When John Koons was growing up in Waterville, Maine forty years ago, skiing was the thing to do.
“When I was a youngster we had a ski hill,” Koons told FasterSkier. “It was sponsored and run by Colby College. It was an alpine slope, and we had snowmaking and we had lights, and it was really a wonderful place for kids to go.”
But like so many small hills around New England and the rest of the country, the one in Waterville – which had originally opened in 1930 with a rope tow – eventually closed as costs increased and families became more willing to drive to larger, brand-name ski resorts farther away.
That’s a problem, says Koons.
“There hasn’t been anything around since,” he lamented. “And not everybody can afford to go to Sugarloaf, or any place, drive those miles with gas prices the way they are and pay fifty or ninety dollars for an alpine situation.”
As a lifelong nordic skier, Koons had a vision for the site of the city’s old alpine hill on Quarry Road. Even though he grew up alpine skiing on the hill, he didn’t think that reopening the lift was a viable option economically. Instead, he wanted to get kids outside in a different way.
“The reality of it is that operationally you can’t really run much of an alpine slope without a large amount of money and so on, Koons said. “But you could run a very decent nordic trail system with much much lower operational costs.”
He wasn’t the only one who thought that Quarry Road could house great nordic trails. Tracey Cote, the head coach of the nordic team at Colby College in Waterville, had been imagining a trail system down the road from her office for at least a decade.
“We would do our skiwalking out there, we’d also just go out there and run around a lot,” Cote said in an interview this week. “And so in the back of my mind and in the back of [my husband] Pat’s mind, we’ve always thought that this area had really great potential. We had talked about it probably ten years ago.”
When she first had the idea of cutting nordic trails at Quarry Road, Cote said that she had assumed that the project would never happen. But then Koons became interested and began working on the project four years ago. After talking to staff and owners at touring centers all over New England, he began to have an understanding of the economics of building a trail system. Once Koons began working, the project took off.
The college, which had owned the alpine hill, sold the land to the city of Waterville at a rock-bottom price with the requirement that it be developed for recreation; more land was bought later. In all the city now owns 120 acres around the old hill.
“There are so many things – I can’t even explain in words – there are so many things that happened that just seemed really lucky, in a lot of ways,” Cote said. “But it was also through a lot of hard work on John’s part, and the city being interested and wanting to work with this sport and wanting to work with John, and wanting to work with the college.”
Koons never had a doubt that the project would “go,” especially after a fundraising board was formed with other ski enthusiasts. The Friends of Quarry Road is headed by Koons, but includes Cote as well as the several parents of college racers and the city’s head of Parks and Recreation. His vision is of a four-season recreation area, and many of the pieces are already in place. In the winter, there will be both easy trails for recreational skiers and top-of-the line race trails for more serious athletes, as well as snowshoeing. In the summer, he anticipates starting a bike club. Since the venue is on a river, waterfront trails will be developed as well.
“I would say that one of the great appeals of this recreation area is that there is something for everybody,” Koons said.
While he had been optimistic from the start, Koons definitely faced challenges in getting the venue going. He described Waterville as a city that was once well-off, but has experienced a slowdown over the last few decades. The key to getting the cash-strapped municipality on board, he said, was to promise that the ski area would pay for itself once it was up and running.
“One of the first things you have to do is let them know that it’s not going to cost the taxpayers any money,” Koons explained. “You have to demonstrate that you have a viable club and that you could generate funds to put into this from outside city sources. I think that’s very important: this really is its own thing. The city is the overseer and our Parks and Recreation department will provide a couple of people for the winter, but beyond that we will have to supply that from club efforts. I’ve always said from day one that this should be a revenue neutral situation, meaning that we should be able to generate enough revenue to pay for our operations.”
Once Koons had assured city officials that he didn’t anticipate asking for continuing support, they took the unusual step of adding a $250,000 bond issue to the budget to fund the project. The measure passed, and Quarry Road was on its way to becoming a reality.
“[That] is really a tremendous commitment because that’s taxpayer money, no question about it,” Koons said. “So that’s a wonderful commitment.”
After the bond issue passed, the board stayed true to its word and raised almost $500,000 from a number of individual donors. Along with grants from the state Department of Conservation and the Harry Alfond Foundation and support from Colby, the project has received over a million dollars in funds.
“That’s what’s so incredible about this project,” said Cote. “It’s not a college project. Although Colby has supported it, it’s really a community project.”
As of this spring, the site already had five kilometers of ski trails which were well-suited to touring. It hosts a youth ski club started by Cote and her husband Patrick, the Executive Director of the New England Nordic Ski Association; in just a few years, the club has grown to include 82 young skiers.
“It’s really cool to see an area that hasn’t been exposed to skiing all of a sudden get really excited about skiing,” Cote said.
Janice Sibilia, the competitive programs director at the New England Nordic Ski Association, saw the club continuing to grow as the venue gets bigger.
“On a community level, these trails will offer opportunities to youth and recreational skiers, as well as the potential to develop a strong local club,” Sibilia wrote in an e-mail to FasterSkier.
