At first glance, this Southern Vermont ski area might look like it's on the decline. There's hardly anyone out on the trails; skis and snowboards are sparse around the resort. But looks can be deceiving. What used to be Haystack Mountain is now the Hermitage Club, where there are no lift lines and trails are perfectly groomed even at 3 p.m.
"What we created is the new reality, no lift lines, perfect conditions all the time," said Jim Barnes of the Hermitage Club.
Hitting the slopes here comes with a steep price tag.
This members-only club has a one-time membership fee of $55,000, soon to be $65,000. On top of that, dues are $5,150 a year. That price gets you lift passes for a family of four and full access to the championship golf course.
Jim Barnes is the president and founder.
Reporter Gina Bullard: Is there a demand for a private club like this?
Jim Barnes: Absolutely.
Barnes is an entrepreneur from Connecticut who built his fortune with a waste and recycling management company called Oakleaf. He first bought the Hermitage Inn in 2007 after he and his wife were skiing at what was Haystack Mountain and saw it falling into disrepair. Soon after, he bought the mountain, golf course and nearby airport. The resort now spans 1,400 acres between Wilmington and West Dover.
"This is a big investment," Barnes said. "As you look around here today you'll see $30 million of equity and it's not stopping."
Barnes has built 20 homes around the mountain and sold them all. Now, another 15 are going up. There are also 500 new condo and home sites approved. They range from around $1 million to about $3 million.
Then there's the new $21-million base lodge and club house set to open this fall. With more than 80,000 square feet, it will provide things like a movie theater, bowling alley, teen center, movie editing studio and 14-room spa.
It all adds up to be the largest construction project in Southern Vermont. Currently the Hermitage Inn employs 200 full-time people.
Vermont has seen a private ski resort before-- the Bear Creek Mountain Ski Club in Plymouth. But that closed.
"It's not unprecedented," said Joe Cutts, the deputy editor of Ski and Skiing magazines.
Cutts says this is an accepted model in golf, but more unusual for skiing and riding.
The Hermitage is the only private ski club in the East, but there is one out West. The exclusive Yellowstone Club in Montana has a membership fee of $250,000, dues of $20,000 a year and a rule that members must buy a piece of real estate that can cost anywhere from $5 million to $35 million and up.
Either way, Cutts says Vermonters will not be the target audience for the Hermitage Club.
"The financial bar is too high for most Vermonters at a place like that," Cutts said.
The Hermitage knows that, so it's not targeting locals. It has sold 215 memberships in the past 26 months. About a dozen members come from Vermont, but the majority travel from New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts. The resort will cap membership at 1,500, with two kids per family and two adults. That works out to 6,000 people.
Gina Bullard: Is this the future of skiing or is this a specialized place?
Jim Barnes: I guess the latter. You can't really privatize many of the mountains that are open today.
"I don't think it's the future of the ski industry by any stretch," Cutts said. "I think it's part of the future of the ski industry, this new model."
The private model-- a direct opposite of regular resorts. Cutts says most ski areas focus on getting as many people to buy a ticket as possible and give less attention to speeding up long lift lines. But Cutts says those are the places Vermonters can still afford and still enjoy.
"Very steep terrain, very charismatic terrain," Cutts said of the Hermitage. "I'm glad someone's enjoying it."
"This is a place where people are seeing their future here and for generations," Barnes said.
Barnes is betting a fortune, trying to build a lifetime of memories for his members at a resort that's riding on the edge.
The Hermitage Inn is open to the public, and if you stay overnight there you do get passes to the ride the exclusive mountain.
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