The New Schweitzer: the vision is HUGE
By Billie Jean Plaster
What started as a community effort to bolster the economy back in the early '60s has now grown into a resort capable of helping to shape the entire region. Schweitzer, now owned by a well-respected and well-funded company based in Seattle, Harbor Properties, is poised for tremendous growth and potentially mind-boggling improvements and developments.
While many people were ringing in the New Year last year, Harbor was making one of the best buys in its history, purchasing the financially strapped resort for $18 million from U.S. Bank on Dec. 31, 1998. While employees and business owners alike felt a combination of anxiety and optimism, skiers and snowboarders simply enjoyed the immediate improvements that Harbor made. As soon as they took over, steps were taken to ensure the mountain opened on time and had the grooming equipment it needed to take care of the slopes.
Then they started looking at the big picture. Within months of taking over, Harbor invited a number of movers and shakers for a series of meetings lasting three days. Representatives of Schweitzer and Harbor were joined by consultants, architects, designers, historians and members of the local community for conferences in April 1999. Thus, the company began to develop a comprehensive vision for the mountain.
The excitement staff and management feel about the vision statement, however, is always tempered with the qualifier, "It's not a plan. It's a vision." And yet even if the vision were only partially realized, it would still be exciting.
"It's a reach, but it's a realistic look into the future. It's really a big dream. If we did half of it, it would probably be a home run," said Schweitzer General Manager Tom Fortune.
The vision statement may be a dream, but the ownership by Harbor makes it all seem more attainable, according to Schweitzer's Program Manager Mary Weber-Quinn and Base Area Services Director Deanna Harris. With the mountain since 1981, Harris has witnessed a lot of changes. Now she joins the rest of the management team in being at the helm in making changes.
"I think that it's just starting to develop, and it opens an opportunity to try new things," Harris said, referring to Harbor's vision for the mountain's future. "We can try new things and not be afraid of failure."
One of the new things they got to try was a discount season pass campaign. This highly successful program resulted in the sale of more than 14,000 season passes, a phenomenal number when you consider the mountain averaged 3,000 season passes in recent years.
The staff began bracing itself and planning for more visitors as soon as the sale ended on Aug. 31. No matter what, this season will be one to remember as the first full year of "The New Schweitzer" in what promises to be a record year for skier visits.
"It's exciting and scary dealing with the volume of people. It will be a challenge and take a team effort, but we'll be able to show people it's still the best place to be," Harris said.
With the amount of acreage and lift capacity, Schweitzer can handle skier visits that are estimated to top 200,000 for the season, which would best the past record season by at least 23,000, according to Fortune. "Parking and lift lines will be the biggest challenges," he said. But he's quick to explain that a new shuttle system and improved base parking will help tremendously, as will managing lift lines.
Even without knowledge of Harbor's vision statement for Schweitzer, locals and visitors-to-be are anxious for the 1999-2000 season because of all the changes already instituted. The expansion of the Terrain Park and the addition of a sponsor, Groundzero, will make the park the best of its kind in the region, according to Fortune. State-of-the-art shaping equipment, lighting, music and a new platter lift will help boarders and skiers make the most of the area south of Chair 1.
Another big change is the hotel. It's not Green Gables anymore. Neither is Jean's, Jean's. They have both been renamed the Selkirk Lodge and Chimney Rock Grill, respectively, to reflect the complete renovation and new ownership. Harbor pumped more than $5 million into the luxury lodge in order to condominiumize it, although it will still function much as a hotel does since the 41 units will be placed back in the rental program.
The list of improvements for this season goes on: a comprehensive shuttle system and improved base parking lot; new rental, repair and retail shops, new ticketing system, more new grooming equipment, another platter lift and more.
Next season, the mountain will build the long-awaited-and-much-talked-about quad chair lift to replace the slowest lift on the mountain, Chair 6. Surveying was already underway in the fall of '99.
As for the vision statement, Harbor's greatest emphasis is the tie-in with Sandpoint and the jewel of a lake it sits on, Lake Pend Oreille. In fact, the new Schweitzer logo unveiled over the summer includes the tagline, "The Mountain on the Lake." Visible from all points in the south bowl, the lake has always been a focus at Schweitzer. Old ads and posters read, "Ski the View." But now that focus is on more than just a pretty view.
"We envision an elastic band between the mountain and the lake," said Fortune. That band will help tie in the town's two major assets and turn Schweitzer into the four-season resort it deserves to be, according to Fortune.
In a time when the skiing industry has been stagnant for several years, Harbor must develop the mountain into more than just a ski hill in order to be successful. With more competition in winter sports and activities overall, ski industry officials are scrambling to entice people back into the sport of skiing and into the newer sport of snowboarding.
"I'm excited about the success of the season pass program because it will introduce and re-introduce people to winter sports," Fortune said.
They hope to see a resurgence of interest in winter sports overall. The improvements to equipment and grooming technology should help pique interest.
"The technology has improved the learning curve and created a much better guest experience," Fortune explained. "In the last 10 years, grooming and high speed lifts has created a whole new environment, not to mention equipment like shaped skis and step-in snowboards."
Fortune, at age 38, has been with Harbor nearly all his working life, 22 years, in fact. He points out Harbor's success in business overall and particularly in the ski industry through ownership of Mission Ridge and Stevens Pass, two resorts in western Washington, as reasons to believe Schweitzer will profit.
"We've been successful at it," Fortune said. "We have a lot of talented, dedicated staff and a commitment to it. Schweitzer has the potential to make money. Having the experience we do gives us an edge."
Harris adds, "Because Harbor is familiar with the Northwest ski industry and the area, Schweitzer benefits."
What could the mountain look like in 10 years? Anything is possible. But some of the ideas in the vision statement include a gondola, a lakeside resort, a living village on the mountain, and wilderness huts and backcountry access stations along its peak.
The vision statement reads: "In 10 years' time, Schweitzer Village will be a focal point of a thriving, cohesive yet diverse year-round resort destination. The village will serve the adventure seekers, skiers, and snowboarders who have, over the years come here to play on Schweitzer's vast canvas of snow. The village will also reach out from the peak of the mountain to embrace the lakes, the trails, the golf courses, and the recreational and natural attractions of the entire region. Schweitzer will be a part of, and a catalyst for, a greater resort experience that embraces lake and mountain, village and town, summer, winter, spring and fall."
Weber-Quinn says the vision is somewhat "out there," but she qualifies that with praise for Harbor management. "Robert Holmes (Harbor president) has been very supportive of us," she said. "The more that we can get across that there's more than just physical changes, the better. The real changes are the attitude and openness."
Weber-Quinn joined the mountain six years ago when it was already in financial stress; she witnessed the entire process of receivership and changeover in ownership. What she feels now is a whole new sense of optimism.
"Not only is there light at the end of the tunnel, but now it's really bright," she said. "I'm so glad because it's always been a great mountain. It's still Schweitzer, and it will still be here when we're all gone."
Adds Fortune, "Our philosophy at Harbor is understate and overdo. The new Schweitzer is really all about a new attitude and direction. It's the people that will set it apart."
Billie Jean Plaster has skied at Schweitzer since she was 9 years old, but this is the first season she has had a season pass.