December 09, 2021A phased, multiyear plan for Gunstock Mountain Resort includes proposals for new lifts, expanded trails, more hospitality and camping services, and possibly space for new hotels.
The Gunstock Area Commission held a public presentation on Saturday in Gunstock's main lodge outlining the resort's master plan and proposals for phased expansion.
Gunstock Area Commissioner Brian Gallagher said in a history of the resort that in 2018 a study committee examined whether the property should be retained by the county under the 1959 enabling act or to sell or lease it. The committee concluded that the county should retain the property and legislation was drafted that 1.75 percent of every dollar that comes into Gunstock would go back to the county. Gallagher said that was the greenlight for the Gunstock and the Gunstock Area Commission to work on a master plan for the resort's future.
Gunstock worked with The SE Group, a Vermont-based company that has worked on master plans for several ski resorts across the country. After a few years of study, the plan was introduced to the public.
"This plan is reasonable, feasible, defensible, and it differentiates us from every other ski resort in New Hampshire," Gallagher said.
Gunstock President and General Manager Tom Day said they wanted to maintain and grow Gunstock while preserving its character, architecture, and other classic aspects.
Day presented the plan with Claire Humber, Director of Resort Planning and Design for the SE Group.
Over the past five years, Gunstock usually sees an average of 172,000 patrons. That figure did not include 2019-2020 season when the mountain closed early because of COVID. The 2020-2021 season was the mountain's most successful, bringing in around 203,000 people. Humber said the mountain's average utilization rate is about 38 percent.
Day said many ski resorts in the state are opening with major new lifts and features, including Gunstock's direct competitor Mount Sunapee.
"If you don't keep up with what's happening around you, you fall behind," Day said, later adding, "It's almost impossible to get skiers to come to your resort if they've moved on."
While the resort is sustainable, the plan identified a few things that could use improvements.
Day said utilization of the mountain is "lopsided" with more people lining up for the Panorama and Pistol lifts on the east side of the mountain and fewer people going to Ramrod on the west side. There is also a long stretch of space between both sides of the mountain.
On the guest services side, it can be difficult to find seats in the lodge. Rental services are located in the basement, which Humber said does not create a great impression especially for new skiers trying to maneuver that area on skis.
The plan includes short- and near-term improvements as well as three levels of long-term improvements. Each proposal came with a projected cost calculated in 2021 dollars.
Short term improvements include getting a second detachable chairlift that would replace the Tiger and Ramrod lifts with a lift closer to Panorama. This would give the mountain four acres of new terrain and balance trail capacity. Humber said doing this would result in a major improvement to the skiing experience and could create a nice segue to future expansion.
A new detachable lift would cost around $5.5 million.
Another idea is to add a new trail with more accessibility that would loop to the top of the mountain. The trail would be shorter with less gradient to give more people the opportunity to experience the mountaintop. Another idea would have another way to access the mountain than just the lift, such as a shuttle service.
Humber said campsites with utility hookups and cabins are especially in demand and the report recommended adding more of those. Another proposal was adding cabins on the mountain for "glamourous camping" (glamping) experiences.
The proposal for major expansion would be a three-phase, multiyear process focusing on different areas of the resort.
The first phase, called Eastside, would add a second summit lift and 70 more acres of terrain with 11 new trails on the east side of the mountain, possibly generating 48,100 new skier visits. This project could cost $15.3 million.
The second phase would be Alpine Ridge on the west side. This would open the former ski area on the west side of the mountain and create a new portal to the mountain. The proposal includes a triple chairlift and opening up the area's advanced terrain. This project would have an estimated cost of $7.4 million and could generate around 18,000 new skier visits.
The third proposal is called Backside/Weeks and would be put in on the northeast side of the mountain.
While the first two proposals take place within the boundaries of Gunstock's property, the third proposal would go beyond the property's current boundary and would involve a more advanced process to accomplish.
Another detachable chairlift would be installed, and eight more trails would be created, adding potentially around 54,100 new skier visits. The Backside project could cost around $17.3 million.
Each different phase would also involve expansions to parking and guest services facilities.
"We're not going to go and do something we don't think we can pay for," Day said.
An additional proposal would also involve new hotels on the property. The plan found three possible locations for hotels, which could also be doing in a phased approach. The first proposed site would be in the Eastside area by the summit road, which planners said has great views. The second would be by where the main parking lot is today. The third would be around Pistol across from where the ski jumps are now.
Humber and Day said any hotels would require Gunstock to partner with a third party who would open the hotel.
"(This is) not happening tomorrow, there have been a lot of conversations over the years around this being a possibility," Humber said.
Gunstock Area Commissioner Rusty McLear talked about the revenue his hotel properties in Meredith have generated, saying a ski area like Gunstock could generate so much more business with hotels.
"We would have a fun, exciting, look to Gunstock if we could build the right kind of hotel," McLear said.
Gunstock Area Commissioner Gary Kiedaisch said any hotel would have to be carefully reviewed and negotiations would have to be made.
Day said any project would require the support of the community. He said this is a plan that would be executed over multiple years and done so in a fiscally responsible way.
Humber said resorts and ski areas that make sequential and disciplined capital improvements will improve, whereas resorts that do not will eventually fail against the competition.
Project principals answered different questions from community members.
Olympic skiers Penny Pitou and Heidi Preuss, both of whom said Gunstock was vital to their lives and careers, spoke in favor of the proposed expansion.
Pitou, who has a lift named after her, said Gunstock has been a key part of her life since she was a child.
"I know this has taken a lot of time and effort on your parts," Pitou said. "I think it's going to be a wonderful, wonderful plan and I hope we can institute it just as soon as possible."
Preuss said this is an exciting concept that could open up opportunities for more people to explore Gunstock.
"The concept of expansion and the concept of the opportunities I think is really good for Belknap County and I support it," Preuss said.