Buck Hill, a Twin Cities landmark that was the training ground for Lindsey Vonn and other Olympic skiers, has been sold by its founding family to investors who plan to transform it into a year-round facility, with summertime skiing and snowboarding in tank tops and shorts.
There are also plans to build a hotel, shops and more places for dining and entertainment.
The sale was announced Thursday by founder and owner, Nancy Stone, and new owners Don McClure, who has managed Buck Hill for four decades, and investors David and Corrine Solner.
"This is not a mountain resort, but it's a great training and learning area," David Solner said in an interview Friday. "We want to find ways to continue to support that throughout the year."
Jessica Stone, Nancy's Stone's daughter and Buck Hill vice president, didn't disclose the terms of the deal, but said that last fall the family was presented with four unsolicited offers for the 60-acre property, which is in a prime location along Interstate 35 in Burnsville.
Stone said that given the hill's proximity to the Twin Cities and its focus on training, the business has been strong and consistent, but expanding operations is going to require a significant financial and emotional commitment.
"It needs a ton of capital improvements," Stone said. "David has the knowledge and the wherewithal to make that happen."
Opened in 1954
Chuck Stone, Jessica's father and Nancy's late husband, first raised the idea of creating a ski area when he and Nancy were dating in the early 1950s. After some research, the couple found that Buck Hill was one of the highest points in the area and they persuaded landowners to give them a 25-year lease on it. They invested $3,700 to open the facility in 1954 and built a 1,000-foot rope tow to get skiers up the hill.
Nancy Stone, now in her 80s, has been a constant presence in the chalet and has been known to hit the slopes nearly every day of the season.
Solner, a former partner at the Minneapolis-based architecture firm Cuningham Group, has helped design sports and entertainment facilities around the world, including the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Both of his sons learned to ski at Buck Hill and as a resident of nearby Apple Valley, he's aware of how unique it is to have a world-class ski hill so close to home and only 20 minutes from the skyscrapers of downtown Minneapolis.
"This combines all my passions and skills and talents," he said. "It's going to give me new energy and focus and hopefully have some fun along the way."
Checking all-season surfaces
The planning has just begun. Next week Solner and his partners are traveling to a small town outside of Milan, Italy, where they'll test one of several all-season ski surfaces. The leading candidate right now is Neveplast, a synthetic surface that's attached to the slope in sheets and can be left in place year-round.
"It's kind of like laying down carpet on a hill, but it's as slippery as snow and you have the ability to hold an edge with a ski," Solner said. "We're not creating a powder ski experience."
The surface is similar to one that's being used at a ski facility in Virginia, which Solner says is the only other one in North America that will offer summer skiing. Plans are also underway for an indoor training facility at Buck Hill that will enable skiers and snowboarders to practice their jumps and other technical maneuvers in a safe environment regardless of the weather.
Buck Hill, also known as "The Bump," became a training ground for many of the Twin Cities' best skiers, including about a dozen who rose to compete with Team USA.
Beacon for Twin Cities
It now has 16 runs and eight lifts and attracts about 170,000 visitors each winter, but many of its buildings have been around for decades. On winter nights, the glowing lights of Buck Hill have become a kind of beacon for the Twin Cities, a sign for drivers coming from southern Minnesota and Iowa that they've arrived in the metro area.
After a stretch of unseasonably warm winters, companies that cater to winter enthusiasts have had to adapt by improving their facilities and expanding their offerings.
In 2012, Broomfield, Colo.-based Vail Resorts Inc. paid $20 million cash for a package deal that included Afton Alps ski resort in Washington County and a ski area in Michigan. Vail has invested $10 million in Afton Alps, including new visitor facilities, improved snow-making operations and a new terrain park and village for freestyle skiers and snowboarders.
On the North Shore of Lake Superior near Grand Marais, Minn., the owners of Lutsen Mountains are spending about $20 million on the 120-year-old ski resort, including a new ski lift, gondola and snow-making machines.