The operator of Granite Peak ski resort in Wausau is expanding into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with the purchase of Big Snow Resort, home to two of the region’s oldest ski areas, Indianhead and Blackjack mountains.
Charles Skinner, a Minnesota-based ski resort operator, bought the property last week from Art Dumke, an Oshkosh real estate developer. In addition to Granite Peak, Skinner’s company, Midwest Family Ski Resorts, also owns Lutsen Mountains Ski Resort in Minnesota.
Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
Greg Fisher, chief marketing officer for Midwest Family Ski Resorts, said Skinner plans to make significant investments in the Michigan property, which has been renamed Snowriver Mountain Resort.
The rebranding also includes name changes for the individual ski areas. Indianhead’s base area will become Jackson Creek Summit and Blackjack will be renamed Black River Basin. Both names are nods to nearby rivers.
Fisher said Skinner’s acquisition of the resort fits the company’s model of investing in older, in some cases historic, ski resorts. Indianhead was the first alpine ski area developed in the U.P., Granite Peak dates to the 1930s and Lutsen will mark its 75th anniversary next year.
The company’s properties also fit each other in terms of scale.
Combined, Snowriver Mountain Resort’s two ski areas have 56 runs and 15 lifts, making it the largest ski resort in the U.P. Granite Peak is the largest in Wisconsin, and Lutsen is the largest in Minnesota.
“Charles has always been looking at finding opportunities that fit into our niche,” Fisher said.
Fisher said the company will renovate the ski area’s support buildings, modernize and update hotel rooms, and make other building improvements this fall. The company also plans to upgrade the ski lifts and, in time, replace multiple aging lifts at Jackson Creek Summit with a larger high speed lift.
Even longer term, the company is exploring ways to physically connect the two ski areas, which are almost a mile apart, possibly with a lift.
The company also plans to invest in new snowmaking equipment. While snowmaking is of less importance in the U.P., where the lake effect from Lake Superior drops more than 150 inches of snow each winter, making more and better snow at the start of the season will allow the resort to open earlier, Fisher said.
“Once Christmas rolls around it’s the heart of the ski season, but it can be marginal,” he said.
Granite Peak offers template, synergies
In Bessemer, a city of about 1,800 people that’s 6 miles from the resort, news of the sale has been met with enthusiasm from skiers and local businesses that rely on tourism, said Terry Kryshak, a member of the Bessemer city council.
An avid skier, Kryshak said he’s intimately familiar with Skinner’s operations and the improvements that he’s made at Granite Peak and Lutsen. He expects the resort upgrades and improved marketing will draw more skiers and, hopefully, encourage more people to settle in the region once they’ve been exposed to it.
“I think for the area, this is going to be a real positive,” he said.
Fisher, who is also general manager of Granite Peak, said Skinner has invested more than $35 million in that resort, adding high-speed chairlifts, new buildings and other upgrades since taking over its operation in 2000.
Skinner operates Granite Peak, which is within Rib Mountain State Park, under a 30 year lease with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. He and other groups are working with the DNR to add about 40 skiing runs to a wooded area on the west side of the resort as well as mountain biking trails and facilities.
Skinner’s investments helped cement Granite Peak’s status as a destination for Wisconsin and Illinois skiers. The common wisdom among skiers has become that Granite Peak’s improved offerings diverted traffic from resorts in Michigan.
Fischer said he’s heard that suggestion, but the company sees opportunities for synergies, not competition, he said.
Snowriver Mountain Resort is just over a two-hour drive from Wausau and just under four hours from Green Bay. Those relatively short drives are expected to increase sales of full-season, all-mountain lift passes for the Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota resorts. The company offered similar passes in recent years for Granite Peak and Lutsen, but travel times limited interest in them, Fisher said.
“We want our guests from Granite Peak to experience skiing in the U.P.,” he said. “We feel it’s a different brand of skiing, more natural (due to the annual snowfall in the area).”
Fisher said he’s noticed growing excitement on social media about the ownership change since Skinner announced in May that he intended to buy Big Snow. The property had been for sale for a couple of years, Fisher said, and “a lot of people were holding their breath” because of uncertainty about the resort’s future.
A previous deal to sell the property to a Michigan company, Birch Run Wellness, fell apart in April. Skinner offered to buy it less than a month later and closed the deal in 90 days.
The resort’s age and lack of upgrades is hard to miss. Kryshak said Dumke ran the resort well, but lacked the funding he needed to upgrade lifts, buildings and snow-making equipment that were needed to keep the resort competitive.
“It needs a capital infusion to bring it from the ’70s to the 2020s,” he said. “It’s got fabulous hills and snow but the infrastructure is just outdated.”
Dumke called his ownership a “passion project,” based on a desire to encourage people to get outdoors.
He said he sold the resort without regrets and is proud of the employees who helped him turn the business from a loss to a profit. Those workers will all be offered jobs by the new ownership, he said.
However, making the upgrades the resort needs was a hurdle he couldn’t get over, he said.
“I’m really excited about the Skinners taking over and making this region a better place,” he said.
Looking for a rebound
Rob Coleman remembers when, in the 1970s and 1980s, the parking lots at the local ski areas were packed daily. That changed, he said, as air travel made skiing the Rocky Mountains easier.
As crowds thinned, maintenance and upgrades fell by the wayside. Coleman, a member of the Bessemer city council since 2015, worked in group sales at Indianhead in the 1990s. Even then, he said, the property’s age was showing and “it was really hard to sell something that was so out of touch with the times.”
He’s optimistic that the new owners can bring back some of that business while creating well-paying jobs in a region that relies heavily on tourism and has few large employers since the nearby White Pine copper mine closed in the mid 1990s.
“I think people are willing to reconnect with (the region’s skiing history) and come back to these places,” he said. “Now, there’s a reason to come back.”
Fisher said a robust marketing campaign will seek to better combine the two ski areas as a single destination.
In a statement, Skinner said the name change at Indianhead stemmed from a desire to be more culturally appropriate, citing a “sensitivity to co-opting Native American culture.” The rebranding of Big Snow Resort as Snowriver Mountain Resort will differentiate it from a resort in New Hampshire that also uses the Big Snow name, he said.
In Ironwood, Michigan, Assistant Director of Community Development Tim Erickson, sees the potential for a spillover effect that could boost the entire region.
Erickson expects improvements at Snowriver Mountain will spur demand for additional services, help drive growth of new and existing businesses and encourage additional development in the region.
In addition, he said, the expected investment in the resort will help ensure it’s still there for the next generations of skiers.
“In general, we’re really excited,” Erickson said. “We see ourselves as the ski capital of the Midwest.”