SPECULATOR - The new operators of the Oak Mountain Ski Center have been making improvements as the center prepares to open to the public for the season.
Husband and wife Matt and Laura O'Brien took over the center from the village in October 2012.
"We've done a lot of changes to the building itself," Matt O'Brien said. "We've got a new patio and new entryways. And we've doubled our seating capacity inside the lodge with new tables and chairs."
The couple has added a snow groomer and 12 snow-making guns. They also put in a terrain park with 22 new features for snowboarders and skiers.
The village owned the mountain for five years before offering the center for sale in March 2011.
"It was costing more than the village was taking in," village Mayor Letty Rudes said.
The O'Briens agreed to a three-year payment-in-lieu-of-taxes plan with the village for $50,002. The plan calls for the couple to pay $1 each of the first two years and $50,000 the third year. After making the third payment in August 2014, the couple will own the ski center.
Matt O'Brien said the couple was excited when the opportunity to own the mountain came about.
"We've both been in the industry for a very long time," he said. "I, myself, have been in it for about 17 years now. I just love the sport, and the opportunity came to us a few years back when the village asked us to run the mountain when they were leasing it. That opportunity came and it worked out. It was a family adventure that we did and it's working out well, so we're really excited."
The center will open for the season Saturday.
O'Brien said he expects it will be a good year.
"We've been making snow here for the last month," he said. "We'll be opening with one main trail from the top of the mountain to the bottom. Our terrain park will be open. We'll have our tubing hill opening soon and another trail top to bottom off of the main rounds here."
Rudes said she thinks the mountain is an asset to the community because it generates employment and tourism.
The center employs 40 to 45 full- and part-time workers.
Jonathan Rustin, an employee of the center, said he grew up on the mountain, spending 13-hour days in the snow.
"I've been going there for about 15 or 16 years," he said.
Rustin said being an employee of the mountain is like being a part of a family.
"We're a small operation," he said. "I've worked at a few different mountains and it feels like a family when you do this work because everyone there has a passion for skiing or snowboarding."
O'Brien said the center strives to be a family-oriented business with affordable prices.
The center charges $36 for an adult full-day pass.
"The whole family can ride the chair lift up, since it's a four-passenger chair, and everybody can take a different trail down and they'll all meet back up in the same spot at the bottom of the mountain in about 10 minutes."
O'Brien said the ski center plans to make more improvements.
"Next year, snow-making expansion is going to be coming," he said. "Right now, we can run about 16 to 17 snow guns at one time; we're hoping to double that by next winter."
He said the couple plans to make the mountain a nearly year-round attraction with the addition of more mountain-biking activities and trails.
Casey Croucher can be contacted at email@example.com.