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WisBiz People: New owner rejuvenates Wausau ski area

This is a new edition of WisBiz People, a column from WisBusiness Editor Brian Clark. If you know someone with a good business story to tell, write to clark@wisbusiness.com with your idea.

WAUSAU – Charles Skinner has skiing in his blood. And this central Wisconsin community is better off for it.

In fact, Skinner's $12 million investment over the past four years in the former Rib Mountain ski area – which he renamed Granite Peak – has helped turn around winter tourism here.

Not only that, but officials say the resort is increasing awareness of the Wausau area that is spilling over to the rest of the year.

"Granite Peak isn't just a so-so day area anymore," said Darien Schaefer, executive director of the Wausau/Central Wisconsin Visitors and Convention Bureau.

"People are staying two and three nights now and they are spending an average of $150 per person per day," he said. "If you have 3,000 skiers on a big weekend day, that's $900,000. Some of these visitors will come back in the summer, too."

Schaefer said the resort has boosted lodging numbers and revenues significantly. The first quarter of 2004 was up nearly 20 percent over 2003, due in large part to the ski resort.

"We are very excited about the changes at Granite Peak," he said. "It's provided a big boost for our area."

Skinner said he was mightily impressed with the resort's potential the first time he saw it in 1999. With a drop of 700 feet from top to bottom, it has the greatest vertical descent of any area in the state. Now, with new lifts – including a high-speed six-seater – a refurbished chalet and several other new buildings, new snowmaking equipment worth $3 million and dozens of new runs, Granite Peak is considered the best resort in Wisconsin.

Which means on many winter weekends – normally a slow time for Wausau lodging - most of the hotel and motel rooms are booked in the area.

Skinner, who looks like he might have stepped off the set of the movie "Downhill Racer," is part of the family that runs Lutsen Mountains resort in northern Minnesota. He also was a member of the University of Oregon ski team during his college days.

Like his father before him, Skinner went into law. While his dad practiced in a small town Minnesota office, Skinner worked for a New York City firm. His focus was on mergers and acquisitions. For a while, the legal world held his attention.

But skiing pulled him back to the Midwest to help run Lutsen Mountains. His dad also left law after five years to open the now defunct Sugar Hills Resort near Grand Rapids, Minn. before buying Lutsen.

By the mid-90s, Wausau's ski resort on the north side of Rib Mountain State Park had fallen on hard times. Few skiers who were headed for ski areas in northern Wisconsin or Michigan's Upper Peninsula even considered stopping in Wausau.

When the state sought a new operator, Skinner considered making an offer, briefly.

"They wanted it to be kept the way it was, but I knew right off I didn't want to run it if it couldn't be improved," Skinner said.

"It just wasn't economically viable," added Skinner, who lives in Duluth.

Skinner declined to present a proposal the first time around. The next year, when state officials said they would accept new lifts, more runs and an expanded base operation, he became interested.

"Still, it was discouraging," he said of his first visit. "The resort was old and had a run-down feeling."

Besides the impressive vertical for a Midwest ski hill, he saw a potent drive market to be tapped. After all, within four hours are Madison, Milwaukee, the Twin Cities and best of all, Chicago. There also was an abundance of lodging space that wasn't being used on weekends.

With those three pluses, Skinner took the plunge and got the state contract. He signed a 30-year lease in April 2000 with rights to renew.

It didn't hurt that Skinner had a legal and business background. But that didn't make getting the financing easy, what with years of low revenues and a lack of many skiers from outside the area who would stay overnight.

"Fortunately, local bankers were interested in keeping the resort going because it had been a vital part of the town since 1937 and they did not want it to close," he said.

Still, Skinner had an uphill battle convincing lenders that the resort could support more debt.

"Not many Chicago skiers were coming here," he said. "The Midwestern market was discouraged for the most part. People who wanted a quality vacation experience went to Western resorts."

With new runs, lifts and base facilities, Skinner was convinced he could make Granite Peak a destination resort. And he's done all he promised.

"I wanted to model this area after a high-quality Western area," said Skinner, who has skied at resorts around the world.

"We can't offer really long runs or tall mountains, but we have great terrain and we now have top-notch lifts, a nice base and plenty of snow that we make."

Season pass sales have gone from 500 to 2,500 in the past few years, revenues and tripled and the resort has gotten good reviews in the skiing and travel press.

While visitors and locals alike praise the changes, some grumble that prices have gone too high. A weekend adult lift ticket now costs $48. Five years ago, before all the improvements, a ducat was around $30.

But Skinner also has deals aplenty, especially for locals. A single season pass is $314, while a family pass is $894. Moreover, an adult five-time punch card is $179, which drops the the single lift ticket price to about $36. For a child under 12, a five-time card is $119, or about $23 a pop. Cards must be purchased by Christmas, however.

Theresa Shepherd, who runs the Shepherd and Schaller ski and snowboard shop, said area skiers and snowboarders are pleased with the improvements and she sees many more tourists than in years past.

"They are coming all the way from Indiana and even St. Louis," she said. "The resort expansion has been a wonderful thing for Wausau."

Granite Peak general manager Vicki Baumann, who has worked at the resort for two decades, said locals were the first to return to the resort. Then came vacationers.

"It's not the same place anymore," she said. "Charles has done a great job here and it's reflected in our business. We've also increased our staff by nearly 100 percent to around 175 people, too."

And A.J. Frels, general manager at the new Lodge at Cedar Creek, said Granite Peak's expansion has helped make Wausau a winter destination.

The all-suite lodge, which has a 50,000 square-foot water park, sells about a third of its rooms to skiers on winter weekends, he said.

Rates range from $99 to $399 per night at the hotel, with winter prices in the mid to higher brackets, depending on the room. On a typical weekend, Frels said the lodge is often 85 percent full or even completely booked.

Skinner, who declined to give sales figures, said the resort is keeping its bankers happy by servicing its debt. He hopes to increase the area's market share, add more high-speed chair lifts and perhaps build a $10 million, 80-room lodge on the west side of the area in the next five years.

"We're gratified that we've been able to contribute to the local economy," Skinner said.

"The community has been very supportive of the vision we had for Granite Peak. And we're proud of the difference we've made to the Wausau area."

Though Skinner has no plans to buy any other Wisconsin ski areas, he has some advice for anyone who'd like to repeat his success.

"Clearly, you'll need to make an investment to overcome your resort's obvious deficiencies," he said. "But you'll also need to invest in changes that will grab people's attention, like having the amenities that a top Western resort would provide."

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