A slope for all seasons
Gunstock promotes year-round attractions
For nearly a century — since local ski clubs began blazing and blasting downhill and cross-country trails through the timber and ledge of the Belknap Mountain Range in the 1920s — the slopes overlooking Lake Winnipesaukee have offered one of the finest skiing venues in the state.
Meanwhile, the legacy of the mountain that hosted national and international competitions and bred champion and Olympic skiers, has been enriched with a number of attractions providing outdoor recreation throughout the year.
What is now Gunstock Mountain Resort began during the Great Depression, when Belknap County state representatives and New Hampshire’s congressional delegation persuaded the federal government to finance construction of the Belknap Mountain Recreation Area. Undertaken by the Works Progress Administration, the project included the main lodge and outbuildings (built with lumber felled and milled and granite quarried and cut in the area) a chairlift — the first in the east — and rope tows serving four miles of downhill slopes and cross country trails, and three ski jumps on Mount Rowe.
Each of the $70,000 the county invested were matched by $6 from the federal government, in what was the largest WPA project in the state.
Completed in 1937, “The Area” quickly became a mecca for skiing in New England. That same year, the Eastern Ski Championships marked the first of many regional, national and international competitions. Olympic trials that drew the world’s top skiers to Gunstock. A harbinger of things to come, workers spent three days crushing 400 tons of ice to line the 60-meter ski jump, which now bears the name of Torger Tokle, the famed Norwegian whose record jump of 251 feet stood for 35 years.
For more than half a century the facility, owned by Belknap County, operated as an independent financial entity, financing its seasonal operations and capital investments from its operating revenue, buoyed as the growing popularity of skiing drew ski trains carrying thousands from Boston on winter weekends.
In 1959, at the initiative of county lawmakers, the Legislature created the Gunstock Area Commission, a board of five members appointed by the county delegation, to “operate, maintain, develop, improve and promote” what was then called the “Gunstock Area.” The commission promptly expanded operations by adding trails and lifts to Gunstock Mountain in the 1960s and developing the Pistol Complex in the 1970s as well as constructing a second lodge.
However, a major expansion project that began in 1986 to revitalize skiing operations — by replacing four lifts, installing a high-capacity snowmaking system, expanding the base complex and thoroughly renovating the trail system — cast the future of Gunstock in doubt by the turn of the century.
The longest zip line is 3,981 feet with a vertical drop of 688 feet.
Greg Goddard, who began his career at Gunstock in 1981, tending the bar at the Powder Keg Restaurant, became general manager in 1998.
“I had been the bookkeeper for the project,” he recalled, “and later office manager and director of finance and administration. I was very familiar with our financial situation.”
Goddard said that while the project enhanced Gunstock’s presence and image in the increasingly competitive marketplace, the cost proved beyond its means. He said that the cost ran to $10.5 million with just 65 percent of the work complete while several winters of sparse snowfalls left Gunstock without the revenue to service its debt.
“A citizens task force was formed to weigh the future of Gunstock, and there was study after study,” he recalled, adding that leasing the operation to a private party and even closing the facility altogether were among the options considered.
Goddard said that when officials realized that the county would have to assume the debt in order to lease the operation it was suggested, “Why not offer the same deal to the Gunstock commissioners?”
In 2001, the county delegation and the Gunstock commissioners agreed to a memorandum of understanding to share retirement of the debt. Gunstock paid an annual stipend of $150,000 plus a graduated percentage of gross revenues. Between 2001 and 2010, when the debt was retired, county taxpayers paid $6.2 million and Gunstock paid $2.4 million.
Gunstock has paid its own way and serviced its own debt since then, Goddard said. Moreover, the memorandum was renewed to provide that Gunstock make an annual payment of $175,000 to Belknap County. By November 2016, Gunstock had returned $3.2 million to the county.
“We are committed to never go back to the 1990s,” said Sean Sullivan, chair of the Gunstock Commission.
Between 2001 and 2010, Gunstock invested $12.25 million in expanding and improving its skiing operations, most notably adding the beginners complex named for Penny Pitou, whose skis carried her from the slopes of Gunstock to two Olympic silver medals — the first ever won by an American woman — at Squaw Valley in 1960.
A 2011 master plan laid the foundation for “multi-season recreational use” of the resort. Goddard said that while Gunstock had long operated a campground and hosted special events as well as provided hiking trails, horseback riding, lift rides and other recreational opportunities in the summer months, it had not taken full advantage of the more than 3 million visitors and growing number of seasonal homeowners who flock to the Lakes Region in the summer.
