What’s So Hard About Running Your Own Ski Hill?
A married couple just finished their first season running a small ski resort they bought in Idaho for just $149,000
In October 2015, Bend, Oregon-based pharmaceutical researcher Matt McFerran saw a Facebook post that would change his life: Soldier Mountain Ski Area, the 1,147-acre resort in Idaho’s Sawtooth National Forest, was up for sale for only $149,000. With a price tag that low he was sure there’d been a mistake.
Matt and his wife, Diane, applied for the property immediately, writing a proposal that included their prospective operating budget, future goals, and why they thought they’d be the best candidates to run Soldier Mountain. Matt also made three trips in as many weeks to the 36-run ski hill in an effort to familiarize himself with the mountain and the community, and to show his enthusiasm and commitment. On November 4, the board of the nonprofit Soldier Mountain Ski Area, Inc., chose Matt and Diane out of over 2,000 hopefuls to be the area’s new owners.
“Matt made it very clear [to the board] that we were interested in having this be the next chapter of our lives,” Diane says. “We didn’t have the most experience or the most financial backing, but we had the most heart. I think that’s why they picked us.”
The nonprofit group had bought the ski area three years earlier from actor Bruce Willis, a part-time resident of Hailey, Idaho, who purchased Soldier Mountain in the mid-nineties for its rich backcountry terrain. But Soldier Mountain Ski Area, Inc., accumulated an upkeep debt of $149,000 (the asking price) and needed to unload the property.
Three days after finding out he’d been selected, Matt quit his job and relocated to Fairfield, Idaho, where Soldier Mountain is located. Diane sold her Pilates studio and joined him a few weeks later. The McFerrans had Soldier Mountain up and running by the beginning of December (they closed for the season on March 12), which was the earliest opening date in over a decade. This was no small feat—size-wise, Soldier Mountain falls right in the middle of the other ski hills in the area, which include Sun Valley (121 runs, 2154 acres), Bogus Basin (53 runs, 2,600 acres), and Magic Mountain (11 runs, 120 acres). The mountain relies on natural snow, and, luckily, there was a lot of that this year.
We spoke with Diane about her and Matt’s ambitions for Soldier Mountain, the realities of managing a ski resort with your partner, and what it’s like to buy a ski hill one day and devote your life to it the next.
OUTSIDE: What exactly did $149,000 get you?
DIANE: Included in the lease was the ski lodge, a rental shop, a bar and kitchen, lift and ski patrol buildings, two working chairlifts, snowmobiles, and two pickup trucks. We had to apply for a special-use permit with the U.S. Forest Service to get operations underway. We also had to secure permits for the backcountry skiing access, which we just got approved in February.
What were some of the challenges you and Matt faced this first season?
In those weeks before we opened, we learned just how many hoops we had to jump through to open our doors legally: business licenses, liquor license, forest service lease, backcountry permit, Idaho Outfitters and Guide license, just to name a few. It also became very apparent that we didn't just buy one business, we got many—a restaurant, a bar, a rental shop, a retail shop, a ski school, a cat ski operation, a Ski Patrol, and oh yeah, a ski area to sell tickets to.
We also learned very quickly how to be directors of our HR department. With close to 50 seasonal workers, we have had the inevitable ups and downs, and we've had to learn to manage that many people. We also were told, almost immediately, by Idaho's Attorney General, that they weren't sure the ski area sold for a fair price and they needed to do a review on that. We couldn't finalize the sale until they reached a decision. That didn't happen until late February. They decided that Soldier Mountain was worth $13,400 more than we paid. We came to an agreement with Soldier Mountain Ski Area's board that we would distribute that amount of charitable goods and services in the next four years. With the price finalized, we can now finish the purchase of the ski area.
One of the most amusing and unexpected things in those first few weeks was how many times we were contacted by people wanting to do a reality show on us and the transition from our Bend life to owning Soldier Mountain. Several Hollywood people with well-known shows and channels, and several smaller Internet and YouTube people pursued this. While it would have been good exposure for Soldier, I’m not the kind of person who would do well with a camera on me all the time. Matt would have loved it.
What sets Soldier Mountain apart from the other ski resorts in the area?
Soldier Mountain is a Fairfield institution. It’s the family-friendly alternative to Sun Valley, which is much bigger and ritzier. There are so many local families with fond memories of growing up at Soldier Mountain. People tell me that they learned to ski here and then went on to teach their kids to ski here, too. While it isn't the flashiest ski area in the region, it has a warm vibe that draws people in and makes them feel like they’re part of the Soldier family. People have a real sense of attachment to this place.
How do you and Matt approach working together?
Matt and I have said that while we aren't parents, Soldier Mountain is like our baby. It’s something we want to nurture and grow, something we care desperately about and lose sleep over. We divide roles and duties based on our individual strengths and weaknesses. We’re a team that cares a lot about this mountain.
What long-term plans do you and Matt have for Soldier Mountain?
A group recently asked us if they could use Soldier Mountain as a home base for paragliding and ski flying. We want to form unique partnerships and bring in other sports. All types of athletes are welcome here, not just alpine skiers. And we want to develop lodging. We can’t build anything permanent because Soldier Mountain is on Forest Service land, so we’ll set up yurts or shipping containers for our overnight guests. Also, we’d love to have a snow-making machine, but that’s a few years down the line. For now, we’re happy to depend on Mother Nature.