A deal to conserve the Prospect Mountain cross-country ski center, outside of Bennington, was finalized at the end of last month. The three-year project created a nonprofit to take over the ski center, and the 122-acre property is now protected from any future development.
Steve Whitham has been working at Prospect for about 40 years. He and his partner bought the property in 1992, and they pretty much ran it ever since.
Whitham cut all the trails, lived through the good seasons — and the bad — and also raised his three kids here. But about three years ago, when the grandchildren started coming and he entered his 60s, Whitham knew it was time to think about what was next.
“I bought the place when I was 38,” he said on recent weekday afternoon. “And you still mentally think you’re a lot younger, but, physically things start to catch up with you.”
People love Prospect Mountain. A bunch of area schools train there, and all winter long there are races and after-race celebrations on the weekends.
It’s the kind of place where after a wind storm, volunteers show up with chainsaws to clear the trails.
Whitham said he’s only survived this long because of the support he’s received, so he knew he wanted to conserve the land and make sure the trails remained open to the public.
“You don’t really own a place like this, you run it,” Whitham said. “And the people who ski here are the ones that really own it, you know what I mean? So you’re doing it for the community. And the community goes from Connecticut to — you know, it's huge. I was afraid of what would happen to a private sale.”
It took about three years for a local group to form and raise the money, and then pull the complicated deal together. Some of the trails go into the Green Mountain National Forest, so they had to deal with the federal government in finalizing the sale.
They received financial help from Williams College, which is about 20 miles away. Their Nordic team trains at Prospect Mountain, and a group of alumni from the college helped raise about $450,000. Four representatives from the school now serve on the nonprofit's nine-member board.
The Vermont Land Trust and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board also came together to help secure $285,000.
Dave Newell led the local group in its fundraising efforts. After receiving some grants and major donations, the group raised $325,000 in the end (about $60,000 more than they had set out to raise).
“People love Prospect Mountain,” Newell said. “It means a lot to them. They love skiing there. They love the lodge. And they want to make sure this goes on, and for them it’s a nice emotional connection to the place. For all of us.”
Newell's own family spent a lot of time on the trails (one of his sons even skied in the Olympics). He said people love the funky lodge and the laid-back vibe and the family atmosphere — but really, it’s all about the snow.
The base elevation is more than 2,000 feet and the mountain gets, and keeps, more snow than anywhere else in the area. When conditions are right, the trails are sublime.
Chris Williams lives nearby, and he was out at Prospect Mountain on a brilliant and cold afternoon. He's been coming out here for about 30 years.
Williams said for the local economy and for the schools and for folks like him that just want to get out in the winter, saving Prospect Mountain made a lot of sense.
“I’m on the planning commission in my little town, and these are the kind of things we try and keep track of,” Williams said. “And well, we like to think that that’s the Vermont way. And in the best outcomes it benefits a big broad swath of the public.”
Whitham, the former owner, is staying on for now as the mountain manager. He said after the deal went through, for the first time he received a salary he could count on.
And when Prospect Mountain opens up next season, Whitham said he'll be back.