RIPTON — A good ski season, boosted in large part by new snowmaking at Rikert Ski Touring Center at Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf campus, is helping set the stage for a renaissance in winter tourism in the greater Middlebury area.
“The past season was great in a lot of ways,” said Rikert Ski Touring director Mike Hussey. “While the weather was up and down, a real roller-coaster throughout the year, we were able to host our major events without worrying about whether we’d have adequate cover on the trails.
“Winter Carnival in late February, for example, would probably have moved north because you have to make those decisions two or three weeks in advance and at that time, we didn’t have a lot of cover. But the new snowmaking kept the event here.”
Hussey said by the time the NCAA championships were held at the college facilities (Rikert and the Middlebury College Snow Bowl) in early March, both areas had plenty of time to make ample snow to host excellent events.
“The NCAA’s were terrific,” Hussey said. “The final day, on Saturday was phenomenal. It was a beautiful day and people turned out in droves.”
It’s just that sort of impression that has Hussey convinced Middlebury has the potential to become a winter destination area — with a different twist from the rest of the state.
“Where else in the East can you go from alpine skiing and Nordic skiing at two top facilities within a mile or two of each other, and then have a college town like Middlebury where you could visit an art museum, catch a top college hockey or basketball game, or attend a theater performance at the college or in town, or just dine at one of the great restaurants,” Hussey posed. “There are ample attractions, which speaks to the strength of the Middlebury area as a winter destination site.”
The new impetus comes after Middlebury College has spent roughly $1.5 million at the Rikert touring center over the past couple of years. The ski touring center — the lodge where people buy passes, rent gear, meet friends and wind down after skiing — was extensively renovated the past two years. This past season a new 5K collegiate ski racing trail, called the Tormondsen Trail, was construction and lined with an $850,000 compressed air/compressed water snowmaking system.
The snowmaking system along the Tormondsen Trail makes it the longest of its kind in North America, and the longest amount of snowmaking on a Nordic trail of any kind in the East. Soldier Mountain Touring Center in Utah, site of the 2002 Olympics, has snowmaking on a 10K track, but there the snow is blown by big guns at the base of the area and spread by machines. The system at Rikert lines the trail with pipes and blows the snow at regular intervals along the trail.
“In my mind it’s the best system available because it makes the snow where it needs to be made,” Hussey says, which is right next to the trail. The facility, Hussey said, was largely financed by a generous donation by the Tormondsen family. John Tormondsen is a Middlebury alum and was a first-team All-American when he skied for Middlebury in the 1980s.
Because of the snowmaking capacity, he said, “we’ll be bidding on more elite races, and will be asked to back up a lot of others … There’s great value in that, and it helps this area become a true winter destination resort.”
Hussey also notes that the college’s investment in the Nordic center is an anomaly.
“It’s the type of investment that you just aren’t seeing in the Nordic community,” Hussey said. “No one out there is spending $1.5 million on improving their Nordic facilities, except at Rikert. It will help make us stand out among all other venues … It’s very exciting to me that the college has been so strongly behind the improvements, as well as such great alumni support.”
PROMOTING THE AREA
Hussey has already reached out to the Better Middlebury Partnership and the Addison County Chamber of Commerce, as well as the Blueberry Hill Nordic Center and the Moosalamoo National Recreational Area, to collaborate in promoting the ski areas and the greater Middlebury-Brandon area in more dynamic ways.
Chamber director Andy Mayer said snowmaking at Rikert makes a key difference.
“The new snowmaking is extremely important because we have great facilities to make us a winter destination, and now we can be assured of being open during the key events that are planned. The uncertainty of the snow conditions has held us back in the past because we’re fairly low in elevation and with the changing climate it’s been tough,” he said. “But now that we can rely on being open, and can depend on good conditions, that’s huge and will help us start to attract a whole new clientele to the area during winter.”
Ben Wilson, president of the Better Middlebury Partnership, agreed, adding that the town, area businesses, and college can start working together developing marketing pieces to promote the area for its excellent ski touring facilities, as well as the strength of the town-college community.
“It’s a win-win for the town and college,” Wilson said, “and can only help boost the local economy in terms of lodging, dining and retail shopping. It’s a real opportunity that we all need to embrace.”
As for other events in the making, Hussey was excited about a new event the center added this March: the Youth Grand Prix. Based on races in Quebec, the Rikert Ski Touring Center hosted a spring event for Canadian 5th-8th graders to compete against the same age group from the northeastern United States. About 85 participants competed in the race coming from Quebec, New Hampshire, Maine, New York and Vermont. As a sister race to the one held in Quebec, which attracts about 350 racers for a two-day event, Hussey is excited that this area race will quickly grow to a similar size.
Importantly, Hussey said, the race is hosted by the local Frost Mountain Nordic Club, which has grown in strength and numbers over the past half dozen years. Having a strong local Nordic club and a solid group of volunteers is “absolutely essential,” Hussey added, to being able to host Nordic events.
“Without them, it would be impossible to host,” he said, “so we want to especially send a warm thanks to all of them for their efforts.”
The Nordic club, of course, will also benefit from the new improvements at Rikert, being able to better recruit skiers and build a stronger Nordic tradition in the community.
“It’s a terrific addition to the facility at Rikert,” said Barney Hodges, who skied for Middlebury College in the early 1990s and is one of the leaders of the Frost Mountain Nordic club. “It will definitely make our events more successful and allow us to bring more racers and their families to the area … It’s a real boon to skiers and to the entire business community.”