Back to the Future for Pajarito?
As a member of the Ski Club board, I’ve heard concerns about ceding control of Pajarito Ski Area to the County or a third party, and sympathize with them. Pajarito has a wonderful heritage that was earned over the years by the sweat and tears of volunteer effort, and it is painful to envision giving it away, no matter what our confidence in the recipient. Members ask us why we cannot return to this heritage, and prosper as a more modest, volunteer-based organization, as we did in decades past.
Sadly, we cannot return to a 1960’s-era operation. It evolved at a time when people had few other options for winter recreation, unlike today, when numerous options for high quality skiing are 1 ½ or 2 hours away. To compete, consistency is the key, and the bar is set high. When customers come to Pajarito, they expect performance on a par with other areas, like consistent and daily grooming – all beginner runs, most intermediates, and even a few advanced runs for those who don’t/can’t ski moguls. They expect amenities like a good ski school, signage, modern rental equipment, and food service, have little patience for breakdowns, and will share any unfortunate experiences over social media.
The underlying premise – that we could reduce expenses to a sustainable level by cutting services and using volunteer labor – misses a fundamental issue. In a competitive market, cutting services and diminishing the product would result in a death spiral of collapsing revenue. Our basic infrastructure costs are fixed (lifts, grooming machines, diesel, insurance at $77K/year, mortgage at $73k/year, property tax at $36K/year, basic utilities at $24k/year), and can only be offset by significant income. The café and ski school are not luxuries, but in fact modest profit centers. There is a common factor to the small, independent ski areas that still succeed – financial backing that allows continuous improvement, attracting customers with a quality experience at a reasonable price, and buffering against poor seasons. Our club operation can no longer provide that backing.
The volunteer base that built Pajarito is no longer there. Although a dedicated core, including the Ski Patrol, remains, most skiers prefer to pay with money, not time. Work days attract a few dozen participants, not the few hundred of former years. Last year we redoubled our efforts to recruit volunteers, but a substantial list of interested people yielded few new volunteers on the slopes. Clearly the gap with any such volunteer plan is huge; the present volunteer effort is not even keeping up with aspen lopping, let alone the big jobs of maintenance and operations. Additionally much of the work requires professional qualification, like lift maintenance to ANSI standards, and must meet annual insurance requirements.
We are proud and lucky to have a general manager with the talent and dedication of Tom Long. Experience at his level is hard to find, and based on the results of past national searches, we are not at all confident that similar talent and dedication can be found on the cheap. Under his leadership, we got by, for the last few years, with a crew of 2-3 full-timers, doing a job that took 10 paid staff in previous years. Long’s responsibilities go well beyond typical general manager duties, including all business aspects of the operation, plus project planning, contractor work, grooming, maintenance and manual labor, not to mention long hours and a voluntary pay cut to help make ends meet.
In summary, the rest of the Board and I donate our time and passion because we want so badly for Pajarito to succeed, but the facts before us are clear – we cannot succeed the way we are going, and we cannot turn back the clock.