„365“ News 2017 / Innovation

Ski Forecast: Artificial Snow To Arrive At Powder Ridge This Summer

Summertime skiing on plastic snow might sound like a scene from a sci-fi movie, but Sean Hayes is determined to make it happen at the Powder Ridge resort by July 2017.

Hayes and his partners at this "southernmost ski area in all of New England" are making a multi-million-dollar gamble that they can turn Powder Ridge into a destination resort able to attract multitudes 365 days a year.

The goal is to use a high-tech "artificial snow slip mat" developed by a Swiss company to create a 2,800-foot-long slope for skiing, snowboarding and tubing, with more than 350,000 square feet of artificial snow.

"We believe we will be by far the largest in the world," Hayes said this week, adding it will also be the first synthetic snow slope in the northeastern U.S.

What the owners of Powder Ridge are counting on is that this type of technology will appeal to novice and expert skiers, snowboarders, tubers and even bike skiers from all over the urban corridor between New York and Boston.

"We would not have bought this property without knowing we were going to do synthetic snow," Hayes said of the group's decision in 2012 to buy the ski area. Powder Ridge was shut down in 2007 due of major financial problems after nearly five decades in operation.

Mark Vining, past president of the Hartford Ski Club, praised the work by the new owners of Powder Ridge as they have brought the ski area back into operation.

"I've never skied [artificial snow] personally," said Vining a resident of Columbia and a skier for 54 years. "It would be a new experience... I would be interested in trying it," Vining added.

Artificial snow has been used at scores of European resorts for more than a decade, in part because of concerns about declining winter snowfalls. Various types of synthetic snow have been installed at the Utah Olympic Park for summer ski training, in Lynchburg, Virginia and a few other U.S. locations.

The type that Powder Ridge is planning to install uses plastic grids with strands that stick up above the surface, longer versions of the plastic grass used on artificial turf fields. The synthetic ski mats are being manufactured by a Swiss company called ,,365" and Hayes claims its technology represents a dramatic advance over other types of artificial snow, in part because it doesn't require constant spraying like some other versions.

The Swiss-made synthetic snow involves installation of a filter-like mat that is staked down to a graded slope. The plastic grids then go on top of the mat, which allows water and snow-melt to seep gradually down through to the ground surface "so we don't get erosion," Hayes said.

Advocates of these synthetic ski slopes say they allow skis or snowboards to slide across the surface while also providing a way for the edges of skis to "carve" the surface for turns and for stopping.

"They call it 'dry skiing' in Europe," Hayes said. He added that no special equipment is required, other than knee and elbow pads during the summer to prevent skin getting burned by the plastic during a fall. He said summer skiers and snowboarders normally wear regular, breathable ski clothing even during the summer months to prevent skin burns from falls.

Artificial snow can also provide the resort with an advantage during Connecticut's often mild or dry winters, according to Hayes.

Normally, an operation like Powder Ridge would need a three-foot base of snow to make it safe for skiers. Hayes said that, because of the ski area's southern location, it's often five degrees warmer during the winter than even relatively nearby ski resorts like Ski Sundown up in the hills of New Hartford. That means Powder Ridge often struggles with barely 60-80 days of skiing a year.

"With this [artificial snow], you can ski on it with just two inches of snow," said Hayes. That's a big advantage because the region's weather patterns are changing, he added.

Climate scientists are predicting that average winter temperatures in New England are likely to continue to rise. "As far as I'm concerned, let it get warmer," Hayes said of his operation's plans for artificial snow.

Hayes isn't much of a skier himself. He admits he didn't even try the sport until he was 40, and only made the attempt because he wanted to get his kids involved in snow sports.

"I hated skiing," Hayes said with a grin. "I still don't ski." Now in his 50s, Hayes said he now much prefers to use a "ski bike," a bicycle-like machine where the wheels are replaced by skis and the rider wears small skis instead of pedaling.

Hayes does have experience as "a turn-around manager" specializing in finding ways to revive or revamp failing businesses. He said he views Connecticut's local ski operations "as a troubled industry" because of the increasingly warmer and often shorter winter seasons.

"We knew we had to change the model dramatically," Hayes said of the decision to go to synthetic snow.

Hayes and his partners are also the owners of Brownstone Exploration and Discovery Park in Portland. They bought the Powder Ridge ski area from the town of Middlefield for $700,000, and the town also provided $500,000 from a state grant that was to be used to restore utilities at the property if it was reopened as a ski resort.

The artificial snow project is planned for two stages, Hayes said. The first will cost an estimated $5 million and will involve creation of about 750 feet of synthetic slope to be ready for skiing by this July. The second phase, which Hayes is hoping to complete by July 2018, will add another $2 million to the project's tab and cover the rest of the 2,800-foot slope to the top of the ridge.

The owners of Powder Ridge are also applying for additional state aid in the form of low-interest loans and/or possible tax abatements to the tune of $300,000 to $400,000.

Once upon a time, Powder Ridge attracted about 100,000 skiers a year. The resort is expecting to see about 45,000 visitors this season, and its operators are hoping the artificial snow will enable Powder Ridge to eventually bring in as many as 175,000 customers annually, and allow the operation to employ more than 200 full-time employees.

If the Powder Ridge experiment with synthetic snow turns out to be as successful as the partners are hoping, it's very likely they won't stop with just this two-phase project.

"It'd expand it," Hayes said, "and cover the whole mountain."

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