In Contrast to Lake Placid Venues, Soldier Hollow Blazes its Own Path

FasterSkierJuly 28, 20102

A view of the trail system at 2002 Olympic venue Soldier Hollow

Following the funding scare with the Olympic Regional Development Authority in Lake Placid earlier this year, FasterSkier correspondent Peter Minde is examining the structure and viability of various post-Olympic venues around North America. This piece, his second in the series, looks at the status of Soldier Hollow, in Utah.

Cross country skiing and biathlon drew more athletes and spectators than any other sports at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. But Soldier Hollow, the venue for those events, had a murky post-Olympic future even as it was being developed.

While Lake Placid’s Mount Van Hoevenberg is managed by a semi-public entity that depends partially on state financing, Soldier Hollow is a stand-alone organization.  Although it’s on state land, SoHo receives no state funding and must rely on its own initiatives to keep running.

Originally, Soldier Hollow wasn’t in the picture for the Winter Olympics. In their bid for the 2002 Games, the Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC) had proposed running cross-country events at a golf course just outside of town.

According to William Spencer, the deputy chief of competition for biathlon at the Games, SLOC wanted to construct the venue at a temporary facility at the Mountain Dell Golf Course. But Mountain Dell was in an area with unreliable snowfall.

“Could we have done it there [Mountain Dell]? Probably. But there were hurdles we could avoid by going elsewhere,” said Gordon Lange, head coach of the Park City Nordic Ski Club. In addition to unreliable snowfall, there were water runoff concerns, and snowmaking at Mountain Dell would have been very expensive. Development of Olympic-quality trails would also have disturbed protected habitat in East Canyon and Mountain Dell.

A young Torin Koos racing at Soldier Hollow

Organizers conducted on-site inspections of seven potential sites before SLOC narrowed it down to two candidates. The venue was then switched to Soldier Hollow, which has “some of the best skiing anywhere in the world,” says U.S. Nordic Combined Head Coach Dave Jarrett. Opened in 2000, Soldier Hollow was the site for all the cross country, biathlon and Nordic combined events at the 2002 Games.

When the Games generated a profit, SLOC had money to spare to ensure that the Olympic venues could be used by the public for years to come.  The Utah Athletic Foundation (UAF), a private non-profit, was designated by the state to take ownership of Olympic Park, the Park City venue for ski jumping and luge, bobsled and skeleton, and the speed skating oval near Salt Lake City. Endowed with $76 million, UAF took over these sites in May of 2002, expecting to manage them on interest generated by the endowment.

State legislation originally specified that any profit from the games would endow only Olympic Park and the speed skating oval, and Soldier Hollow was to be on its own starting in early April, 2002.  But because UAF received a larger-than-expected endowment, in early October of that year, the Utah state parks board transferred Soldier Hollow’s concession to UAF. Thus, the cross-country venue benefited from a financial commitment that enabled them to invest in infrastructure and equipment.

But the affiliation was not necessarily permanent. Indeed, by early 2004, UAF was struggling, and news sources were reporting the layoff of twelve employees. An item in a July, 2004 issue of the Salt Lake City paper Deseret News noted that despite its endowment, UAF was having difficulty breaking even on its operations at Olympic Park and the Olympic Speedskating Oval.

For UAF, there was an out clause after two years. In an interview, Jarrett noted that despite campaigning to grandfather Soldier Hollow in to UAF, the two organizations severed their relationship in the spring of 2004. UAF didn’t think it could afford to fund Soldier Hollow in addition to its other two venues.

The Soldier Hollow Legacy Foundation (SHLF), which manages the ski area, was founded in 1999 to perpetuate the ski venue following the Olympic Games. According to General Manager Howard Peterson, as a concessionaire operating on state land, SHLF pays 6 percent of its gross receipts to the state. A main focus of SHLF’s mission is to reach and expose local kids to cross-country skiing.

With no government aid and a limited commitment from UAF, Peterson was compelled to find creative measures to attract visitors and enhance Soldier Hollow’s bottom line. Consequently, one can do a lot more than simply ski at Soldier Hollow. Mountain bikers ride the cross-country trails from May through October. Parking fees assessed to those attending the Soldier Hollow Classic Sheepdog Championships, now in its ninth year, fund junior ski programs. The Soldier Hollow Charter School rents space in the competition center for its 150 students, in classes ranging from kindergarten through 8th grade.

