County may ultimately own ski area

by karla pomeroy

If all goes well and according to the latest plan, Big Horn County would take ownership of Antelope Butte Ski Area Capital Improvements and the Antelope Butte Foundation would have the ski lift and lodge open for the 2012-2013 winter season.

It’s a big ‘if” however and the county and foundation members understand that but after a meeting April 14 between the foundation, the foundation legal counsel and the county commissioners, they have new direction.

Foundation President Mark Weitz there has been no formal decision by the U.S. Forest Service but Supervisor Bill Bass is supportive of the plan. He sais the plan would be to have the county take ownership of the Antelope Butte Capital Improvements, which would be the lift, the lodge, garage and other facilities. The land would still belong to the Forest Service.

Commission Chairman Jerry Ewen said for the county to take ownership there is a specific process that has to take place. First the Forest Service would have to declare the improvement “excess property” and show it doesn’t need them. “They obviously don’t since the buildings have been vacant for six or seven years.” After that declaration, the process goes to the General Services Administration who would offer the facilities to other federal agencies.

“There’s none around that would be interested. The only other federal agency in the area is the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and they wouldn’t be interested,” Ewen said. If and when there is no interest from federal agencies, the facilities would be declared surplus property and become available to other public entities.

Ewen said the land could be transferred to the county at minimal or no cost through a public benefit conveyance, if the county can show a benefit for owning the property.

The county then would lease the facilities to the foundation for operations.

“They have a legal firm guiding them and this idea looks pretty good,” Ewen said. He said the county and/or the Forest Service would require a bond be in place to handle any future demolition and reclamation of the land. He said the Forest Service is requiring a clause on any special use permit that the operator is responsible for removing all the facilities and reclaiming the land if the business fails.

“We don’t want to put the county at risk for any cash for acquiring the land or for reclaiming the land later,” Ewen said.

“They’ve got an energetic board of directors who are committed to this project,” he said, adding that to have the ski area open this coming winter is an “optimistic schedule and the first thing that has to happen is the public conveyance.”

Weitz said the board first considered the option of having either Big Horn or Sheridan county take ownership of the facilities but then looked at other options and came full circle this month. “It does look like the public-private partnership would be the best fit and it’s easier for the federal government  to dispose of the land to a government entity,” Weitz said.

He said the next step will be setting up the agreement between the county and the foundation so once the county has ownership the foundation can get on the property and get a better look at the facilities and develop accurate costs of getting the lodge and lift operational.

“We need to get access to the property to really determine cost estimates,” Weitz said, then more concentrated fundraising will occur. He said it’s easier to raise funds if you have something tangible for people.

He said with the county having ownership of the facilities, the foundation would be able to apply for Wyoming Business Council grants through the county.

As for the timeline, Weitz said the Forest Service won’t give them any specific dates. The best scenario, he said is the process takes just a few months and they can begin work this summer. If it takes until this fall or winter they have lost the construction season to get things operational this year.

Weitz said they have $175,000 raised in cash and pledges and much more in volunteer labor and material donations for the lodge.

He said while Meadowlark Lodge and officials in Johnson County have expressed concern about the area supporting two ski areas, the numbers show the ski areas can survive. He said the best financial numbers were when both Antelope Butte and Meadowlark were in operation.

He said they have the support of Red Lodge, Sleeping Giant and other skiing operations in the area.

From a tourist standpoint, the more opportunity there is, the larger attraction it will be for skiers. He said if skiers can come and try several different areas all within a half-day drive of each other, that’s a good thing.

For more information on the Antelope Butte project or on ways to donate, go online at www.antelopebuttefoundation.org or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/AntelopeButteFoundation. The foundation is currently working on obtaining 501-3-c status but in the mean time is operating under the Wyoming Community Foundation so donations are tax deductible.

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