Recently, events at Quarry Road have included a winter carnival, paintball biathlon, and snowshoe races. But next year, the site will have even more to offer. The group is in the process of cutting two new two and a half kilometer loops which will be homologated for FIS competitions.
“It was a total blank slate,” Cote said of the area before the trails were cut. “Imagine a sort of small, old alpine hill that has completely grown in, with a lift that was falling down… Somehow, early on we had enough money, or John Koons had raised enough money, that we brought John Morton in and said, here’s the parameters, what would you design?”
Work on the new trails began this fall. Cote said that as she has walked the area she has difficulty visualizing how the trails will ski, but that Morton has assured her that it’s a “really good course.”
Cote was enthusiastic about what the new trails would mean to her team. Although the Colby skiers have been practicing on campus for years, their home trails are not ski specific. Instead, they are running trails groomed by a snowmobile.
“I don’t know that it will revolutionize practice time, but the quality of what we’re going to be on is going to be completely different,” Cote explained. “Now we’ll literally go one minute down the road – you could walk there, but we’ll probably load all the equipment into the bus – and we’re going to be on pistenbully-groomed trails that are homologated to the highest standard so they’re three skate lanes wide .”
The trails will make hosting races easier, too. Until recently, Colby had hosted its Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Association races at Sugarloaf, an hour and half north of the school. But as the years went by, the ski area put less and less of an emphasis on racing, and hosting races there became more and more challenging. The last carnival race hosted by Colby was held 15 miles down the road at another new recreation area.
Among other things, Cote was excited that with the new venue so close to campus, more students would come watch college races.
“It’s close enough to our campus that kids can literally walk down from campus and watch,” she said.
Currently, Colby only hosts college races every two years, partly because Waterville is at the extreme Eastern side of the conference and teams don’t like to travel so far. But with homologation now a requirement for FIS races, Cote wondered whether having a certificate would make Waterville a more popular site for college races.
“I think a lot will probably depend on how good our events are when we put them on,” she said. “If we do a really good job then coaches will be more motivated to come here.”
With two separate loops homologated, Cote hoped to be able to host the first college pursuit race. But she also looked at the big picture, and hoped that Quarry Hill would be the site of a variety of elite races, not just those for college athletes. Eastern Cups and even Junior Olympics are in the board’s sights, she explained.
One big plus for the ski area is that it will have an extensive snowmaking system. Since it is situated on a river, there is plenty of water nearby, and Koons believed that it would be the best early-season venue in the East. And if that can bring racers to Waterville, he said, the city would benefit.
“I think it was a selling point when we talked to the city people,” Koons explained. “There’s no question that meets bring in revenue to the city. The numbers are there. And that’s real money for hotels, restaurants, et cetera. And it’s good publicity for the city, which is largely in a pretty depressed area compared to what it used to be.”
Not only would races be good for the city, Cote said, but that they would be good for teams, too.
“Waterville has a bunch of cheap hotels and cheap restaurants, so that’s really good for people coming here,” she said. ” Because it’s on Interstate 95 it’s really accessible.”
“Of course, having more people drawn to the venue will have a solid impact on the local economy. Situated within close proximity to stores, restaurants and hotels makes it a win win for all parties.”
She was confident that Quarry Road would soon be hosting high-level events, and said that having one more great venue would be a huge benefit for all of New England.
“Having a venue such as this in New England will be a great asset in terms of being able to hold high level races,” Sibilia wrote. “Part of my role as Director of Competition Programming for NENSA is overseeing regional events like our TD Bank Eastern Cup series. The series is designed to provide all levels of athletes with good competition. This is crucial for athlete development but in the global picture, we also need the ability to host National level events to ensure our juniors, U23′s and seniors have the fastest skiers to push them.
“These events also positively affect our coaches education and technical delegate programming by exposing everyone to the top level racers. The Quarry Road trails and nordic center will be able to manage all levels of events.”
For Koons, all of this is great – but he’s less worried about elite racers than he is about members of his own community.
“As far as motivating people, the very high end people such as the cross country teams, I mean, they’re already motivated,” Koons said. “They will go wherever they get the best deal or the best snow product. That’s just a fact of life. They’ll go to Canada, they’ll go to West Yellowstone. They will take care of themselves one way or the other.”
Cote noted that the new trails are very close to downtown and just a hop, skip, and a jump from Waterville’s Boys and Girls Club, which both she and Koons hoped would draw in more community members.
“Reaching out to kids who otherwise would not have this possibility or this experience at all, I think is a huge thing,” Koons said. “Especially with the various wellness programs with local hospitals… whatever you can do to encourage positive, active lifestyle changes for people who otherwise would not have that possibility, then you’ve done a huge service to the town and to the whole area.”
Soon, he hoped, kids would be heading down to Quarry road after school just like he had when he was growing up.
“I think that we’re a full four-season recreation area that happens to have a homologated FIS competition trail,” Koons said. “So I think that’s a pretty good thing.
“Hey, we have winter, it’s here, and not everybody can afford to go to Florida or Arizona for the winter. So you might as well have fun with it. It goes by a lot faster if you can enjoy it.”