Ski Cooper looks to outpace nearby Vail with $15.25 per hour starting wage
Community-owned ski area near Leadville is in solid financial position
Hiring has not been a problem so far at Ski Cooper, and the 480-acre ski area in southern Eagle County and northern Lake County hopes to keep it that way.
Ski Cooper announced Tuesday that it intends to raise its company minimum starting wage to $15.25 per hour.
In a news release, the company said its recent strong financial performance – along with recent economic challenges, changes in the labor force and demographics — prompted the increase.
“This new company minimum wage of $15.25 (per hour) exceeds the Lake County living wage figure of $14.26 (per hour) for a single adult as calculated by the MIT Living Wage Calculator and outpaces most ski resorts in the state, including the Vail Resorts, whose minimum wage this season is $15 (per hour),” the company said. “In addition to increasing the company minimum starting rate, this move will also provide for wage increases in all pay grades for our returning employees.”
Ski Cooper is rare example of a community-owned ski area in Colorado; Lake County controls the lease, and the ski area operations are governed by a nonprofit board. Dan Torsell oversees the day-to-day operations as the general manager.
The ski area is located in Eagle and Lake Counties, in both the White River and San Isabel National Forests on Tennessee Pass. It has heavy ties to World War II: The present-day ski area was a training site for the 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army during World War II.
The pay increase will affect mostly seasonal employees, Torsell said, as many salaried employees already received raises recently.
“Most of the folks (who) work here in the nonski season are salaried, year-round people, so this isn’t necessarily going to affect them,” Torsell said. “We addressed that earlier in the summer and got most of the people who were going to be here year-round bumped up.”
Ski Cooper plans to open Dec. 8. Torsell described his efforts to staff up for the season as “so far, so good.” He said while a core group of employees usually returns year after year, he also looks to hire newcomers. The ski area employs about 250 people during the prime visitor season.
“The returners — that’s going pretty well at this point in time. And we just now made this change in our pay rates, so I’m sure that will be an extra incentive for those who we haven’t talked to yet,” Torsell said.
Becoming more popular
The National Ski Areas Association reported in June that 59 million visits were recorded at U.S. ski areas last season, the fifth-best on record.
Compare that to the 2009-10 ski season, however, when the number was also 59.7 million. The following season produced a new record: 60.54 million skier days.
But while visits across the country have not increased between that time, Ski Cooper has seen steady growth.
“In 2009, when the ski area was hosting around 50,000 annual visits, tax filings show Ski Cooper took in about $1.9 million in gross revenue and lost $51,000 that year,” the Colorado Sun reported in 2020. “A decade later, the ski area logged closer to 80,000 skier days and harvested $3.9 million in revenue and reported an income of $719,000 with $2.4 million in savings. In the last 25 years, the ski area has invested about $9 million into improvements, all with cash from operations.”
Powder hounds will occasionally find deep snow conditions at Ski Cooper when rain is besetting other nearby areas; Ski Cooper’s base area sits at an elevation that is 150 feet higher than the top of the Lionshead gondola, and spring storms near the Continental Divide — where Ski Cooper is located — can bring deep powder to the top of its lifts, located at 11,700 feet.
During the 2019-2020 season, Ski Cooper opened a back bowl area with a new lift and 19 new trails, adding about 20 percent more skiable terrain to the area to bring the total in-bounds, offering to 480 acres.
Torsell says Ski Cooper saw 10-12 percent growth in skier visitation from the 2020-21 season compared to 2018-19, which he said is partially attributable to the expansion. But he said the pandemic has also created a situation where people might feel slightly safer at a smaller resort.
“Ski Cooper and Monarch and a few of the other midsized ski areas are positioned very well for this unfortunate pandemic event; people are looking for more space and less crowds,” Torsell said.
‘The right thing to do’
Ski Cooper offered a $249 season pass for returning customers last season — $299 for new pass holders, which Torsell said resulted in strong pass sales. Currently, a season pass at Ski Cooper is $399, with prices set to increase Oct. 1.
“Our season pass sales were awesome last year, and we’re beating it this year,” Torsell said.
Torsell said Ski Cooper’s increase in visits and revenue have left the ski area in solid financial position.
“I believe firmly that the fruits of these successes need to be shared with the people who make them possible,” Torsell said. “I could list a dozen reasons why current economic and market conditions make this a good move — but the simple fact is it’s just the right thing to do. Our people make Cooper what it is, especially the folks out there on the front lines every day, and we intend to take care of them.”