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The irony was not lost on the 300 to 400 people who showed up at the Crossroads Bible Church Thursday night that snow was falling outside.
The audience, most of them members of the Los Alamos Ski Club, were there to participate in a vote no one wanted to take. They were voting whether they should enter negotiations with Los Alamos County for the county to eventually take over the club’s skiing operation on Pajarito Mountain.
The ski area’s manager, Tom Long, got a small laugh from the packed auditorium when he related how a news team from a local TV station came up Tuesday to get footage showing the lack of snow for their story.
“As soon as he turned the camera on, it started snowing,” said Long. “I was standing there with snow all over me thinking ‘how ironic.’”
But everyone at the Tuesday meeting knew it was no laughing matter.
According to club’s board president, Philip Rae, the lack of snow on the mountain for the past several years has finally taken its toll on the finances of the ski operation, one of the last locally-owned ski areas in the Northern New Mexico region.
“Expenses have gone up and snow has been in short supply,” Rae said. “It has been true now for a number of years, those of you who have come to our regular meetings may have heard this many times before, that nowadays the profit and loss of the Los Alamos Ski Club depends on whether or not we open on Christmas.”
At the meeting’s end, ski club members voted by a 206-21 margin to proceed with talks with Los Alamos County about a land and management transfer of the ski area.
Prior to the vote, Rae mentioned that, just like in previous years, this year it didn’t happen. He said to the silent audience that the snowfall that did occur “was just a thin veneer.”
The mountain was only in operation for a handful of days around the winter break for the Los Alamos Public Schools and the lab, and those were largely just for those wanting to use the beginners’ slopes.
Rae said with just about $140,000 in the bank, projections through March showed that if LASC did do a full opening, its loss would have been between $150,000 to $200,000 for this year. However, he did mention its $250,000 line of credit with the Los Alamos National Bank, and another problem it had was not being able to sell enough season passes to cover it.
“We can’t sell season passes if we’re not confident we’re going to be solvent come the winter,” he said. “Everybody accepts to some extent that when they buy a season pass they buy a lottery ticket...it’s not usually acceptable to sell something that you don’t believe you can make use of. The board needs the confidence to do that. If we can’t sell season passes, then we definitely can’t pay back the line of credit. Even if we did sell season passes, the numbers still aren’t coming out favorably.”
Rae then related how market conditions dictated ticket pricing.
After he delivered the grim news, he said the board was left with three options: tough it out and hope for the best, sell some of the club’s assets which included two cell phone towers and property, or transfer all assets “to an organization that can run and invest in the area.”
Rae urged the ski club members in the audience to go with the third option, since the county had the means to invest in the facility and the area. He also said that the club would probably still have input into how the area was run through an advisory board, much like how the North Mesa Stables and the Los Alamos Golf Course is run.
While most agreed with the solution, some audience members had comments.
“If the county is going to take on this additional burden, they’re going to have to come up with the money somehow, and that’s seems to be tax revenue,” on audience member said “While all of us here in the ski club might be excited about that, I’m not sure everyone else is going to be.”
Others thought the board was rushing into things, saying transferring everything to the county was an idea that came out of nowhere without being thoroughly vetted.
Longtime club member Tony Fox said that the club’s struggles with paying its bills have always been an issue and that everyone had to have known a day when LASC was teetering on insolvency was going to come sooner or later.
Fox also reminded his fellow club members that the county has always been friendly toward recreation, given its relationships with the golf course, the North Mesa Stables, the skating rink and other entities about town. He also reminded them that LASC members will still have some control over the area’s future, whether they’re on an advisory board or not.
“If you look at all the capital improvement projects the county has funded over the last five years, $4 million to the nature center, $4.5 million to the teen center, $11 million to the golf course. It doesn’t take a majority of the citizenry to get behind these things,” Fox pointed out. “A small group of people can affect change. We are a large vocal group that cross-pollinates over the arts, culture and all those things. If this goes to the county, we’re always going to have a voice,” he said.
Rae also reminded them that the motions is just an option to explore a transfer to the county or another third party rather than a full-blown commitment to anything.
He also reminded the members there that since LASC is a nonprofit, state law mandates any transfer of assets must be approved by a two-thirds majority.
The vote was overwhelmingly for the third option.
“We now have a mandate we can take to the county and with that mandate we will now enter into more detailed discussions about what the path forward is going to be,” Rae said.