Could gondola linking Smugglers’ Notch, Stowe help keep Smuggs independent?

Published: Aug. 21, 2023 at 4:19 PM EDT
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JEFFERSONVILLE, Vt. (WCAX) - Big changes in the ski industry have sparked plans for a gondola between Smugglers’ Notch Resort and Stowe Mountain Resort. It’s an idea that has prompted cheers from some, but jeers from others, including those worried about the environmental impacts.

Smugglers’ Notch Resort, the last independently owned ski resort in Vermont, is fighting for its life, and they say a proposed gondola connecting Smuggs and Stowe is their lifeline.

Smugglers’ Notch is unique. It’s known for its family-friendly atmosphere, lodging, child care, ski school and more.

“Every way we train and hire is aimed at taking care of families,” said Bill Stritzler, the president of the Smugglers’ Notch Resort.

Stritzler says nationally, the ski industry has gone through a seismic shift toward corporate consolidation and away from locally owned ski resorts. They’re moving toward immersive, sprawling resorts offering all kinds of amenities that independent resorts like Smuggs can’t afford to offer.

“The capability that the Ikon and the Epic Pass gives skiers is phenomenal if you look at it carefully and objectively,” Stritzler said.

Vail Resorts, which owns Stowe, Okemo and Mount Snow, has amassed tens of millions of dollars of cash on hand for upgrades and projects.

In a rapidly changing industry, Stritzler is worried competition from other large resorts could mean the end of Smuggs as we know it.

“If we want to be able to sustain our business in a competitive world and make investments, we’re going to have to do something different,” he said.

That something is a gondola connecting Smuggs to Stowe. The local newspaper, the Stowe Reporter, broke the news this summer that talks of the proposal between Smuggs and Stowe have been in the works for years.

Stritzler says the direct connection would give Smuggs guests access to Stowe trails and vice versa. He believes that would bring more people to his resort and help sell more season passes.

The gondola, called the Community Connector, has drawn the fascination and the ire of the ski and ride community.

“I think it would absolutely attract more families to the area. Bigger scale,” said Mike Potvin, a visitor from New Hampshire.

The proposed gondola, which would have fewer towers and a smaller impact on the Green Mountains, would cut across state-owned land near Sterling Pond and over a section of the Long Trail called the Elephant’s Head Trail.

“When you go to Sterling Pond, it’s a high-elevation, remote pond. It feels wild and remote. You don’t see any development,” said Mike DeBonis, the executive director of the Green Mountain Club.

The Green Mountain Club, which maintains 500 miles of hiking trails, hasn’t taken an official position on the project, which would require they physically move the Long Trail. But the majority of their 10,000 members are concerned.

“For Sterling Pond, in particular, this project would forever change what this hiking experience is like at the pond,” DeBonis said.

Like any new ski lift, it would have to go through extensive environmental reviews and the Act 250 permit process, which includes public comment.

The idea is being led by Smuggs.

In a statement, Vail Resorts said, “Should we move forward, we will be rooted in the guiding principles of cooperation and collaboration to ensure this is a win for guests, the environment and the community.”

The proposal still has numerous unanswered questions, including how a joint ticket would work.

But some worry the gondola could lay the groundwork for Smuggs to become the next Vail resort.

“There are no discussions underway today with Vail that may lead to an acquisition. Neither party is in discussions at the moment because we’re more interested in whether we have something to talk about,” Stritzler said.

He adds the whole purpose of the partnership is to remain independent, and even then, Stritzler says any movement on the project would take years.