Revived Laurel Mountain may get $6.5 million from state

| Thursday, Aug. 21, 2008

Seven Springs Mountain Resort is taking another shot at resuscitating the dormant Laurel Mountain Ski Resort in Ligonier Township.

The Somerset County resort's announcement Wednesday that it will take over Laurel Mountain, which has had operational problems for nearly two decades, took place as Gov. Ed Rendell said the state may invest $6.5 million for infrastructure improvements.

Sens. Don White, R-Indiana, and Richard Kasunic, D-Fayette/Somerset, proposed the funding in the 2008-09 state capital projects budget. A $5 million share is targeted to improve infrastructure at the resort, which has been closed since 2005, and $1.5 million would pay for renovations to the skiing facilities and the leasing of the resort to an operator.

The resort's agreement with Somerset Trust Co., when finalized, will revive the resort, located on 64 acres within Laurel Mountain State Park, along the Westmoreland and Somerset border.

"So many people have been actively involved in trying to reopen the resort to local skiers and visitors to the region, from the board of Somerset Trust and the local community leaders to Gov. Rendell's office and state legislators. We are pleased to have an opportunity to participate in this project," Seven Springs Chairman Bob Nutting said.

Nutting said the resort looks forward to partnering with the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and other departments to enhance the facility's infrastructure.

"Their collective support is critical to this project," Nutting said.

While state and community leaders have been talking about reopening the resort, Nutting said the project could not have moved forward until a company like Seven Springs agreed to operate it.

This will not be a new role for Seven Springs. After Laurel Mountain closed for the second time in its history in 2003, Seven Springs stepped in to manage it in 2004.

The resort has not opened since the 2004-05 season.

Area skier Carol Darr called it a last-ditch effort.

Darr, of Ligonier Township, led 10 other township residents to Somerset County on Aug. 2 to talk skiing with Rendell, who was in Somerset to announce state funding for a Route 219 project.

"We want to save the Laurel Mountain Ski Resort. We've been writing letters to the state for funding help for months. We took a chance that we might get to talk with him there," Darr said. "Sure enough, he agreed to talk with us."

Rendell asked the group about the status of the resort.

"He said he'd get back to us in a few days. We thought, 'You know how that goes,'" Darr said.

On Aug. 8, Rendell telephoned Ligonier Borough Mayor Ormond K. "Butch" Bellas about a meeting he held with DCNR Secretary Michael DiBerardinis.

"He said, 'The (Laurel Mountain) project's going to be funded, we're going through with it,'" Bellas said.

"I was surprised to hear from him (Rendell)," Bellas said. "The governor didn't say when it (the project) would be funded, but I thanked him."

This week, Kristine Novak, spokeswoman for the DCNR's Bureau of State Parks, said, "A company willing to sign on the dotted line as an operator of the resort" was needed before funding could be allocated.

"There is a lot that needs to be done on that property to make it eligible for a ski operations license," Novak said.

Opened in 1939, Laurel Mountain was one of the first ski areas in Pennsylvania. It originally operated as a private ski resort for the Mellon family and was known as the state's "ski capital."

The Mellons turned the land over to the state in 1962 with the provision that no summer programs or overnight lodging be allowed. The state ran the resort under those parameters until 1989, when it closed.

The operation reopened in 1999 via tax incentives, a $200,000 grant and $300,000 loan from the state, and a $750,000 loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration. In 2004, Somerset Trust Co. took control of the resort from Laurel Mountain Ski Co.

Since then, Somerset Trust representatives said they had talked with up to 10 companies interested in buying the resort.

Among them was the Buncher Co. of Pittsburgh, which had wanted to lease the resort. Last year, the company announced a 30-year plan to invest $1 billion at Hidden Valley Four Seasons Resort in Somerset.

Bellas, a ski patrol member who has worked on Laurel Mountain, said he looks forward to a reopening.

"I love skiing, but I'm looking at this from a mayor's perspective, not a skier's perspective," Bellas said. "Having that resort back open could mean about 120 new jobs during the ski season."

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