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Susquehanna Life

New Life for a Nonprofit

Nov 20, 2015 06:15AM ● By Erica Shames

Crystal Lake Ski Center is situated on 960 acres, featuring 25 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails with set tracks, and five miles of snowshoeing trails created over glacial moraines. No, the ski center is not in Colorado; it’s located in Hughesville, Pa.

In operation since the 1970s, Crystal Lake Ski Center recently was purchased by Crystal Lake Camps, a non-profit 501(c)(3). After one year under new ownership, the ski center’s popularity is on the rise, according to Crystal Lake Camps executive director Nathan Bowen, who has lived on the property since 2008. But its future was not always certain.

A look back in time

From 1948 to 2002, the property was owned by the Alford family, who founded a private youth summer camp—what Bowen calls “the heart and soul” of Crystal Lake Camps—and started a downhill skiing operation.

The ski center expanded to incorporate cross-country ski trails developed over old logging roads, and it grew into a noteworthy location for cross-country skiing.

“The terrain is the best I know of within a thousand miles,” said Michael Gross, a physician and member of the Crystal Lake Ski Center ski advisory committee who has skied and volunteered at the ski center for several decades.

Gross and his wife moved to the area in the mid-1970s and had cross-country skied in the various places they have lived. “I moved here without any notion that I’d be able to find skiing and, all of a sudden, it appeared like a mirage out of the desert,” he said. “It’s a treasure.” 

The right thing to do

In 2002, the Alford family sold the property to Crystal Lake Camps, but Dorothy (Dottie) Alford maintained a lifetime lease to own and operate the ski center as a for-profit business. When her daughter Anna Alford assumed operation several years later, the future looked bright.

That prosperity was short-lived. “After three years,” said Gross, “very tragically, Anna died.” In 2012, responsibility for running the ski center returned to her elderly mother.

“You could see there just wasn’t much business,” added Bowen. “There was a core group of skiers who loved it, but it needed more.”

In 2014, Crystal Lake Camps purchased Crystal Lake Ski Center, making the ski center an arm of the non-profit organization. Though Bowen admitted to some trepidation on his part, and that of the Crystal Lake Camps board of directors, they felt it was the right thing to do.

“We saw the need for the ski center as our community recreational asset. We wanted to shepherd that as well as keep in line with the other activities we had going on at our facility,” said Bowen. 

Vital link

The transition may not have been possible without the assistance of STEP AmeriCorps, a program that partners with non-profit organizations and schools in Clinton, Tioga and Lycoming counties to provide AmeriCorps service members to perform critical roles within these organizations.

“The goal of the program is to have STEP AmeriCorps members work with non-profit organizations to build their internal and external capacity through partnership development and program implementation,” said Rachelle Abbott, chief operations officer at STEP, Inc.  

Through this program, STEP AmeriCorps service member Sue Stackhouse is serving her second year as outreach coordinator for Crystal Lake Ski Center.

“They [previous owners] didn’t have an individual like Sue who spent dedicated time every week out in the community handing out flyers, talking to people,” Bowen said. “That’s a huge benefit.” 

Taking it to the streets

One service is “Skis to Schools,” through which ski center members take cross-country skis to elementary schools to allow students to try the skis and learn about the sport.

“We’ll do it for Scouts, too,” said Stackhouse. “It’s a way to get children involved in winter recreation and introduce them to the sport.”

Bowen said they’ve reached more than 1,000 children this way, and he witnessed “a handful of families” who visited the ski center because their children had participated in the program. “We’re trying to be very customer service focused and receptive and warm to everyone who comes in,” he said.

Ski conditions are updated on the ski center’s Web site every morning, food delivery from local restaurants can be arranged, and Stackhouse continually works to gather feedback, partner with other non-profit organizations and ski groups, and share information via social media channels, email lists, local and national publications, and outfitters and businesses within and beyond Sullivan and Lycoming counties. 

The turnaround

Bowen has seen positive results. “I certainly saw what felt to me like an increase in traffic,” he said. “Even the energy around [the ski center] is different.”

His goal is to make Crystal Lake Ski Center financially sustainable before considering expansion. In the first year after the purchase, he witnessed countless efficiencies and is now confident that the best course of action was taken.

“It’s clear that the ski center should stay around for a long time,” he said. “Having it used by the community is hugely important to me, and I’m really glad we did it.” 

Written by Tara Caimi, an author, freelance writer and editor living in State College. 

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