Hermitage prepares for new future

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BRATTLEBORO — Bill Benneyan, executive director and general manager of the Hermitage Club, compared his group to a start-up business made with friends in a garage — beginning with getting a phone line then building from there.

"It's been a busy six or eight weeks while we do that," he said during a Brattleboro Rotary Club meeting held remotely last week. "Our snowmaking system is in good shape. We've been pressure testing it. The lifts have been inspected and are in good shape. So the infrastructure is there."

With the member count currently at about 180, Benneyan anticipates the number being closer to 250 around the opening of the private ski resort at Haystack Mountan in Wilmington at the end of November. Members pay a $50,000 initiation fee and $15,000 in annual dues.

There's a lot of interest in the club, Benneyan said, particularly given the challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic.

"It's driving more people to move to this area up out of the cities. people that have the means to be at a private club," he said. "And the fact that the density is so low here, on a typical day, our attendance is maybe 10 percent of what you might find at another 200-acre resort or certainly next door at Mount Snow."

Describing the ski industry as transparent, Benneyan said best practices related to the pandemic will be shared widely. He sees the indoor activities or services being more of a challenge than those found outdoors.

In March, a group of club members purchased Hermitage assets in a bankruptcy auction for about $8 million. The sale was completed in May.

"I began shortly after with the task of reopening the ski area and reinvigorating the membership," Benneyan said. "It's a very unique business model. There are only two truly private club membership ski areas in the U.S.: ourselves and Yellowstone in Montana."

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The Hermitage is unique, Benneyan said, because it is now owned by members.

"There's no debt and there's no mortgage," he said. "It's an extraordinary building and collection of assets — it's a great mountain — but the budget is not so opulent as the asset. It will need to run on the same tight budget most 200-acre ski areas run on. And that's my charge."

The properties were "fairly well cared for" over the last couple of years, Benneyan said. Berkshire Bank filed a foreclosure complaint against the former owning company in 2018 and a receiver was appointed by the state court to preserve the assets until they were sold.

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Benneyan said his group is a nonprofit run by a board of directors and volunteers.

"It's a great cultural experiment of aligning values and mission and objectives and getting everybody moving in the same direction and doing it often without seeing each other in person ... " he said. "We really felt it was important to focus on the ski area, lifts and snowmaking and the lodge to support that. And that's it."

Benneyan said his group sold the Doveberry Inn in West Dover and the golf course, which is open to the public. He described the Hermitage Inn in West Dover and Snowgoose Inn in West Dover as being in the process of being sold, with some offers coming in for the Horizon Inn in Wilmington.

Benneyan said his group is looking to "revise and downscale" a master plan previously approved in state permitting.

"We are not resort developers and we won't be resort developers," he said. "We may likely work with developers to follow that plan through. It's important to the local employment base, it's important to the local tax base. You know, it drives revenue into the community and frankly it supports the club."

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Benneyan estimated 75 percent of the club members are full-time residents or own a second home in the area. He said a number of seasonal homeowners have permanently relocated to the area during the pandemic.

Skiing is set to be the main focus now. Club members want "a pretty basic core ski experience," Bennyan said.

"No lobster Newberg at lunch — it's just the best grilled cheese you can find," he said. "That's our objective."

Asked if the legal issues are behind the group, Benneyan said an appeal made by Hermitage founder and former president Jim Barnes isn't slowing down progress at the club.

"We're moving forward 100 percent," Benneyan said. "The sale, through the courts, was signed off and certified, and I can't imagine the uproar to the federal bankruptcy system that would be caused if you could appeal a closed order."

Information is available on hermitageclub.com.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.


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