“If it wasn’t for Howard, we wouldn’t be skiing there right now,” said Lange, whose juniors spend time training at Soldier Hollow both on snow and on roller skis.

In the summer of 2002, work began on a 1,200-foot tubing hill, funded by UAF.  The lift-served hill was a hit, accounting for approximately 59 percent of Soldier Hollow’s revenue in 2008, the most recent year for which data is available. (By contrast, skiing made up a mere 18 percent of revenue.)

Peterson felt that a tubing hill was a great way to attract visitors who might not be interested in skiing. “[The campaign] is about snow,” he said.

“Tubing provides an alternative for families where some members might not want to ski,” said Bill Hokanson, the head coach for the Utah Nordic Alliance’s

The start of a women's race at the 2002 Olympics in Soldier Hollow

competition programs.

There’s also the charter school, which adds to the pool of skiers at the venue, in addition to paying rent. As part of their curriculum, charter school students get outside on skis about four times a week during the winter.

But the legacy foundation doesn’t just keep Soldier Hollow open, however—the organization also gives back to the community.

Monday through Thursday during the winter, three or four school buses roll in each day, introducing what Peterson estimates are 9,000 children to skiing each winter. Soldier Hollow does “a fantastic job of introducing skiing to organizations and schools,” says Hokanson.

Jarrett started Soldier Hollow’s youth ski program from scratch in fall of 2000, bringing cross-country skiing to an area where the sport had little tradition. The club, now called Team Soldier Hollow, is comprised of various programs for juniors, from beginners through a development team.

SHLF also provides support for athletes who qualify for the Junior Olympics, with a combination of fundraising assistance and scholarships. And aspiring elite athletes benefit from discounted ski passes, which are available to athletes on formal teams.

In contrast to the venues in Lake Placid, which have been subject to the whims of the New York state budget process, Soldier Hollow now seems stable in comparison: SHLF’s financial footing appears sound, and Peterson was positive about its future. One thing is certain: the venue is almost certainly better off as an independent entity than as a part of UAF. In March, the Utah legislature was presented with SRJ011, a bill which would allow UAF to sell a portion of the Olympic Park property. The body of the bill notes that the Olympic Park and speed skating oval’s annual costs have consistently exceeded revenues, and that UAF’s endowment might be exhausted by 2025.

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  • DOC

    July 30, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    Soldier Hollow is an unbelievable nordic destination. It is like the Snowbird of nordic skiing just fast, silky trails. I am biased as I work in the ski industry in Utah but any nordic skier who has ever considered a visit here should get on it. All my friends who have hit up Soldier Hollow from across the country refer to it as Mecca. The wildest thing is how the tubing hill gets unbelievably packed but the trails are always uncrowded and perfectly groomed. I swear I was not paid to say any of this…….

  • nordic_dave

    July 30, 2010 at 3:05 pm

    On a good day it rocks. HOWEVER the grooming is not scheduled nor can you find any grooming report on the internet. You can show up pay $18 and they have groomed 3k. They will definately groom the tubing hill but not the ski trails.

    I once arrived to ski uptempo for 3 hours. 3 to 4 inches of wet gloppy snow had fallen the night before and the track was ungroomed. It was a Sunday morning and you can expect it to be one of the two busiest days of week there. The groomer did the stadium then up to the tubing hill then back to the garage. I was incredulous.

    Pfft! This is not the first time nor the last time that grooming is very unpredictable at SoHo. On days where everything is hard and fast and it’s sunny, SoHo definately rocks. On other days because of it’s lower altitude it can be extremily warm.

    I’d rather pay $180 for a season pass for the North Valley trail system near Ketchum, Idaho and ski 100k + of trails, check the internet daily on what will be groomed with current trail conditions. The Galena Trails in my opinion are better than SoHo and have incredible forrests and hills to ski up around and through.

    I live 15 miles from Soldier Hollow it is not a “destination” place for me to ski and I have no problem driving 4 hours north that is.

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