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Ski area launches fundraising effort

Staggering from a low-snow winter and exhausted reserves, Mount Ashland on Thursday launched a $330,000 fundraising effort and announced a $25,000 cash gift from Lithia Motors.

The leanest winter in 20 years dropped only 4 inches of snow in December and cost 22 operating days, leading to a $525,000 revenue shortfall. The organization cut expenses and doubled many shifts, resulting in a net operational loss of $150,000, said Marketing Director Rick Saul, noting he was helping make ends meet by waiting tables and parking cars.

In addition to its cash gift, Lithia Motors will donate an additional $25,000 in in-kind services, such as design, printing, marketing, media exposure and sponsorship of the ski area's after-school ski and snowboard program, Saul said. Lithia pledged those amounts for the next three seasons.

"We're trying to create a cushion going into next season," Saul said. "If we raise the $350,000, we'll have a small reserve ... which we plan to build on over the years. It's a doable fundraising goal and if we don't meet it, we'll go in debt" and pay that down over time.

"The fundraising is about overhead," he added.

The ski area is asking season pass holders to kick in an additional $40 each. They will be rewarded with Donor Passes that allow special benefits such as discounts on retail items, private lessons and ski/snowboard tuning.

Local businesses are being asked to join the Gold Sponsor program. For donations of $2,500, businesses will receive Gold Ski Passes they can transfer to employees, family or customers for a day or any length of time, and "they can walk from their car, straight to the lift," Saul said.

Mt. Ashland continues to seek grants to reduce its operating overhead and support youth and environmental programs and it invites donations at www.mtashland.com or by phone at 541-482-2897.

In the 1990s, Mount Ashland accumulated reserves of $2.4 million. But $1 million went to a new wastewater treatment plant, $250,000 was spent on legal costs defending its ski area expansion, and the rest went to consultants, permits and research associated with its planned expansion, Saul said.

Former Ashland City Councilman Eric Navickas, a longtime foe of the expansion, said the ski area's money woes can be laid to "regular patterns of dry weather in the '60s, '70s, '90s and this decade ... and a marginal location" along with "the continued push for a foolhardy expansion."

Navickas said he believed a boycott of the ski area led by expansion opponents had affected about 10 percent of Mt. Ashland's sales, judging by signed pledges of locals not to buy season passes or lift tickets.

Saul disputed that claim.

"We looked at the names on the boycott cards that came into our office and checked them against our season pass holder database and there was only one person who ... was a season pass holder," Saul said. "I don't think Eric's claim has any credibility whatsoever. Our business outcome during the 2011-12 ski season was weather related."

The expansion continues to be under injunction, stemming from a suit by the Rogue Group Sierra Club. It is in U.S. District Court in Medford, with oral arguments due in July, Saul said.

In donating his $50,000 for the coming season, Lithia Executive Chairman Sid DeBoer said, "We are committed to supporting our community, especially through programs that support our area's youth."

Ski area General Manager Kim Clark said in a statement that Lithia's donation is "a huge boost not only to our financial disposition, but will spur additional tourism revenue in our local economy."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.