For decades, skiers and snowboarders have carved through powder on the slopes above Fairfield, taking advantage of minimal lines and affordable prices at Soldier Mountain Ski Area. Largely considered a community ski hill, the modest resort's greatest claim to fame was its celebrity owner, actor Bruce Willis, who bought the area in 1996.
But after years on the market, Willis announced earlier this year he would give Solider Mountain to a nonprofit willing to run it. Enter Soldier Mountain Ski Area, Inc., the quickly formed group that jumped in to take over the beloved ski hill.
Soldier Mountain has yet to open for the year, but J. Will Varin, president of the nonprofit group, said the organization has been busy making changes, and he promises visitors will notice the work.
"It will feel different," said Varin, head of the five-member board. "If somebody's been there last year, and they go up this year, it will feel different."
Varin--a Fairfield native--is joined on the board by Jamon Frostenson, grandson of one of the mountain's founders; Russell Schiermeier, who has worked at the mountain with his family; and William Wardwell and Robert Thomas, both Varin-Wardwell law partners.
"We think it's a great story," said Varin. "This is the only time we've ever found that an operating ski area has been donated to a nonprofit."
"The skill set that we were able to bring to this was a perfect fit," he said.
However, a second organization comprised of ski-area employees and other locals, the Soldier Mountain Recreation Association, organized at the same time with a similar mission.
"When we got word of it, [Willis' representatives] wanted to have a decision made within three weeks," said Varin. "There wasn't really time to kind of marry the organizations, at first."
With the rapid pace, Varin said his group had more tools in place to be able to take over operations. However, SMRA isn't being left out in the cold. The organization has a carved out a broad mission around the mountain, including collaboration on summertime activities and special events.
"They're out there spreading the word and getting folks up there, while Soldier Mountain Ski Area, Inc., we'll be the ones actually operating the mountain," Varin said.
It's the latest chapter in a story that began in 1948, when Bob Frostenson and Harry Durall began clearing trees and constructing a lodge in the mountains north of Fairfield. Around the same time, Varin's grandfather, a Boise dermatologist named Frank Crowe, helped build Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area. Soldier Mountain grew over the years, drawing 12,000 skiers last season.
"We would like to get to 15,000 this year," said Varin. "If we get there, we're kind of at a break-even point. We're trying to get the word out so that people are aware that we're here."
Since the transfer, Soldier Mountain has enlisted volunteers to get the hill ready for the 2012-2013 season.
"The amount of work that they have already put in is pretty incredible. That's one of the things we're able to do, is reduce the expenses because people are up there volunteering their time," said Varin.
That includes Don and Kristi Schiermeier, who served as on-the-ground representatives in Fairfield. The family purchased the skill hill from the Frostenson family in the 1970s and managed it until its sale to Willis.
The nonprofit model isn't new to Idaho slopes. Bogus Basin became a nonprofit in 2005. General Manager Alan Moore said he gave Soldier Mountain insight on moving forward prior to taking ownership.
"Of course, 501(c)(3)s don't pay income taxes, but that isn't the problem with most ski areas, because they're not profitable," he said. "You have all this infrastructure out there, all this equipment that you only operate four months out of the year."
The ski business isn't a cake walk, Moore said. Equipment sits perched on a mountain, subjected to severe weather. Roads must be plowed and sanded, and facilities require constant maintenance.
"There's no shortage of things to spend a lot of money on," said Moore.
Nonprofits such as Bogus Basin and Soldier Mountain can solicit donations, but both organizations stress those dollars are meant to develop the mountain.
"We'll raise funds and solicit donations, but we want that to be toward the development, putting in a new lift or the big kind of long-term developments," said Varin. "We want it to be operating as a sustainable business and that's what we're really trying to accomplish."
This year's projects included adding fresh paint to ski hill facilities, replacing the drive system of one of two double chairlifts, and resurrecting a cat skiing program.
"Soldier was actually one of the first ski areas in Idaho to do cat skiing," said Varin. "That's taking skiers up into backcountry terrain with a snow cat. ... It's a super great opportunity, taking people up into the 10,000-foot, kind of alpine terrain with big bowls and glades and chutes."
Personnel at Bogus Basin balloon from 35 year-round staff to 600 or 700 employees during the ski season, Moore said.
He used the term "community-owned" to describe the mountain but cautioned that hills need to remind the community of their role.
"As you know, there are a lot of 501(c)(3)s out there and you need to tell folks why you're different," he said. "In our case, we're trying to tell folks that Bogus is an economic driver for the community."
Soldier Mountain is smaller than Bogus, featuring 39 ski runs and a base elevation of 5,800 feet. Lifts service a vertical drop of 1,400 feet, and the hill employees near 50 staffers. But Varin sees Soldier Mountain's role in the community as similar to that of Bogus Basin.
"We're approaching it in a very similar fashion. Really, it's an amenity for the town and it's a super great thing to be able to have that right there," he said. "We don't look at Bogus or Sun Valley, or Brundage. We don't see them as competitors. We complement what they have to offer."