PALMER — Usually not permitted by Mat-Su Borough Mayor Vern Halter during Mat-Su Borough Assembly meetings, a crowd of Hatcher Pass enthusiasts erupted with applause at the assembly meeting Tuesday as Ordinance 20-062 passed unanimously authorizing a less than fair market value lease to Hatcher Alpine Xperience for the next 40 years.
“Four years or so ago I stood before you to introduce our newly founded grassroots nonprofit that was attempting to build a ski area in Hatcher Pass, a long awaited seemingly unachievable dream for many of us residents of Southcentral Alaska. I am happy to say that that dream is now a reality this winter Skeetawk ski area will be operational,” said Louisa Branchflower. “We were successful because this community wanted it and they helped us to make it happen. This project will provide not only a safe, affordable and convenient place for local families to learn new skills and improve their physical and mental health but also to help stimulate local businesses and make this area a true regional destination.”
Branchflower served as the first president for HAX and spoke eloquently about the immense amount of work that has gone into making Skeetawk a reality. After delay in construction due to ski lift manufacturer SkyTrans running late on their previous job, the lift was completed this spring and is fully operational in preparation for winter. In September of 2016, a management agreement was signed by HAX and the borough to allow the ski are to be built. Over the last two years, volunteers and local laborers have installed a snowcat building, doubled the size of the parking lot, built a ski patrol building, lift shacks, a yurt that will serve as an interim lodge and a chair lift compliant with the American National Standards Institute.
“We put together about $1.5 million in investment so far up on that mountain but we really need 10 to 15 times that much to build it out, so this is a long term project and we’ll be able to attract investors and donors if they can see that we are committed to this project over the long run. The economic benefits are obvious,” said Rob Wells. “The small businesses that spin off from an alpine ski area are many and the road goes both ways out of Anchorage and we know when we get phase two done and get up to the middle of the mountain we’ll be attracting skiers when the rocks have closed the Seward Highway and when it’s raining in Girdwood, they’ll be coming north to us. So this really is about the region and we think we’ll be an important player for tourism in the future.”
Wells has served as a member on the HAX Board of Directors since the inception of the nonprofit group that has built a functioning chair lift in Hatcher Pass. Wells hearkened back over four decades to the last time a rope tow ran at Independence Mine in 1972.
Speaking alongside Branchflower and Wells was volunteer engineer for HAX Max Schillinger. Schillinger detailed the work that has been completed to get the ski lift ready for snow and skiers this winter and provided a look into the future.
“We would like to be the place where after school program exists, where ski racing exists and those type of things,” said Schillinger.
Schillinger said that HAX has three shovel ready projects that they hope to complete in the near future to add to the first phase of the ski lift. Schillinger said that lighting, snowmaking capabilities and a septic system for flush toilets are the next projects HAX hopes to complete at Skeetawk. Schillinger offered a completed lighting design for 30 light poles that would not only allow for night skiing, but provide greater visibility for ski patrol members preparing the mountain for skiers and snowboarders. Schillinger thanked the University of Alaska Anchorage graduate program that helped design a snowmaking outline. If snow making capabilities were purchased, Schillinger believes that Skeetawk would be the first mountain open and the last to close in Southcentral Alaska. Schillinger also said that a decreased grade of the driveway would allow for school buses to drop students off at Skeetawk and is also a priority for projects in the future.
“We believe that these long term facilities cost money that will pay back dividends into the economy and to the public welfare of the Mat-Su Valley,” said Schilinger.
Eventually, HAX hopes to add phases two and three of the ski area farther up the mountain.
Borough Asset Manager for the Land Management Division Tracy McDaniel outlined the lease agreement between the Borough and HAX, starting at 2.5 percent for the first 11 years and increasing to 4 percent of gross revenues between years 11 and 20. After 20 years, the assembly can collect the less than fair market value of what the appraisal comes in at but Skeetawk cannot be sold to a for profit corporation.