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Friday, January 19 Sports

Future of Connecticut ski area remains uncertain

Connecticut has one less place to ski or snowboard this season.

While the owners of the Woodbury ski area had hopes to open this season, they announced last month that the small ski hill will remain closed.

It’s the second consecutive year that Woodbury - with a dozen trails and a small 300-foot vertical drop - is closed.

Last season’s closing was caused by a lingering drought that depleted groundwater levels and dried up streams needed to make snow.

Now, the owners say the area on a hillside off Washington Road is up for sale.

“We at Woodbury Ski Area are sorry to say that we will not be operating this winter season and are hoping to see you next year,” it posted on its Facebook page.

Scott Damato, the area’s general manager, said the area is up for sale with the intention of it staying a ski area

Place of Joy

The area was founded in 1962 as the Tapawingo ski area by Woodbury locals Kermit Adams and Thomas Brownell.

Adams said the name Tapawingo came from a Native American word that meant “Place of Joy.”

A decade after opening, Rod Taylor, a former member of the U.S. Ski Team, bought the ski area in 1972.

For 42 years, the ski areas was Taylor’s own Place of Joy.

Taylor, part showman and businessman, was the area’s biggest booster. He was always willing to try new things to bring people to the area, including snowboarders in the 1970s. He offered racquetball courts and reggae concerts in the warmer months and skiing and snow tubing in the winter.

During a typical 14-hour day, Taylor would be making snow, giving ski seasons, grooming trails and even cooking food in the lodge.

For years, he irked the big resorts by being the first eastern ski area to open for the season, sometimes as early as October.

Despite the challenges of running a ski area that’s open only 15 weeks a year, Taylor managed to keep the snow guns blowing and the lifts turning.

Taylor - the heart of soul of the area - died suddenly in 2014 at age 70.

The area managed to open the winter after Taylor’s death. But after being closed one winter because of the drought, Taylor’s widow, decided to sell the ski area.

A small ski hill

Woodbury resembles a neighborhood ski hill that was common after World War II into the early 1970s.

Decades ago, many smaller ski hills dotted the Connecticut landscape. Skiers were pulled by rope tows - often powered by an old tractor engines - to ski down a few trains on modest slopes.

These small areas were like nurseries that gave the skiers the confidence to tackle the bigger mountains father north. In the late 1950s and 60s, these new skiers sparked a building boom of bigger ski resorts like Mount Snow, Okemo, and Killington in Vermont.

Today, those large resorts still exist, but nearly all of the small areas have vanished, taken over by forest or development.

The New England Lost Ski Areas Project lists 59 defunct ski hills in Connecticut. The list includes the Mad Hatter Ski Slopes in Danbury, Sass Pond in Wilton, the Timber Trails Club in Sherman and the Nava Hill in Thomaston.

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A slightly larger area, Ohoho in Woodstock, opened in the late 1970s, closed about 20 years later. It had about two miles of trails, five slopes and the longer run about three-quarters of a mile.

Often when a Connecticut ski area closes, it never opens again.

Except one.

Powder Ridge in Middlefield got its start in 1959 when Louis and Herman Zemel opened the area with a few surface lifts. A few years later, the Zemels installed chairlifts.

The area attracted ski clubs and school kids. In the 1980s, it offered night skiing to as late as 2 a.m.

A series of warm winters and mounting debt led to the sale of The Ridge. Its new owners had plans to make it a year-round resort with an outdoor water park that was ultimately rejected by the town.

With its business plan to make it profitable rejected, Powder Ridge closed in 2006.

Seven years later, Powder Ridge Mountain Park reopened.

This time, the new owners had a business plan: Run its Brownstone Exploration & Discovery water sports park in an old Portland quarry in the summer and operate the ski area in the winter.

Reopening the ski area took millions or dollars and another $500,000 from the state Bond Commission for needed utility work.

Small ski areas like Connecticut’s are important to the snowsports industry. With nearby, somewhat affordable lessons, they serve as a kind of nursery for new skiers and snowboarders.

The three other Connecticut areas - Mohawk Mountain in Cornwall, Ski Sundown in New Hartford and Mount Southington - have good novice slopes that attracted beginners to the sport.

With the tough challenges of running a small ski area, finding a buyer for Woodbury will be a tough sell.

Learn to ski/snowboard this month

January is Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month when many areas make their best offers for beginners. Retailers also have special deals for beginners and equipment has never been easier to use.

The learntoskiandsnowboard.org web site provides useful information for beginners and even current participants who want to improve. See web sites of our partners for additional information.

Among the deals are a $45 package that includes equipment, a lesson and lift ticket. Check out the participating areas HERE.

Best lift ticket deal of the weekend

At Mount Snow in southern Vermont. Its Youth Day means kids 17 can get a lift ticket for $17. All the details are HERE.

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