TUPPER LAKE - Many said they couldn't do it.
The volunteers at the Big Tupper Ski Area, though, proved all the naysayers wrong.
About 125 volunteers worked tirelessly to overhaul the overgrown, rusted, weather-beaten and vandalized ski area from late last summer to the beginning of this winter, and have since opened the mountain and kept it running through almost 40 ski days.
Ski school volunteer Bob Comtois, left, teaches his son, Mike, how to improve his form on the slope at Big Tupper.
(Enterprise photo — Jessica Collier)
Many who have visited Big Tupper since its Dec. 28 reopening say the volunteerism there has engendered a strong sense of community in many locals and has had positive impacts on local children.
Volunteer coordinator Rick Donah said the opening of the ski area has had an impact on Tupper Lake both economically and spiritually. He said he has spoken to many parents and teachers who have seen a big difference in the attitudes of their children and students.
Kids have taken an interest in volunteering, and they were able to fill a few roles there. Members of the middle/high school ski club helped out with quite a few fundraisers, and kids 16 and older were able to teach ski school.
Ski school volunteer Kitty Villeneuve said the teens, most of whom taught snowboarding, had fun seeing their students progress from not knowing anything to being able to board down the hill.
One young man, Mitch Harriman, decided he liked the ski patrol and asked to be a junior member. He skis every day he can with ski patrol members, learning about what they do. He plans to join when he's old enough, Donah said.
"He's a great kid," he said.
Villeneuve said she knew of a fourth-grader who spent a lot of time inside watching TV before his dad brought him to the mountain to take lessons. Before long, the boy was skiing on his own and going on the chair lift with friends. Villeneuve said learning to ski built up the boys' self esteem.
"He looks you in the eye now," she said. "He's not shy. ... It's been a really nice experience."
It is significant that volunteers were able to accomplish the huge task of getting the ski slope operational after it had been in disrepair for so long, said Whiteface Mountain Ski Center Manager Bruce McCulley.
"It was a huge effort, and I'm very impressed with their ability to do and get done what they did get done," McCulley said. "It's just amazing."
McCulley said it's beneficial to Whiteface to have ski slopes like Big Tupper open, since the smaller, more family-oriented slopes are where many skiers get their start.
His staff helped out Adirondack Residents Intent on Saving Their Economy when organizers had questions and needed some expertise in the process of getting Big Tupper running again. McCulley said people in the ski business tend to stick together and help each other out.
McCulley said that not every community would be able to do what Tupper Lake did.
"I think they've got a great community spirit there," he said. "So many people pitched in in so many different ways."
"What more can be said than the terrific job that they've done," said Jim LaValley, chairman of ARISE, the local nonprofit that organized the effort.
Big Tupper, once a wintertime social and economic center for the town of Tupper Lake, closed 10 years ago due to declining revenues.
About four years later, a development group headed up by Philadelphia-based lawyer Michael Foxman bought the property and unveiled plans to raze and rebuild the ski center with state-of-the-art facilities. The plans also included development of the surrounding land on Mount Morris with about 600 luxury housing units, a restaurant and a marina, things developers said would be necessary to make enough money to keep the ski area open.
The size of the proposed development, however, raised some questions among the environmental community. When developers applied for a permit from the state Adirondack Park Agency, the agency pushed the application into an adjudicatory hearing to examine 10 issues with it. Foxman pulled out before it began, though, and held confidential mediation sessions with 40 involved parties. Developers are now reworking their plans to reflect changes made during this time and plan to submit the revised application in April or May.
During this multi-year quagmire, Tupper Lakers missed out on the use of the ski area. So a local nonprofit group, Adirondack Residents Intent on Saving Their Economy, formed to reopen the ski area on a volunteer, nonprofit basis while developers and the APA worked out the permit.
LaValley would not even venture a guess as to how many hours volunteers put in hacking away at brush and clearing the trails, repairing and cleaning the lodge and otherwise preparing the mountain for the ski season.
"Pre-opening, it was a huge number of hours," LaValley said.
He said people often just showed up and got done what needed to be done. Management wouldn't even know they were there.
Once the mountain opened, however, the place was run similar to a business, with volunteers signing in and out.
Donah, who organized the volunteers at Big Tupper, said he has a database of 255 people who expressed interest in volunteering for the effort, but probably about half that many ended up being active volunteers.
Donah recruits volunteers, then finds out what their strengths and preferences are, makes sure they are trained and places them with the manager of whichever department they will work in. He also started a volunteer newsletter so he can keep the many volunteers up to date, since there are so many of them and not many are at the mountain more than once a week.
