetail got off to a strong start, adding new beginner trails and a fourth quad chairlift several years after opening. An aggressive plan for expansion was floated - including the addition of residential property and a conference center, additional slopes, and a golf course. Whitetail soon became a year-round resort, offering activities such as mountain biking and fly fishing during the summer. Slopeside townhouses were built. And then, the mild winters hit, effectively dealing a punch in the stomach to Whitetail.
In the years following Whitetail’s launch, area skiers and boarders benefited from the competition. Several DCSki readers have commented that the competition has made Ski Liberty and Ski Roundtop better places.
Now that all three resorts will share the same ownership, will the benefits of competition end?
Not likely. Although Whitetail has competed with Liberty and Roundtop for day skiers, all three resorts have been in stiff competition with local destination resorts that generally offer better snow conditions for a slightly longer drive. That won’t change; in fact, Snow Time will need to concentrate on winning back skiers and boarders disgruntled by the past several winter seasons. By now, some area skiers may have forgotten that conditions can be pretty good at local resorts during non-mild (i.e., normal) winters.
Snow Time is also almost certainly buying Whitetail with an eye towards its growth potential. With ongoing real estate construction, and plenty of room for trail expansion, Whitetail stands to attract visitors willing to spend more than one day on the slopes. Whitetail also has higher potential as a year-round resort.
As a result of the potential for expansion, Snow Time may devote more of its improvement dollars to Whitetail over the next several years. An obvious expansion candidate is a snow tubing area - currently missing from Whitetail’s feature list.
Several questions remain: will lift ticket prices differ at the three resorts? (Currently, pricing is similar at Liberty and Roundtop, although lift tickets are slightly higher at Liberty.) Will traditional amenities at Whitetail - such as a free ski check - be altered? These questions will be answered in the coming months, and DCSki will provide the latest updates.
On the whole, the purchase of Whitetail by Snow Time seems like a win for area skiers. Having operated Ski Liberty and Ski Roundtop for years, Snow Time is familiar with what it takes to run a resort in south central Pennsylvania. There will be more mild winters in the future (hopefully not the upcoming season, of course), and Snow Time is more likely to bunker in and stick with their investment. However, this sale should not end competition between Ski Liberty, Ski Roundtop, and Whitetail. All three resorts offer their own advantages and Snow Time should continually strive to improve all three. Snow Time would also be well-advised to maintain the distinctive character of each resort.
M. Scott Smith is the founder and Editor of DCSki. Scott loves outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, kayaking, skiing, and mountain biking. He is an avid photographer and writer.
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