The visionaries who orchestrated the revival of newly named Baldy Mountain Ski Area achieved a major objective last weekend.
“We had the whole mountain open, we had beautiful snow, we had sun, we had an almost-full lift – like oh my god,” said ‘Snowy’ Joey O’Brien, managing director of the resort.
Past owners have struggled to keep Baldy Mountain profitable in recent years, with the ski hill operating just half of one season over the past three winters, and it was in receivership as recently as late June.
When resorts are in that position, O’Brien said it’s common for stakeholders to give up, have a fire sale and salvage the equipment.
“We had 2,200 ski resorts in 1967 in North America. We have less than 700 now,” he said. “As resorts fail, sometimes the easy button is to pull the assets off the mountain. Sell them for whatever you can get.”
But everybody who has skin in the game would agree that Baldy Mountain is worth swimming against the tide for, he said.
During the months-long process of restoration, “We never felt alone,” O’Brien said. “It felt like the community was championing us, pushing us towards our goal of being open on Dec. 1.”
And those funding the project are giving him both the resources and breathing room he needs.
“We have a fabulous investor group that gives me help where I need it and doesn’t interfere where I don’t,” he said. “Just the right mix.”
Before O’Brien was approached to bring Baldy Mountain back to life, he had no plans on returning to the ski industry for the third time.
However, Baldy Mountain is home to an “incredible natural facility, it’s a perfect marketplace,” and the property yields the highest value as a ski resort, said O’Brien.
During a ribbon-cutting ceremony last Friday afternoon, O’Brien was joined by Osoyoos Indian Band Chief Clarence Louie, principal investor Victor Tsao and local MLA Linda Larson.
The crowd of a couple dozen giggled after Louie – who attended the ribbon cutting of the previous resurrection attempt – shared his hope that “this is the last investors’ group that the hill needs here.”
Convincing investors there was a business case to be made at Baldy Mountain was much easier because of the community’s resolve to see the resort operational again, Louie said.
“Most people would say you’re crazy to invest in a ski hill in the South Okanagan,” he said. “But for those of us that live here this is important to us. Skiers, snowboarders and people that own cottages up here are very grateful. This hill means a lot to the Okanagan people and the Osoyoos Indian Band.”
Louie told the crowd the traditional name used by the Okanagan people to refer to Mount Baldy was Paq’mqin – meaning white top – and that the area continues to be used by members of the OIB for hunting and foraging.
Most members of the OIB are pleased to see the hill reopen, he said, especially those who plan on using the hill for skiing, snowboarding and other outdoor recreation. “It depends who you’re talking to,” said Louie. “In democracy some like it and some hate it. But you go with the majority, and the majority of members they’re happy to see the hill open for skiing and boarding.”
And among the broader Osoyoos and Oliver community, Louie said Baldy Mountain is a much-needed tourism venue for the winter months.
“Hopefully skiing and boarding will get people out of their houses,” he said. “Too may of our people stay indoors. On the television, now we have 500 channels. When I was growing up we had two.”
As a boy, Louie’s mom wouldn’t let his family sit so idle. He remembers her orders to “get outside and play” when she felt like the children were spending too much time indoors.
And he was quick to highlight how Baldy Mountain has returned as a ski hill because of the faith and backing provided by the investor group.
“Without the money this hill doesn’t open up,” Louie said.
Tsao, the principal investor, wore to the ribbon cutting a ski jacket from 1968 to commemorate the year when Baldy Mountain first opened as a ski resort.
Tsao’s access to money made the resort financially possible, but he said credit for Baldy Mountain’s comeback belongs to those who did the leg work.
“Funding is really secondary,” he said. “Primary is the staff and the people that make it happen.”
Baldy Mountain has a bright future, Tsao said, and his group of investors are looking far into the long-term.
“We want to leave it as a legacy for future generations,” he said. “I brought my young kids here and I want them to be able to enjoy this mountain the same way as we do.”
As the effect of global warming is expected to challenge the viability of ski resorts in the future, Tao said Baldy Mountain is advantageously situated in a landscape that will endure climate change much better than many other resorts.
With their prospects looking fruitful, Tsao said investors want to expand the ski hill to become an all-season resort.
To expand its offerings beyond the winter season, one idea, he said, was to turn the resort into a venue for downhill mountain biking. Another is to build a monorail up the mountain. And also to allow sightseers to take chairlift rides during the summer months.
“It’s a beautiful mountain with beautiful clean air,” he said. “There are great people down in the valley. There’s no reason why we can’t be inventive and use our imagination to try and create things for this region. We can bring economic activity and tourism to really make this benefit everyone.”
During Larson’s address, speaking on behalf of Premier Christy Clark and Tourism Minister Shirley Bond, she said Baldy Mountain’s offerings can’t be contained to one season, as the mountain is full of “beautiful places” in the summer for biking and hiking.
“Tourism has grown tremendously in the last few years,” she said.
As one indicator of Baldy Mountain’s initial success was the density of the packed parking lot.
Oliver resident Kyle Fossett, who was at Baldy Mountain last weekend, said in years past, the week of Christmas break is the only time he had ever seen the parking lot so full.