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Economy gets a Lift

Unemployment in Jackson County dropped a bit Thursday when the Mount Ashland ski area opened.

From the chairlifts to the retail shop to the repair shed, many of the people who were hired for the season were happy just to have a job. Jackson County's unemployment rate stood at 12.4 percent at the end of November, and there were 4,630 fewer local jobs than there were a year ago.

"I've been unemployed for a little under a year," said Michael Brodine of Ashland, a "liftie" (lift operator) on the beginner-level Sonnet chairlift. "Everybody up here is excited to be on payroll."

More than 400 people came to Mount Ashland's preseason hiring fair hoping to find work on the mountain, where the pay for many jobs hovers around minimum wage ($8.40 an hour in Oregon). The ski area eventually filled 130 jobs.

"It was pretty grim at the job fair to see that many people show up," Brodine said.

"We had engineers, equipment operators, and people from the skilled labor pool," said Kim Clark, Mount Ashland's general manager. "Some were unemployed and had always wanted to work at a ski area."

Michael Tysoe of Ashland landed a job as a ski instructor after being out of work for four months.

"I'd been looking and applying everywhere in Ashland," Tysoe, 36, said. "I was couch surfing to make (ends meet). I tried Portland. I looked at Craigslist.

"This is coming at a great time for me," he said. "It couldn't be better timing."

Joy Cunningham will be working the Granite Cove gear shop in the lodge this season after two winters at the front desk.

"I just love it up here," Cunningham said. "It doesn't matter if I get to ride every day. I just love coming up and seeing all the snow."

She said the mountain scenery and the people she works with help make up for the relatively low wages.

"I used to be a loan processor for a mortgage company," she said. "This is better, even if I don't make as much money."

Matt Clason of Ashland was getting the repair shop organized for the season. He'll be working while attending Southern Oregon University, where he's studying earth science.

"I definitely feel lucky to have a job," Clason said.

He acknowledged that it would be difficult to raise a family on what he earns, but it's a good job for a student, "and it allows me to ski," he said. "Otherwise I wouldn't be able to come up here."

Skiers and snowboarders were as happy as the workers to be back on the mountain. Clark,the general manager, said about 450 people came up for opening day, which was about what they had expected for a midweek opening day.

"It's better than Disneyland on Christmas," said Marie Chase, of Ashland, who described herself as "between careers."

"I've been waiting all year for this," she said. "I've got a season pass."

Relatively warm temperatures and high overcast skies made for mild opening-day conditions compared to many previous openings when gale-force winds swept the parking lot and blowing snow made for limited visibility on the trails.

"This is like spring skiing," Chase said.

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail bkettler@mailtribune.com.

Ryan Huddleston, 17, left, and Taylor Hazen, 16, both of Medford, snowboard toward the Mt Ashland lodge. Bob Pennell / Mail Tribune photo - Bob Pennell