Monetary help with capital improvements is always welcome, especially for smaller ski areas. But it doesn’t have to come from investors or a revenue windfall. Grants, a viable yet underutilized resource, can help fund needed upgrades, various programs, or enhance amenities.
True, some are available only to nonprofit ski resorts, but a large pool of Covid relief money still exists, as well as funding for increased energy efficiency, staff training, and diversified programming, and those resources can be tapped by anyone. “Small hills would be remiss not to see what grants are out there,” says Robin Rickards, project manager at Ontario’s Mount Baldy.
Make no mistake: Applying for grants takes time and energy, but the ability to purchase a new lift or solar panels for the base lodge provides a great return on investment. Here are some tips on how to find grants and ace the grant application process.
A couple of years ago, when Trevor Bird became general manager of Hilltop, a 400-foot-vertical, nonprofit ski area in Anchorage, Alaska, “they weren’t doing as many grants as they should have,” he says. Since then, Hilltop has received funding that ranges from a $250,000 matching grant for the second phase of a lift-served bike park to $500 for a few staffers to attend a ski-area conference and trade show. The ski area also receives an annual payment of $25,000 from a local foundation, which this past winter helped support the purchase of a new chairlift haul rope. “Grants have been incredibly helpful to us as we try to grow and expand the business,” says Bird.
Finding opportunities. He and his small team excel at finding opportunities. “We’re always on the hunt for any sort of grant out there,” he says. That includes things like calling the local power company to ask about funding to offset energy consumption and consulting with grant writers who have access to paid databases of grantors.
The federal website Grants.gov lists thousands of potential resources, but no free central database exists that allows searchers to easily home in on ski area-related grants. You can subscribe, for a fee, to programs like Grant Station or Big Online. Liza Dawber, a grant writer who runs the Alberta-based Inspired Approach agency, suggests joining forces with a few other small ski areas to share the cost of a subscription, which can run a few thousand dollars a year. Once you have database access, she recommends reverse searches—if you know of another ski hill that, say, received a grant for a project similar to yours, type its name into a database and its funding sources will display.
Prioritizing projects can help narrow down what may seem like an ocean of grantors, as well as focus energy. It’s important to assess “what are priorities and what are wishful growth items?” says Bird.
Build relationships. Michael Stringer, director of marketing and development at Mt. Ashland Ski Area in Oregon, says when he hears about a grant-giving organization, he’ll reach out to build a relationship; that way, if and when it’s time to apply for funding, Mt. Ashland is already on the grantor’s radar. Says Brandi White, accounting manager at Hilltop, “I think about the local businesses that stand out as being community partners and seek them out whenever I have time in my day.” Mt. Baldy’s Rickards suggests using resort social media channels to ask about grants; perhaps a loyal guest knows of a good funding source.
Keep in touch with your state’s commerce department, too. In Vermont, for example, “we try to encourage any business to follow what our agency is doing,” says Hilary DelRoss, communications director for the state’s department of economic development, which manages a slew of grant programs, including Covid recovery efforts. As money comes through via the American Rescue Plan Act, some of those funds may relate to ski area projects if they facilitate health safety measures.
State association assistance. Though most state ski area associations do not serve as grants clearinghouses, Ski Vermont, for one, became involved with government-related grants for the first time after Covid hit. President Molly Mahar asked the state for $5 million—and received $2.5 million—that resorts could then apply for to fund pandemic-related projects like touchless transactions or adapting outdoor spaces for on-mountain diners.
Ski Vermont also advocated on behalf of resorts to raise the eligibility cap for other pandemic relief money. “It’s not a familiar place for us,” admits Mahar. The organization is now looking at infrastructure money to help ski areas that operate their own drinking water and wastewater systems, at funds for potential public/private workforce housing partnerships, and at ways to help fund a lift maintenance apprenticeship program that Ski Vermont administers.
WHERE’S THE MONEY?
Go local whenever possible, as those organizations are likely to have a better understanding of your resort. “National grants are harder to come by,” says Hilltop’s Bird. But at the community level, a grantor’s staffers may well have kids who frequent the ski area.
Local support. Mt. Ashland, which has been run as a community-supported nonprofit since 1993, relies on a couple of local foundations and the City of Ashland for annual grants, says Stringer. Through revenue from an occupancy tax that supports local tourism, the city helps fund the mountain’s free shuttle service. A nearby family foundation that likes to back capital projects has funded items like chipsealing and paving the parking lot and buying a new snowcat.
