By Karen D. Lorentz
WILMINGTON — Southern Vermont’s Hermitage Club at Haystack is kind of in a class by itself.
The sole private ski-and-golf community in the Northeast, it is one of just two major U.S. luxury clubs that offer skiing and riding to members.
It also offers one of just two six-passenger bubble chairlifts with heated seats in the U.S., the Doppelmayr-manufactured Barnstormer lift, which debuted December 2015 and takes you to the summit in six minutes. (The other heated bubble “six-pack” is a Leitner-Poma built at Okemo in 2014.)
The Hermitage Club offers a winter experience with uncrowded slopes, no lift lines, numerous amenities and VIP treatment. With a history steeped in struggles since the Haystack Ski Area opened in 1964 — bankruptcies and closings included — the growing membership (more members than Montana’s Yellowstone Club) attests to a vision and model that are working.
“The vast majority of our members are families with children; they love skiing and they love skiing together. They are comfortable that their kids are safe on the mountain, and appreciate the sense of community and a feeling of going to a second home,” said Brendan McGrail, director of communications for the Hermitage Club.
With 46 trails, 194 skiable acres, five chairlifts, a beginner-area rope tow, and a 1,400-foot vertical drop, Haystack is a mid-sized mountain set amidst 1,400 acres of four-season recreation spanning the towns of West Dover and Wilmington. Some 900 members have joined the club to date.
Membership fees have increased to the present level of $85,000 family entry fee and $8,500 annual dues, with additional options that include lodging packages, home ownership and equity investment.
That has helped make the Hermitage Inn Real Estate Holding Company, LLC, the fastest growing privately owned company in the state for the last three years, according to McGrail.
It was also listed as #133 on INC. magazine’s top 5,000 list for 2016.
Given that other private ski mountains didn’t make it in the East and that the Yellowstone Club owners defaulted in 2008 — requiring its members (now numbering around 600) to bail it out and a new owner to keep it operating — the progress of the Hermitage Club may be unique.
Serendipity to progress
Connecticut businessman and entrepreneur Jim Barnes is the founder and president of the club. Having enjoyed second-home ownership and recreation in southern Vermont and having lunched at the Hermitage Inn with his wife, he was “unhappy to see the inn fall into disrepair,” so he purchased it in 2007.
“The idea was to bring it back up to standards,” he said, adding that he had “no further plans at that time.”
But as the economy went south, he found himself “buying additional real estate around it.”
When the previous Haystack Club owner, who had been forced to close due to the recession, knocked on his door, Barnes said it was “a compelling price,” a case of an “offer you can’t refuse” that led to his adding a mountain and golf course.
He also explained that he had spoken with Hermitage Inn guests, whose concerns included the safety of their families on crowded slopes and long lift lines. Sharing those concerns, he decided a private-club model could work.
In October 2011, the Hermitage Inn Real Estate Holding Company closed on the $6.5 million purchase of the Haystack golf course and ski area, along with associated real estate from One Cornell, Inc. As Cornell’s vice president, Bob Rubin had developed a master plan for the private Haystack Club in accordance with its 2005 purchase agreement (from Mount Snow’s owner, American Skiing Company) which stipulated Haystack was to be a private club.
Rubin stayed on, and as vice president of construction and development has overseen the implementation of Haystack permit-approved projects, plus some gained through permit amendments.
The mountain reopened in late December 2011 after $3 million was invested in snowmaking upgrades, two chairlift rehabs, a new Pisten Bully groomer and completion of three townhouses.
Since that time, projects have included more snowmaking additions, five four-unit townhouse buildings, the 80,000-square-foot clubhouse, a mid-mountain cabin with a restaurant, a new beginner-area chairlift, the Tage connector lift and ski trail between the Hermitage Inn and mountain, and the new Barnstormer lift. The slopeside clubhouse offers more than the typical base lodge, with a fitness center, pool, bowling alley, movie theater, spa, childcare center, restaurants, ski valet and business center.
The mountain operates Fridays through Sundays and holidays, for about 85 days a year, Barnes said, noting that with 1,200 to 1,500 people on the mountain on a busy day, the snow doesn’t get skied off, and people enjoy great surfaces all day long.
Accommodations, master plan
Barnes noted they needed more places for club members to stay overnight, so additional properties were either purchased or leased and brought up to current standards and are now operated by Hermitage. Also open to the public, they include the White House Inn in Wilmington and the Inn at Sawmill Farm in West Dover (both with restaurants); Snow Goose Inn in Dover; Brook Bound Inn and Vermont House, both in Wilmington.
A stay at a Hermitage property includes access to club amenities — a day at Haystack Mountain, the Spa and Wellness Center, hiking and mountain biking trails, cross-country skiing, snow tubing, golf at the Haystack course, ice skating, and swimming. (The clubhouse at Haystack is available to members and their guests only.)
Having built and sold all the real estate allowed by the Haystack Master Plan permit, a new 10-year Hermitage master plan had to be developed and an application was made to the District #2 Environmental Commission.
“It was a long process that took almost three years,” Barnes said. “It’s clear to any person or businessman in the Deerfield Valley that Act 250 takes a very long time. It was the most challenging business issue I’ve ever faced in my life.”
Rubin hopes to see a permit issued by the end of the month.
The plan includes 36 additional single-family trailside homes, more townhomes, two-family villas and three hotels. “The first is a 93-unit hotel located just north of the new clubhouse. It will be full-service, with restaurant, country store/deli, lockers, and some amenities. The second 90-unit hotel will be located south of the clubhouse, next to the Barnstormer lift. Depending on market demand, there would be a third hotel or additional townhomes located at the southern end of the main parking lot,” Rubin said.
The plan encompasses 550 total residences, which include the existing 24 townhouses, six single-family homes and two under construction. Other details include sewer and water upgrades and a Green Mountain Power electrical substation.
“We are the general contractor and hire local contractors and laborers whenever we can, and purchase materials locally as much as possible. We worked with three architects. Austin Design Co. helped design the clubhouse and townhome units. John Guminak helped with clubhouse design and single-family homes, and Bull Stockwell Allen are architects for first Hotel Hermitage,” Rubin said.