“There was no way we were going to pull people off Lake Winnipesaukee with hiking trails and jungle gyms,” he remarked. “We really had to go big with it.” And, out of respect for the mountain, the attractions should be “gravity-based” as the master plan put it.
During the next few years, Gunstock added three “magnet” attractions, investing more than $5 million to create an Adventure Park. Zipline Tours, 22 lines carrying riders 1.6 miles running from peak to peak between 100 and 140 feet above the ground at speeds topping 60 miles per hour, are the centerpiece.
The Aerial Treetop Adventure Course consists of six obstacle courses strung over nine acres.
Goddard said that at 3,981 feet, with a vertical drop of 688 feet, the longest of the three zip lines was the longest in the country and among the longest in the world when it opened in 2011. Projected to reap $535,000 in sales, the tours topped $1 million the first year and have carried more than 75,000 riders and posted $5.6 million in sales. Goddard said that visitors have come from across the country and around the world to see and ride the zip lines.
The Aerial Treetop Adventure Course is the largest attraction of its kind in New England. Its six obstacle courses, strung amid the trees over nine acres and each with a graduated degrees of difficulty, are studded with 91 obstacles, including bridges, jumps, ropes, swings, rings and logs.
“We have people who treat Treetop Adventure as their gym,” Goddard said. “They come regularly for their workout.”
Gunstock also partnered with Segway to offer off-road tours along its cross-country ski trails on the Segway x2, fitted with all-terrain tires to navigate rugged conditions. After sharing revenues with Segway for five years, Gunstock purchased the fleet in 2016.
In 2016, Gunstock added a fourth magnet attraction, the Mountain Coaster, akin to a roller coaster winding 4,100 feet down the mountainside at a top speed of 25 miles per hour. The carts ride on steel rails swooping around curves, turning banked corners and making 360-degree turns, running the course in six minutes.
‘The next big thing’
In 2010, Gunstock posted total sales between May and October of $1 million, but since the Adventure Park opened they have more than doubled, and in 2016 jumped seven percent, from $2.4 million to $2.8 million before slipping to $2.5 million this year.
Originally, Goddard said, “we sold everything a la carte, but this year we offered two products, one without the zip lines and Segway tours and a premium package including everything. The public responded well to that.”
Goddard explained that investment in the summer season has mitigated the volatility of the winter season, when the number of visitors and volume of revenue are at risk from weather conditions and operating costs — primarily staffing and snowmaking — are relatively high.
The Mountain Coaster at Gunstock Mountain Resort takes riders uphill through the forest before the cart disengages and gravity takes over.
He said that Gunstock expects a ski season of 125 days between the middle of December and the end of March, which accounts for about 70 percent of its total profits. However, the swings can be significant.
For instance, in 2014-15, with 121 days of skiing, the resort drew 181,070 visitors and turned a net operating profit of $495,904. But a year later — what Goddard called the poorest ski season in recent memory — when light snowfall and warm temperatures shrank the season to 93 days — the number of visitors fell by a third to 117,648, revenue dropped by $2.35 million to $9 million and the resort posted a loss of $954,145. Last winter, with improved conditions, revenue rebounded to top $11.4 million, yielding profits of more than $830,000. The 2017 budget projects revenue to top $12 million and profit of $1.3 million.
“We’re the victims of our own success,” Goddard said, explaining that Gunstock was “quite a bit ahead of other ski areas to jump into investing in summer programs,” but now Attitash, Sunapee, Loon and others offer summer attractions. He said that while continuing to invest in ever-more efficient snowmaking capacity and adding smaller attractions for summer visitors, “we’re always looking for the next big thing.”
Each year, he said, he visits the exposition held by the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions in Orlando, which fills 7 million square feet of space with everything from swing sets to rollercoasters. “We get lots of good ideas,” he said, indicating only that he would like to make better use of the summit of the mountain.
Sullivan called Goddard’s performance as general manager “exceptional,” stressing that “he loves Gunstock with his heart and soul.”
Goddard said that while he is pleased Gunstock has returned to financial independence and self-sufficiency, he singles out the growth of the resort’s net worth, which has risen from $455,000 in 1998 to more than $10 million, an average annual return of 6.1.percent.
“That’s what I’m most proud of,” he said.