Mt. Ashland also benefits from a committed community of skiers/donors—about 350 households—that regularly contribute to the ski area’s annual fund. When the mountain wanted to replace an old rope tow with a surface lift, 270 donors gave $250,000 for the project in just three weeks. Overall, grants, plus donations through the annual fund, make up about 10 percent of the mountain’s annual revenue, says Stringer.
Programmatic grants. The ski area receives money from the national Share Winter Foundation, too, to help sustain a regional youth program that brings in 1,000 students four times a season. In the past, the resort has also partnered with the U.S. Forest Service to receive grant money for a family day at the mountain.
NOT JUST FOR NONPROFITS
Certainly, getting a grant as a for-profit resort is more difficult, but opportunities are out there. Among the most likely: organizations that help fund renewable resources or other environmentally friendly upgrades.
Sustainability-focused funds. Among the most common are funds for electric vehicle (EV) charging ports. Powdr has received grants for EV ports at several of its resorts, and Colorado’s Sunlight Mountain Resort recently landed an $18,000 grant from the Colorado Energy Office to install six EV ports, says Sunlight marketing and sales director Troy Hawks. The local energy company donated one of the ports and a three-year sponsorship from a community bank offset the remaining cost of installation.
Don’t overlook established resources like the National Ski Areas Association, which has doled out annual cash and in-kind grants through its Sustainable Slopes program since 2009. One of these beneficiaries, Copper Mountain, Colo., has received two grants in the past several years. These include five high-efficiency snowmaking guns donated by HKD Snowmakers (a $25,000 value) and, most recently, $1,500 in cash to hold a half-day seminar for local land managers and nearby ski areas to learn about the resort’s native seeding program and other restoration practices.
Covid relief. In addition to helping with operating expenses during the first year of Covid, some ongoing Covid relief funds can benefit ski areas of all types. Hilltop received Covid recovery funding from the Alaska Community Foundation for about 70 percent of the cost of installing an RFID ticketing system and kiosks; it was considered a touch-free solution to keep people safer, says Bird. Additionally, the ski area received pandemic money from a local foundation for new toboggans and other supplies to help the ski patrol in its public-facing work.
MAKING A SUCCESSFUL ASK
Once the legwork of identifying grant opportunities has been done, who’s the best person to work on the application?
Outsource or in-house? While adding a staff grant writer is likely unrealistic, contracting with a professional per project may well be worth it. (Keep in mind that you’ll need to compensate the grant writer whether the application is successful or not.) Dawber points out that in addition to experience with the application process, a grant writer can help you focus your needs and also advise if you’d be wasting your time by applying to an unlikely funding source.
Bird, on the other hand, eschews hiring a grant writer in favor of completing the application in-house. “We’re more focused on what we do here and how what we’re applying for would make a difference,” he says. continued »
Even if you don’t hire someone to write the grant proposal, consider paying a pro a consulting fee for pointers. Rickards suggests checking with a local community college or university for contacts.
Goal alignment. An application should frame your request in terms of how your project supports a grantor’s mission. When a foundation, for instance, puts out a grant, it will include information about what it hopes to achieve by donating the money. To that end, “Help the organization meet the goals stated in the request for proposals,” advises Stringer.
For example, Rickards has applied for two grants to fund more than half the installation costs of Mt. Baldy’s upgrade to RFID technology: one from a business technology innovation fund, the other via revenue from an area tourism tax. In applying for the tourism grant, he explained how the system includes on-mountain cameras that have broader applications, like capturing video or still images of skiers that can be pushed to guests’ smartphones for upload to social media. Rickards also obtained a testimonial from Freestyle Ontario that it would strongly consider the portable cameras as a potential training amenity when deciding where to bring kids to train.
The details. Focus on a specific ask. If you seek funding, say, for a shuttle service to the resort, indicate that you’d like to provide transportation to guests on these days, from these places and at these times, advises Stringer. “They love that,” he says of grantors. “It makes it a less compelling request if you try to crowd in too much.”
Emphasize as well that your ski area will put some skin in the game, “even if it’s just a few thousand dollars,” says Dawber. Applications score higher when candidates put some of their own money toward a project. Dawber also recommends that before applying for a capital improvement project, have a plan in place—including written quotes for construction and a clear idea of which contractor you plan to use. That way, when an appropriate grant comes up, you won’t miss the application window.
Likewise, never underestimate the importance of details; check all the boxes and submit everything asked for. “I can’t stress enough that each organization has a specific set of guidelines and questions that they need answered,” says Stringer. Don’t hesitate to ask for clarification—grantors are open to questions throughout the application process. And submit your application on time.
“There are no second tries,” reminds Rickards. “Set a timeline to do the paperwork, get it done, and get it in.”