For anyone looking for a 215-bedroom property in northern Wisconsin, there’s one heck of an opportunity in Cable just 21 miles north of the American Birkebeiner’s home in Hayward, according to American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation (ABSF) Executive Director Ben Popp.
In mid-October, a Colorado-based company with local ties, Newco, LLC., purchased Telemark Resort and its nearly 1,000 acres of wooded bliss (including a once-operational ski hill) for $926,000 dollars. Closed since the end of last season, its former owners fled town and locked the doors, leaving a note on the door stating they’d reopen after “spring cleaning” in May.
The spring and summer passed, and still no sign of Steve Kaufmann or Ric Ahern of the Minnesota-based Telemark Partners. The lien holder, Great Southern Bank of Missouri, filed for foreclosure in August. A Bayfield County judge ruled in favor of its sale, while also granting the American Birkebeiner – North America’s largest ski marathon, which has used Telemark as its start since its inception 41 years ago – a two-year easement to use the land.
On Oct. 15 at a Bayfield County sheriff’s sale, the historic resort (founded by Tony Wise in 1947 and home to famous chef Emeril Lagasse from 1978 to 1980) went to the highest of two bidders, Newco, which wanted it more than Great Southern Bank.
The next week, representatives from the Cable Area Chamber of Commerce and other concerned groups met with Newco, now known as Mount Telemark Partners. The new owners announced they had no intention of reopening the storied property, which has bounced between foreclosures in each of the last three decades (starting with Wise in 1984, faltering again in 1998 and once more in 2010).
But the owners were open to proposals, including those who wanted to buy or lease the lodge.
That’s where Popp thinks the deal is – if one can make it viable. He estimated an interested party could buy the lodge (with an indoor and outdoor pool) for $300,000 or $400,000 dollars, but it would take “four to eight million” dollars to get the lodge up and running again. Those figures are based on transforming Telemark into an elite training center, which Central Cross Country (CXC) Executive Director Yuriy Gusev confirmed is in the speculation stages.
“I am aware of a group that is looking at working towards an agreement with the new owner so that the lodge can re-open, but it is preliminary,” Gusev wrote in an email. “Should something like that happen, CXC is standing by to get involved in making Telemark a training center for CXC with facilities, trail system and community around it. If CXC is in a position to have a partnership with Telemark owners, CXC would be very interested to apply towards U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Site status.”
CXC has used Telemark as its training base for the last two years and brought two Paralympic World Cups to the venue in that time. Gusev explained that the local community is on board with their idea, and U.S. Olympic Committee is interested in reviewing their application should it happen.
According to the Wisconsin Public Radio News, CXC is interested in leasing the land, not running it, and met with the owners last week.
“They were receptive of what we would like to do and they were looking for more specific proposals from us,” Gusev said. “That’s why I hope we will have an opportunity to meet again and talk about more specifics.”
From the Birkie’s standpoint, Popp said they would be fully supportive of a training center or at the very least, the lodge’s reopening.
“It would be a fantastic training center,” Popp said. “It’s great terrain, the trails are homologated, it’s great rollerskiing and the trails are right there. It’s not that far from an international airport, and there’s a small regional airport [adjacent to the property].”
Even so, the Birkie isn’t interested in taking over. Popp said his foundation is in the business of citizen skiers rather than hospitality or running a high-performance training center. He conferred with several housing developers in the area, and they told him they couldn’t justify buying the property.
“They just couldn’t figure out a way to make it work,” he said. “I trust their judgment. They’ve been successful and they understand that business.”
Both others are interested, Popp explained, and Telemark’s new owners are hearing them out.
As far as the Birkie is concerned, they need to secure their start for more than two years out as well as several trails on the property, which make up half the Kortelopet. Between the two races, more than 10,000 skiers start on the local airport’s grass runway every year, but Popp would prefer to get them off that. It’s a bit of a pain with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), he explained.
“They don’t really like it, but they’ll give us one day to be out there and have the race,” Popp said.
The ABSF’s solution is to buy approximately 70 acres of Telemark and make a permanent place for the start and first several kilometers, eventually erecting a building of its own at the start line. For the time being, they’ll have to bring in tents and portable toilets for the Feb. 22 race unless the lodge is reopened over the winter.
Popp said temperatures were already below freezing at night, so if the owners didn’t make a decision soon, they risked some major plumbing problems.
“They’re going to have to put some money into to make sure the pipes don’t blow up and freeze over the winter,” he said. “That could force their hand.”
The ABSF was hoping to present their proposal by Nov. 1, but the exact parameters of the land they’re interested in needed to be worked out. Mostly, the Birkie wants to secure a start for all of its events – winter and summer – along with its own trails bordering Telemark and private landowners, which have demanded compensation to use their land in the past.
Three or four years ago, Popp said Telemark’s former owners wanted somewhere around $100,000 dollars to hold the race. Through careful diplomacy, the ABSF weathered that storm. Now they’re looking to see if they can first negotiate a deal with Telemark’s new owners, and then encourage the community to pitch in.
“It’s not as easy as buying that 70 acres,” Popp said. “Looking at the funding mechanism, my guess is it would be a $250,000 to $300,000 dollar project. It’s not a big open field, it’s densely wooded, but I think it would be very worth it. … It would take some time to do it; we’d want to be able to hit the ground running before the snow melted this spring.”
The good news is, he’s confident Mount Telemark Partners will consider it. Between all of its skiing, running and biking events, the Birkie brings in an estimated $70 million dollars each year to the local economy, Popp said.
“These folks said, ‘OK, we realize how important this is to the region, give us some proposals and what you need to hold this event for the next 50 years,’ ” he added.
While the rebuilding process is beginning, there are several pieces to be picked up. Popp estimated that most of the 215 rooms were sold out for the 2014 Birkie almost as soon as the 2013 event ended. The former owners essentially took the money and ran, leaving those who paid a deposit out of luck. The Birkie has been fielding several calls as a result.
“My guess is those people will unfortunately lose their deposit,” he said, advising those who booked with a credit card to contact their companies to fight the charge. “It’s a really, really unfortunate situation. I’m guessing there’s no way to reprimand them [the former owners].”
In the meantime, the ABSF has compiled a housing directory with hotel and rental availability within 60 miles of Hayward for people who call their office. The intermediate school in Hayward will also open its doors for affordable sleeping arrangements around $20-25 dollars a night and provide a bus to the start line.
“You can crash there, and it’s pretty cheap,” Popp said.
For more information on the American Birkebeiner or to contact their office, click here.
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.