WILMINGTON -- What can be said of Haystack now that it is under Hermitage Club ownership?
"The experience is phenomenal," said Hermitage Club president and founder Jim Barnes. "People are getting groomed corduroy at 3 in the afternoon and getting anywhere from 25 to 40 runs in every day. They report that the zero lift lines and amenities we have are really exceptional."
One snowboarder, riding the mountain for his first time, called the snow unreal. Another said that snow of its kind cannot be found in the Northeast as he plowed into a mound of fresh powder. The only person that looked remotely unhappy was a woman stuck beneath approximately six inches of the snow others rejoiced about.
On Dec. 12, Haystack Mountain opened with about 70 percent of its 46 trails made accessible to skiers and snowboarders. People can now operate snowmobiles on the mountain after it closes for skiing, and members of the ski patrol make certain everyone is off the mountain and assess the conditions.
Snow-making has largely made the opening happen on time as Mother Nature has thrown some curve balls this season with its mix of days with snow then rain.
"We invested over $8 million in snow-making over the last two years with about half of that this year," said Barnes.
The latest addition has been the installation of TechnoAlpin fan guns that are the yellow pieces of equipment sitting on the sides of trails along the mountain. The efficiency of this snow-making equipment has been remarkable, Barnes told the Reformer.
Another 100-plus air water guns were installed around the mountain that rotate 180 degrees and "get great coverage."
The snowfall doesn't make or break Haystack anymore. In previous years, there was no artificial snow-making there at all.
"Unlike a public ski resort, a big snowfall sends skiers up for the day. But it does have the benefit of reminding people it's snowing and it's ski season," said Barnes.
On Jan. 15, a new quad lift known as the Stag's Leap Lift is scheduled for certification. That will include a weight test and it is likely that members will begin loading it on the following weekend. The lift has the same exact design as the Tage quad, and the same manufacturer. The new lift, however, will give its users the option to get off at a mid-station drop or continue the ride towards two other lifts that access the upper sections of the mountain.
Underneath the new quad is where a terrain park is planned for sometime in the near future. There on the lower mountain, tricks and skills will be honed.
Another newly introduced part of the Hermitage Club experience is an alpine racing development program for youth that was launched this year. There were 75 children who joined from its inception. By the time of the interview, there were well over 100 participating in the program. The idea for the program came as a result of a technique that Barnes has employed since he purchased the Haystack property in October 2011.
"I just continue to knock down objections when they come up," he said.
Last year during a meeting with members, Barnes learned that parents did not want to take their children out of other area mountain programs because their kids had friends there.
"I said, ‘If we do this, it's got to be done right. It's got to be world class. And that's what we did," he said.
James Lazor was hired as a coach who has experience teaching Olympic athletes.
In addition to all the skiing and boarding that can be done, there is also brunch at the Hermitage Inn with eggs and omelettes made to order. There is a rink for ice skating and a tubing park. Valet parking attendants also ensure convenience at different areas of the property.
A brand new 80,000-square-foot base lodge is currently under construction. It is on schedule for completion by the 2014-2015 ski season. Each floor will be 20,000 square feet, containing a spa, an arcade, a movie theater, GoPro video editing rooms, a two-lane bowling alley, hot tubs, lap pool, a yoga studio, a pilate studio, a kitchen, dining rooms, ski lockers and more.
The lockers are going to be made of wood and will contain blowers to dry out any condensation in boots and helmets. Skis and snowboards will be kept in another area. That equipment will be handled through a valet-like service.
Currently, the insulated panels are being put up and the entire lodge will be enclosed before next week. The interior walls have been insulated and will soon receive fire proofing, plumbing and electricity.
Barnes told the Reformer that membership for the Hermitage Club has been surging. Information on different membership levels is available on hermitageclub.com/membership.
"We broke 200 a short while ago. We're still counting but we cleared an additional 40 in the last week," said Barnes after the holidays.
He attributes much of that surge in members to people reading about the Hermitage Club in magazine and newspaper articles that have been published in the last 30 to 45 days. The things that are offered to members are unique and are meant to take the stress out of skiing.
"I drank the Kool Aid," said Debbie Ribaudo, of East Granby, Conn. "And it doesn't have to be spiked."
She was glad that Barnes and his team decided to reopen Haystack. This will mark Ribaudo's second year as a Hermitage Club member. She described the mountain as the most family-oriented place.
"There's no lines," she said. "I'm so used to skiing on the edges for powder. I don't have to do it here. There's no ice. It's also the people that make you want to come back."
Brooke Kanani, an ambassador on the mountain and a member, used to snowboard at other mountains in the area for the past 20 years. Her boyfriend hadn't been to Haystack until the weekend after New Year's Day.
"When he got here, he didn't understand," said Kanani. "Until you bring them here and they experience it for themselves, they won't understand. It's a very special private place. It's a very different skiing experience."
Since the mountain is only open on holiday weeks and weekends, she says the powder is left untouched until everyone is off from work and school. With Winter Storm Hercules leaving fresh snow in its wake, visitors were still getting some turns in unmarked powder on Sunday.
Barnes himself enjoys taking runs on his skis or cruising the mountain on his snowmobile.
"I'm very active here. I'm here all the time," he said.
When asked if things at the Hermitage Club were improving on a daily basis, Barnes told the Reformer that was kind of the motto heard around the property. The local economy has seen its share of positive results from the new business.
Over 175 jobs have been created since the Hermitage Club took over. Another 100 people have been hired through subcontractors for construction and other projects based on developing the Haystack property.
"This place was closed in 2007," said Barnes. "It went from zero to 275 (jobs) in a short amount of time."
He also mentioned that Hermitage Club development is adding significantly to the tax roll in the towns of Dover and Wilmington. A total of 18 town homes have been sold for anywhere between $750,000 to $1 million.
Stag's Leap, which are homes that are under way to be built underneath the new lift, have price tags of $1.8 to $3 million.
The Hermitage Club is still waiting on word from the state for the Deerfield Valley Airport runway expansion. After receiving local approval from Dover and Wilmington for a 4,400-foot runway, Barnes hopes that by summer the project will have an Act 250 permit.
"We have planes landing now but it's obviously safer with a longer distance," he said.
Chris Mays can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Chris on Twitter @CMaysReformer.