March 17, 2017

The new Burke: A mountain on the move

The new Burke Hotel and Conference Center is open 365 days a year. Photo by Adam Lukowski.

The new Burke Hotel and Conference Center is open 365 days a year. Photo by Adam Lukowski.

Correspondent

Burke Mountain Ski Resort boasts some legendary terrain and a bodacious glade system.

Many of the country’s best competitors sharpened their skills on the mountain, which is home to Burke Mountain Academy. This leading ski academy graduated 33 Olympians and 138 national team athletes, including Mikaela Shiffrin, the 2014 Olympic gold medalist in slalom and current Women’s World Cup overall title leader.

But for all the ski resort’s pluses — 2,011-foot vertical, diversity of trails, high-speed lifts, separate novice and learning areas, location near interstates 91 and 93 — Burke has remained something of an undiscovered jewel.

That may be changing, thanks to the new Burke Hotel and Conference Center and to Burke recently being designated as an official U.S. Ski Team Development Site, the nation’s first. But it may not happen without some growing pains.

Game changers

The hotel, which opened in September, accommodates 500 guests at full occupancy. It updates Burke Mountain with the modern accommodations and amenities people have come to expect from a resort.

In addition to 116 suites that range from studios to three-bedroom units, the hotel has a conference center, ski and mountain bike lockers, pub, restaurant, cafeteria, bar, outdoor heated pool and hot tub, and arcade. Burke’s tradition of hosting evening entertainment continues at the hotel, with comedy and trivia nights, and live music.

“It’s completely changed Burke,” said Tamsin Venn, of a recent hotel stay. A former travel editor, Venn appreciated her suite overlooking the mountain and pool, noting all rooms have views of Lake Willoughby or the mountain.

“It’s state-of-the-art, really well done, and so easy in and out for ski slope access,” she said.

The hotel is a “game changer; there’s a new energy at the resort,” said Jessica Sechler, Burke’s marketing and sales director. “We experienced record-breaking skier visits over Christmas/New Year’s and Presidents’ weeks. The hotel was sold out over New Year’s weekend, and at 80 percent occupancy for the holiday weeks, causing the area to be 14 percent ahead of budget.”

A new record of 2,400 skier visits in one day was set, and hopes are to increase skier visits from 70,000 a year to 100,000, she added.

Darcie McCann, executive director of the Northeast Kingdom Chamber of Commerce, echoed the phrase “game changer. It allows (for) large groups of skiers and opens up the resort to take more conferences, weddings, big events, and concerts.”

Noting the hotel engendered more mountain biking activities in connection with the Kingdom Trails (a world-class, 110-mile mountain bike destination) in the fall, McCann said that adding more beds was good not only for the mountain and town, but also the region’s restaurants, inns and shops. In addition to fostering tourism, she cited the creation of good-paying jobs as a benefit.

Partnerships and programs

That’s good news for this Northeast Kingdom ski area. Many in its succession of eight owners have ended in bankruptcy. Most recently, its Q Resorts, Inc., owner Ariel Quiros brought uncertainty through his alleged misuse of EB-5 investor funds. (The federal EB-5 program grants U.S. residency if an investment of $500,000 in a rural project creates 10 jobs.)

That nightmare could become history if the mountain is able to move forward with the hotel, engendering more year-round business for the community.

“The mountain is already being visited by more skiers, and that will only increase next year with more ski racers, training camps and competitions coming to Burke as part of being a USST Development Site,” said Michael Goldberg, the federal receiver who oversees Burke and Jay Peak.

While Goldberg is authorized to sell Burke, he said there is “no set date to market the area,” explaining that its sale is a function of job creation in order to obtain visas for EB-5 investors. That part needs to happen first.

Goldberg said that in trying to develop good relationships with various entities, discussions with the Burke Mountain Academy, the nearby skier development school, led to conferences with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, which governs the U.S. Ski Team. A tri-party deal was formed.

The academy’s new $2.8 million Ronnie Berlack Center — a state-of-the-art, 15,000-square-foot athletic training facility that opened in December — and the ski area will provide a training ground and create a development pipeline for the USST, which will bring clubs and programs from around the country for competitions and trainings. Those visits will provide business for the hotel, and create more jobs and publicity for Burke, which needs to work on its marketing, Goldberg added.

Acknowledging the need to create more visits and a “symbiotic” relationship with Burke Mountain Academy, he noted developing a relationship with the Kingdom Trails was also important to the mountain’s future. “The hotel can’t be successful on its own . . . we recognize we need the help of our neighbors,” he said.

This summer, Burke will see upgrades of $1 million in snowmaking and installation of a T-bar to replace the “Poma” lift. It will serve the training hill, and through its relocation “pick up more intermediate trail access” for recreational skiers (by avoiding the top of the mountain), Goldberg said.

The academy is contributing money to the project, along with a grant of $240,000 from the Northern Borders Regional Commission, and a donation from the Friends of Burke Mountain. Michael Sher praised the academy and Goldberg for working together on the project. Sher is president of Friends of Burke Mountain, a nonprofit formed in 2016 after 180 Burke workers were laid off.

“We have a mission to see that the mountain is run well, is sustainable, and has good relations with the community, including local businesses; for the long range we hope to work with the receiver to find a buyer that is financially stable, respects Burke’s unique natural setting, and will establish strong relations with the community.

“Everybody wants a healthy busy mountain, and we believe that a healthy mountain and a healthy village will support one another, and will help transform Burke into (a) thriving, four-season resort,” Sher said. (The village of East Burke is close to the mountain, and has long supported the ski area through its restaurants, accommodations and shops.]

Asked about reports of decreased restaurant and lodgings business this winter due to competition from the new hotel, which offered inexpensive ski-and-stay rates ($199/night for a family of four, midweek), Sher said the Friends feel “a healthy village is key to the success of the mountain and the success of the mountain is key to the town.”

History of cooperation

Since Burke debuted as a lift-served ski area in 1956, it has grown to sport two base lodges, 36 trails and 14 named glades (178 skiable acres), terrain parks, vacation homes, a cross-country ski center and campground.

Each resort owner has contributed to the area’s growth, and there have been cooperative efforts to expand the region’s tourism.

The Kingdom Trails Association was formed in 1994 to augment outdoor recreation. Noting 75 landowners allow trails to pass through their property, Tim Tierney, director of the Kingdom Trails Association, said it is an example of people with “a passion for the outdoors” working together to support their community. Kingdom Trails assisted the ski area by building its mountain bike trails, another example of cooperation, he said. People are supportive of the mountain, but there is a need to “attract more people to the area, because once they discover the offerings,” they come back, Tierney said.

 “Now BMA is helping again,” Sher said. “Michael Goldberg has been a real hero in going to bat for the mountain, and goes well beyond the role of a lawyer, and understands what is best for the community is also in the best interest of the investors.”

 

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