Antelope Butte climbing fundraising mountain

by nathan oster

With a generous $50,000 donation last week, the nonprofit Antelope Butte Foundation has begun climbing toward its goal of raising the estimated $3.1 needed to rehabilitate and reopen the ski area that sits along U.S. Highway 14 in the Big Horn Mountains.

Mark Weitz, president of the foundation, offered an update on the foundation’s efforts during an interview Monday.  He said the ski area won’t be ready to open by the winter of 2013-14, as the foundation had hoped.

“That was never anything that we scheduled … but we do have our ambitions, and that was one of them,” said Weitz.  “What we’ve found over the last year since we dug into this and started to figure things out is that it’s a sizable project, both in terms of dollars and process.”

The government process alone is very involved, he said, noting that the ski area is actually owned by the U.S. Forest Service.

Weitz said the foundation has made progress defining the project — and what will be needed to reopen the ski area.  “We have been able to get the whole proposal tightened up, to the point where it’s something we’d be willing to take in front of potential investors and large donors.

“We didn’t want to talk with them before we had all the answers.”

Now that they do, they have quietly launched their fundraising campaign.

The $50,000 donation was “a nice little kickoff” for that campaign, Weitz said.

The foundation believes it needs $3.1 million to open “sustainably,” with $1.6 million of that going to refurbish the lodge and garage, another $275,000 to refurbish the chair lifts.  “In other words, about 60 percent of the total is needed just to bring it back to where it was” before it was closed, Weitz said.

The rest of the money would be needed to pay for groomers — the foundation will look first for good used ones, Weitz said — as well as the cost of a beginner-style chair lift, trucks, snowmobiles and plows. The foundation also wants to set aside some operating capital.

As of now, the foundation is not planning to purchase a snow-making machine. Instead, it will follow the lead of former owner Emerson Scott, who according to Weitz, believed in purchasing high-quality grooming machines.

While acknowledging the cyclical nature of winter snowfall, Weitz said he’s been encouraged in recent years.

“Snow conditions have been fantastic (around Antelope Butte),” he said.

Weitz said the foundation doesn’t planto proceed until it has the full $3.1 million.

“If we go out and try to piecemeal it, we may never get there,” he said. “What we have wanted to do is get it set up to be sustainable so we don’t have to ask donors for money again.”

Federal legislation that allows traditional winter use areas, such as Antelope Butte, to be open in the summer will help immensely, Weitz said. “The previous owner always said, ‘If I could just be open during the summer … Well, now we can.”

Weitz promised that the ski area would be used in some capacity in the summer months.

“The simplest thing to do is to run the chair lifts, sell sandwiches, host weddings, that sort of thing,” he said. “We’ve talked about ziplines. It’s a favorable area for mountain biking.  Even something like Frisbee golf could work.

“None of those things would require much capital investment” beyond what is already planned. Making the ski area even more attractive is its location, less than a mile off of U.S. Highway 14.

“There’s a huge number of people traveling between the Black Hills and Yellowstone and right now, they drive right by,” Weizt said. “Maybe they’d want to take a chairlift ride … or grab a sandwich.”

Weitz said he’s also been in touch with Northwest and Sheridan colleges about Antelope Butte being the site of some of their programming.

The foundation’s goal is now to be refurbishing the ski area in the summer of 2014.

Between now and then, the focus will be squarely on fundraising.

“That’ll allow every other thing to happen,” Weitz said. “We’ve established relationships and gained credibility with the counties, towns and cities, the Forest Service, the Wyoming Business Council.  Now that we’ve got a tight business case, we’re taking it before the community.”

To learn more about the project, visit antelopebuttefoundation.com, or visit the foundation’s Facebook page.