To operate the mountain on a daily basis, about 25 to 30 people would need to be there, including six to 10 ski patrol members, six to eight people working the lifts, five to six people working guest services, and a few people teaching with the snow school, Donah said.
He estimated that the total volunteer commitment per day is about 160 hours.
Donah estimated that if the ski season lasts 50 days, that would be about $96,000 for the season if each volunteer had instead been a paid employee at $12 per hour. He estimated that volunteers would have cost $60,000 before the opening to refurbish the ski slope, meaning the Adirondack community has donated over $150,000 in volunteer hours to the operation of Big Tupper.
Volunteers come in from all over the Adirondack Park, as well from Canada and the Syracuse, Albany and Burlington areas as well, Donah said.
Most volunteers were encouraged to work in four-hour shifts, though some would work a full eight hours a day.
When they completed a half-day shift, they were given a pass to ski for half a day.
They were also rewarded with a season kick-off party before the opening and an end-of-the-season volunteer appreciation party that was held Friday at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post to thank them for all their hard work.
Besides those who run the mountain every day, there are people who frequently volunteer by performing other supporting roles.
P-2's Irish Pub owner Michelle LeBlanc Blair doesn't even ski, but she has dedicated a number of hours with fundraising and updating Big Tupper's Facebook page to keep the community informed.
Many other volunteers worked hard to raise funds, including ARISE's official band, the Tres Amigos - Larry Reandeau, Bill Foley and Bob Mann. The trio started playing at ARISE's first spaghetti dinner and has played almost every fundraiser since.
And though he might not be counted as a volunteer in the traditional sense of the word, Jim Lanthier Jr. has taken more than 100 photos every day that skiing has been available at Big Tupper since it's reopening. Lanthier's photos have been used in the Enterprise and the Tupper Lake Free Press, as well as being posted all over the Web, as a way of spreading the word about the ski center's opening.
Another group of volunteers, not organized by ARISE, run a food booth that sells pizza, nachos, chili and other snacks. It is manned from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays by students in the French club at the Tupper Lake Middle/High School, with usually two or three students working at a time.
LaValley said ARISE requested that the booth not be opened past 2 p.m. so skiers are hungry when they leave the slope and ready to stop at a local restaurant for dinner.
Only three people who ran the mountain were paid - office manager Don Dew Jr., mountain manager Bill Mozdzier and lift manager Cliff Levers. They weren't paid much, though.
"They were way overworked and underpaid," LaValley said. "It was a minimal amount of money."
He said each of the managers put in plenty of volunteer hours on top of the ones they were paid for.
"Everyone was considered a volunteer, and everyone put in above and beyond what they needed to," Donah said.
"It was really an interesting project in the sense that so many people were so emotionally driven," Donah said. "They really love the fact that we're trying to make a difference in the community and get things going again. And a lot of people love to ski. They do. They grew up here skiing."
The effort was able to collect a significant number of dedicated volunteers. LaValley said this can be attributed to a number of factors.
"Some were there for the nostalgic reasons," LaValley said.
Many of the volunteers learned to ski on the slopes of Big Tupper, while others taught their kids to ski there.
LaValley said others have been volunteering just to support the community.
Some volunteers also hope for the Adirondack Club and Resort project to become a reality and feel that opening the mountain is the first step to that, LaValley said. He said some who volunteered hope they will be employees of the ACR one day.
Villeneuve said she volunteered for several reasons: her kids all learned to ski at Big Tupper, it's convenient for her to get to after teaching at Pisgah for several years, and she loves to see people make progress in learning to ski.
"It was a great experience, and I think a lot of other people feel pretty much the same way," Villeneuve said. "I look forward to doing it again."
LaValley said he hopes Big Tupper will be able to stay open for a few more ski days beyond this weekend, but he wasn't sure how likely it would be.
Some of the volunteers are beginning to tire, he said, but many would like to see the mountain stay open for a little while longer.
"There's so much positive energy in trying to see this thing through," LaValley said.
And there may be more volunteers joining the fold next season. LaValley said he expects there to be people who heard about Big Tupper's opening late this year who will be interested in volunteering time next year.
"I think that there's going to be a natural growth both in skier visits and volunteers," he said.
Donah said ARISE leaders plan to run the ski area next year, but will need to see the ACR developers with an APA permit and plans to start construction before they can commit to another year after that.
"ARISE can only do so much," he said.
Contact Jessica Collier at (518) 891-2600 ext. 25 or firstname.lastname@example.org.