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Success snowballs at Snowstar


Dispatch/Argus Photo By John J. Kim

Ski instructor Stan Kittleson shows students how to fall properly to the ground in a lesson at Snowstar Ski Trails near Andalusia.

ANDALUSIA -- Ed Meyer looked out the window at the trees jutting from the snow-covered hills that are Snowstar.

``We're small, but there's nothing to be ashamed of here,'' he said, cupping his hands around a cup of hot coffee. ``It is beautiful here, and it has character. We don't try to compete with the mountains in the west. We can't. What we have here is perfect for beginners and the advanced skier who wants to stay in condition.''

Besides, there's an advantage to a small ski area that's often overlooked -- the runs are close to the lodge, Mr. Meyer said.

Snowstar is a success story Mr. Meyer is not only happy to tell but is proud to be part of. He was a bartender when the ski area opened outside Andalusia in 1981. He became general manager three years later.

The main idea was to provide entertainment and an alternative for families. It had two runs and one chairlift, all on about five acres of skiable terrain.

Today, Snowstar has more than 25 acres of skiable terrain, a tubing hill, two quad-chairlifts and two rope tows. Of course, there are ski instructors and ski and snowboard rentals.

There are plans for the future, but they will be done as money allows, according to Mr. Meyer.

``The owners have made a commitment to Snowstar,'' he said. ``We've had steady, consistent growth over the last few years, and that will continue. Each year we add something new. The tubing hill was new this year. This place has tons of develpment in its future.''

New additions to the ski area have been, and will continue to be, important, Mr. Meyer said. New runs and development of the western hillside are in the future. However, stability is essential, especially after a rocky start.

It wasn't bad weather that hurt them in the beginning. It was success, poor weather conditions came later.

``'What hurt us most was a successful first year. We skied 23,000 people,'' Mr. Meyer said. ``I know that sounds funny, but so many people came out and this place was so tiny. There were long waits at the lifts. We lost people that year and a lot haven't come back. It's hard to overcome that.''

Two years later, Snowstar was closed nearly half the season when rain and warm temperatures were the norm. ``Those were hard years,'' Mr. Meyer said. ``The most common question asked was, are you going to close, sell or file bankruptcy.''

The unidentified people who make up Snowstar Corporation hung in there, paid off massive debts created by the purchase of big-ticket items like chairlifts, which cost up to $250,000.

Then they began building.

Operating a ski area is costly. Lifts and tows are obvious necessities. Large snow-moving machines are needed to groom slopes, snow guns make manmade snow.

It employes 195 seasonal employees and about 40 volunteers who make up the ski patrol.

About 30,000 people must glide down the slopes for Snowstar to stay open and continue the steady growth. And, it all must come in an 80-day window of opportunity. More than 55 percent of those who visit Snowstar travel over 100 miles.

Ultimately, weather determines if people ski. People's perception of the weather also plays a role.

``This business is all weather-related in terms of whether we have good skiing,'' he said. ``But it also depends on what people perceive as good skiing. We may have excellent conditions, but there's no snow in town, so people think it's bad.''

His suggestion: Call first. Remember, Snowstar does have manmade snow and a great tubing hill for those who don't ski. Rentals are available for both.

``We're part of the Quad-Cities,'' he said. ``But, it's like anything in our backyard. We forget it's there.''

-- By Pam Berenger (January 26, 1998)

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