While the paperwork has yet to be finished, Sleeping Giant Ski Area should soon be in new hands, operated by a for-profit company. How much profit? According to the apparent new operator, potentially …
While the paperwork has yet to be finished, Sleeping Giant Ski Area should soon be in new hands, operated by a for-profit company. How much profit? According to the apparent new operator, potentially none.
“We’re not looking to make any kind of financial gain off it. We’d just like it to get as close to zero as we can,” said Nick Piazza.
The international banking entrepreneur, who grew up in Cody, has already pledged hundreds of thousands in improvements and salaries.
“I’m willing to take some financial risk here,” Piazza said.
He described himself as “both excited and a little terrified” to take over the operations of the North Fork ski hill this fall.
“We are still waiting for final word from the Forest Service on the issuing of the new license but are confident we will get this done one way or the other and want to give the 20/21 season the best shot possible to be fun and successful,” Piazza said.
Plans also include new hours of operation — including night skiing.
Why take the enormous risk? It’s all about family, Piazza said. He moved back to Cody for his family after living abroad and now wants to run the ski lodge to benefit families in the Big Horn Basin.
“We just want to get people to come back up and enjoy the mountain,” he said in an interview at the mountain on Tuesday.
The facility has been operated by the nonprofit Yellowstone Recreations Foundation since 2009. The foundation was formed to get the ski hill up and running again, after various issues led Sleeping Giant to shut down following the winter of 2004. However, even the addition of a zip line to generate summertime revenue wasn’t enough to make ends meet over the years; in January, the Yellowstone Recreations Foundation announced that 2019-20 was set to be its last winter of skiing, but reversed course after an outpouring of community support.
And then Piazza got involved.
“Mr. Piazza stepped up to say that he was really interested in doing something to help to further the operation up there on the mountain and we thought that just really seemed like a great opportunity for everybody,” Yellowstone Recreations Foundation Board President Rob Overfield said in a Wednesday phone interview; Overfield is looking forward to the transfer.
Piazza thanked the board “for working with us to find a deal that works for everyone and we all hope will be a big win for Park County” and thanked “past and present and countless other donors to the mountain whose love of Sleeping Giant were instrumental in keeping it open and growing young skiers.
“We are extremely grateful to all of you for all you’ve done and for your trust in us to carry on this great tradition,” he said in a statement.
Piazza’s first move was to hire Mike Gimmeson as general manager. The Powell High School graduate has first-hand knowledge of the hollow feeling of watching the facility close. Gimmeson was first brought to Sleeping Giant as a toddler. His parents volunteered on the ski patrol.
“My mom and dad patrolled here for years, so my brother and I came up here every weekend of our childhood,” he said.
But then the facility closed, and it would take several years before Gimmeson returned. He moved to Jackson and eventually became a professional skier. When he returned to the area, Yellowstone Recreations Foundation was operating the lodge, largely on donations from supporters. Gimmeson worked as an instructor at Sleeping Giant for a year before being promoted to direct the ski school. He spent six years as the school’s director while also owning a construction company.
Gimmeson’s experiences in both worlds will come in handy. On Tuesday, workers poured the cement for a large yurt (30-feet in diameter) that will provide additional shelter to skiers, as well as giving the facility more elbow room for social distancing. Many of the current projects are aimed at the facility being COVID-19 friendly, he said.
“I’m no expert, but skiing seems to be one of the safer activities you can do,” Gimmeson said. “You know, you already got your mask on, you’ve got goggles, you’re wearing gloves. You can stay as far away as you want from people.”
They’re also working on an app that will allow customers to pay for admission, rent equipment and order food — all in an effort to alleviate congestion at the lodge.
Part of the plans also call for making snow early and late in the year
“We’re excited to really put down a good foundation [of snow] this year,” Gimmeson said. “We’ll open with snow and have our night skiing going. And then in the end of the season, we’ll have a base as well, because, you know, the beginning and the end is when we need that snow.”
They are also exploring opportunities for overnight accommodations, making it easier for those traveling. They’ll also encourage Sunday religious services, making it easier for families to head to the mountain early Sunday mornings.
“If you’re a church group and you want to have a sermon up here, we’ll find space for you. And we’ll make you breakfast or lunch after church,” Gimmeson said. “We’re just trying to make it a community resource.”
Piazza has stepped up with philanthropic assistance in Cody, from securing ventilators for the hospital, to supporting little businesses in downtown Cody that were struggling when the pandemic threatened to shut their doors.
“He saw this as another opportunity to give back to the community where he was born and raised,” Overfield said.
The Yellowstone Recreations Foundation is now looking to the future. Overfield hopes it will continue to champion winter sports in the area, saying the organization has worked hard since Jim Nielsen first put in the funding to reopen Sleeping Giant.
“We’ve continually tried to do what we could to reduce expenses and expand the revenue without going overboard and creating problems that are going against the mission of the foundation, which was to provide family friendly, inexpensive winter sports,” Overfield said.
He and other board members anticipate the foundation will continue, perhaps with a smaller board.
“We’ll focus a little bit more on a few fundraisers to try and continue the foundation’s mission of supporting youth in winter sports and might continue to be some scholarships for ski school or race programs or whatever up there on the mountain — or it might help in the high school with some travel expenses including hockey, cross country or rec center kids going snowshoeing,” Overfield said. “There’s just a number of different things that we could get involved in that we’ll be taking a look at.”
Dean Madley, new marketing director for the company, said they are excited to offer lighted night skiing on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday nights from 4-8 p.m. The area, accessed from the Big Horn chairlift and magic carpet, will include a lighted terrain park, allowing skiers and snowboarders to have some freestyle fun. Plans for a tubing lane are in the works as well.
“We hope to get the Cody High School alpine team practicing up there on Tuesday nights and hold a few races during the season. There has also been talk of putting together a Friday night racing league for adults,” Madley said.
But, until there is snow, there won’t be any skiing. Madley reports snow making efforts have already begun, testing the system to ensure it’s working when the temperatures drop enough to make snow.
The final paperwork is making its way through channels, but Kristie Salzmann, spokesperson for the Shoshone National Forest, said forest officials are “not going to cut any corners to make this happen.” The Forest Service will vet the proposed buyers, both financially and for a safety plan, Salzmann said.
Piazza said he hopes to have the paperwork wrapped up in the next few weeks. Season passes will be available this week online at www.skisg.com. Adult prices have increased while child prices will stay the same. Early season discounts will be available until Oct. 20.