Blacktail Mountain up for sale

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Morgan Caldbeck of Bigfork hits a jump at Blacktail Mountain on Saturday, the opening day for the ski resort. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

With a price tag of $3.5 million, Blacktail Mountain Ski Area is up for sale.

Steve Spencer, the ski area’s longtime general manager and one for the four partners who owns the business, said Tuesday that the owners decided to put it up for sale about a month ago after 19 years operating in the Salish Mountains just west of Lakeside.

“The owners are all getting a little long in the tooth, I guess,” Spencer told the Inter Lake. “We just thought we’d start looking for an exit plan, and hopefully we’ll find someone that will make the improvements to take it to the next level.”

Spencer and his partners began operations at Blacktail in 1998, after securing the only special-use permit for a ski area on Forest Service land in 20 years. The land itself is owned by the federal government, while the business owns the improvements, including the lodge, maintenance shop and other buildings, a terrain park, two double-chair lifts, a triple lift and a rope tow.

It’s not the first time the ski area has been on the market. The owners briefly listed Blacktail in 2002, but Spencer said they didn’t receive any worthy offers for the then-four-year-old business.

Since then, he said it has turned a profit in most years, and is coming off a banner season in which Northwest Montana boasted some of the best snow in the country.

“We had a good year. The prior two years we were down a little bit, because we didn’t have adequate snow and the whole Northwest didn’t have as many powder days as we normally do,” Spencer said. “There’s obviously been a few tough years. Starting up, you’ve got a big capital investment and big loans to pay off, but we’re past that now.”

Gary Danczyk, a staff officer with the Flathead National Forest, said his office has also received inquiries from interested buyers. If the ski area and its special-use permit is sold, the buyer will have to prove they have the financial ability and expertise to continue operations before the permit is transferred.

“There’s been some significant interest already, and we’re kind of excited about that,” Danczyk said in an interview Tuesday. “Obviously it’s a very technical operation. They’ve got to operate the lifts safely, [maintain] a ski patrol and food service and in general they’ve got to insure that they’ve got a business model that allows them to be secure.”

He said that review process would likely take several weeks to a month, and they would aim to make a determination on a new 40-year permit before the 2017-18 ski season starts.

SPENCER AND his partners first began exploring the idea of a ski area along Flathead Lake’s West Shore in 1995.

“I thought there was a need for a local ski area,” said Spencer, who had previously worked at Whitefish Mountain Resort, back when it was still Big Mountain. “I saw a lot of people dropping out of skiing because it was changing. At the time, it was not going to be a real-estate project, it was going to be a regional ski area that made its living on skiing, not on real estate and other things.”

Just getting the permit was a big deal, Spencer said. The 40-year special-use permit was the first granted for a ski area on federal forest land since Beaver Creek was approved in Colorado in 1978, and remains the only such permit secured since.

The proposed location — in the middle of the Flathead Forest’s “Island Unit,” surrounded mostly by private land and already boasting a dirt road extending to the mountain-top radio tower — helped avoid much of the federal red tape that has tangled up other similar proposals.

“You could have tried to put one over on the Swan, and it would have been dead on arrival, with endangered species and sensitive land issues,” Spencer said.

Over the years, the ski area expanded to its current size of 1,000 acres and 1,440 feet of elevation, with major projects including the addition of gladed runs and newer chair lifts.

Relative to the major resort overlooking the valley from Whitefish, Blacktail is still a small, community-based ski hill. The winter season averages about 40,000 skier days, according to the Flathead Forest, as opposed to the roughly 300,000 that typically hit the slopes at Whitefish Mountain Resort each year.

In February, the ski hill got what Spencer calls a “game changer,” with Flathead County and the Flathead National Forest securing funding and permits to pave the winding, gravel road the rest of the way to the ski area boundary. Spencer said the at-times rough road has been a barrier to business, especially in the summertime, when the operations largely shut down despite the mountain’s panoramic views that include Flathead Lake, the Swan and Mission mountain ranges and Glacier National Park.

“You could have lots of opportunities in the summer, with all the people that are around the lake in the summertime,” he said. “Just driving to the top in the summer would be a huge amenity to the west lakeshore.”

Spencer said that wasn’t a major factor in the decision to sell, and he stressed that at this point he and his partners are “just putting feelers out there” to gauge the level of interest.

“We’ve actually gotten a fair amount of interest,” he said. But, he added, “If we don’t sell it, we don’t sell it. We’ll keep operating it.”

Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at swilson@dailyinterlake.com.

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