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WALHALLA -- A nonprofit that is buying a northeastern North Dakota ski resort has big plans for the recreational area, with leaders saying the popular attraction is a key point in the upper Red River Valley’s success.

The recently founded Pembina Gorge Foundation has signed a purchase agreement for the Frost Fire Ski Mountain and Amphitheater, according to a new release. The foundation expects to close on the property by the end of May.

“I see it as tremendous opportunity to bolster another leg of our economic stool if you will,” said Dawn Keeley, the executive director of the Red River Regional Council who serves as the foundation’s co-director. “This is the beginning of a new chapter in tourism and recreational development in our state.”

Located in the Pembina Gorge about 100 miles northwest of Grand Forks, Frost Fire has been under the ownership of Richard and Judith Johnson for more than 40 years, but Judith was looking to retire after her husband died in March 2016.

The goal is to raise $3.1 million, with more than two-thirds of those funds going toward the purchase, as well as maintenance and improvements, for the 173-acre property that includes downhill skiing, tubing, cross country skiing and summer theater. The rest would support the nonprofit in the long term.

The foundation was incorporated in January, but it already has received support from Grand Forks officials, area job development authorities, the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department and the state’s tourism department. It has secured about $900,000 in grants, as well as $700,000 in private donations.

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Attracting as many as 30,000 customers annually, Frost Fire is integral to attracting visitors from the region, including travelers from Canada, Keeley said. Tourists spent about $17 million in Cavalier and Pembina counties in 2015, generating $1.85 million in local tax revenue, North Dakota Tourism Director Sarah Otte Coleman wrote in a letter announcing her department’s support of the foundation.

Last winter, operations at the foundation were limited to tubing because of ski lift damage, but the foundation hopes to repair the ski lifts so downhill skiing is available this season, Keeley said.

The foundation has secured the rights to hold productions for the summer theater, which begins in July. It also wants to construct a 35-mile mountain bike trail park along the slopes of Frost Fire, with a soft opening planned for the fall, Keeley said.

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April Baumgarten is a business and political journalist for the Herald. Contact her at (701) 780-1248 or abaumgarten@gfherald.com. Follow her on Twitter @aprilbaumsaway.

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