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Downhill battle

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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

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Running a family-owned ski area isn't easy — just ask the family.

By Oakley Brooks

On most busy mornings, Chuck Shepard is the first person skiers see at his small resort 20 miles west of Sisters. He waves them into place in the parking lot and makes a few cracks about the weather. But at 8:15 a.m. on this frigid Saturday a week before Christmas, he's seen good reason to abandon his welcoming post: A few employees have crossed an imaginary line in Hoodoo’s giant lot and parked in the guest area.

Shepard beats past groggy skiers seeking early refuge in the lodge, charges into the ticket offi ce and a woman’s voice is quickly overhead on the loudspeaker. “We have employees parked in guest spots….” Then Shepard darts around to the lift operator’s staff room. “That’s really nice of you guys,” he says, shifting from foot to foot. “Because you know if you park there, you work for free. Which is fi ne with me.” A blur of parka, back he goes to the ticket offi ce. “He’s on today,’’ observes his lodge manager, as Shepard goes by.

“It’s a new batch trying to see what they can get away with,” Shepard says, his loud crackle of a voice carrying through the halls and his poker face in its state of near-smile.

Back in the parking lot, infractions sorted out, Shepard helps two bundled teens align the cars as they arrive. When it’s time for a new row, he leans his average frame into the wind, which is gusting to 43 mph, bounds off 23 short quick steps from the back of the last car and sets down an orange cone. The cold is piercing, but it doesn’t appear to get to Shepard. It was 3 degrees when he woke this morning before dawn to scrape a layer of fl urries off the parking lot with his huge plow.

Two young skiers pass him on the way to the lodge, and one turns, recognizing Shepard from church in Eugene: “Hey, you’re Chuck.” Shepard brightens up. “Yeah, it’s Hoodoo Chuck up here,” he shoots back. “Hoodoo Chuck.”

Chuck Shepard built a small fortune through his Umbrella Properties company by amassing 1,500 rental properties from Lebanon down to Eugene. But Chuck Shepard never got picked out of a crowd. By contrast, Hoodoo Chuck bought a ski hill and Cascade campgrounds in 1999 and now has his own Web page, appears on television and checks in with Willamette Valley radio stations during Friday morning drive time. That Chuck gets stopped at the movie theater.

“When you’re a landlord you’re the bad guy, but here you’re the good guy,” says Shepard. “It’s kind of fun being a celebrity.”

His rise in the public eye and within his family is a motivator for Shepard. He bought the 30-trail area at 5,700-foot Hoodoo Butte because he wanted to leave a legacy for his kids beyond apartment complexes and because he liked the idea of owning a community institution. “Now here I am, one of the biggest names in skiing in Oregon and the biggest name in camping.”

Sometimes, however, Shepard, the compulsive, controlling, outspoken businessman, upstages the new fun-loving celebrity. And, lately, the urge is growing stronger.

From the very first year, when sewer backups twice turned the staging area by Hoodoo’s main lift a filthy brown, he and his family helpers discovered the experience would be just as much headache as heartwarming. “It’s like seeing Disneyland in a whole new way,” says Shepard’s daughter, Tasha McFarland, 30, who’s involved in Hoodoo management.

But, for fi ve years, the Shepard clan crept along near breakeven while investing $12 million in a new lodge, lifts and other upgrades. Shepard slowly started handing off management to Tasha and her husband, Mathew McFarland. Then, last year, poor snow forced Hoodoo to close early. Skier visits were down 67%. And the reality set in of how frustrating the ski business can be.

"This is definitely the most difficult business I've been in," Shepard says. "I'm wealthy enough that it's not gonna break me. The question is, does it enhance my life and those around me? That was the case until last year."

SHEPARD PAID $1.5 MILLION FOR THE SKI AREA and campgrounds in 1999, combining them into Hoodoo Family


Recreation. Last season's poor showing cost the company $400,000. The snow was inconsistent and people believed the season was a total washout. Skier visits fell to just under 20,000, down from close to 60,000 in his best year, 2003-04.

Camping receipts provide the company some income and help pay the bills in the lean summer months. Shepard is also avoiding taxes now by taking the depreciation on his substantial construction up front. But to make money in the long run, Shepard fi gures he has to average better than 70,000 skier visits a year by better exploiting his niche as a cheaper, quality alternative to bigger, higher-elevation resorts on Mount Hood and Mount Bachelor.

Hoodoo’s experience is not unique among Oregon’s eight small ski areas, which average 60,000 annual skier visits or less and are often called “marginal” for good reason. Fickle weather at their mostly low-lying locations means fi nancial stability is elusive, even a distant dream for some. “I don’t know what that feels like,” says Tim Wiper, who’s owned Willamette Pass, 57 miles southeast of Eugene, for 25 years. Like their small-business brethren in other industries, small ski area margins have recently been kept tighter by fuel, insurance and labor costs. Staying alive is, as much as anything, about keeping morale up in the face of constant uncertainty, from gods and men.

This season has been rocky, marred by rain before storms began to drop good snow in early January, and Shepard is trying to stay Zen. “If the weather pulls us down again this year, I will feel bad but there isn’t much I can do about it,”

RICK AND ALI GERATHS HAVE DECIDED what Hoodoo needs is a little more of its former self. The 3-year-old, 60,000-square-foot lodge, where the middle-aged Gerathses are still hunkered down at 9 a.m., with the summit still enshrouded in freezing fog, is Exhibit A for what's amiss. The old building was moldy and cramped, and gentlemen occasionally lost their footing on the bathroom tile and slid into the urinal trough. But it was a symbol of the Hoodoo's funky heyday of the 1960s and '70s, when it was the place to ski in Central Oregon and the Gerathses first carved up its slopes and campgrounds in 1999, combining them into Hoodoo Family Recreation. Last season’s poor showing cost the company $400,000. The snow was inconsistent and people believed the season was a total washout. Skier visits fell to just under 20,000, down from close to 60,000 in his best year, 2003-04.he writes in one posting on Hoodoo's website. "If we fail in this grand experiment, it will be with a smile on my face." But his everyday quibbles and worries snowball into one larger concern. Even with his deep pockets, "Hoodoo can't be fed forever," he says.

“This is defi nitely the most diffi cult business I’ve been in,” Shepard says.

“I’m wealthy enough so it’s not gonna break me,” he continues. “The question is, does it enhance my life and those around me? That was the case until last year.”

This new space is roomy, tidy and has plenty of plastic chairs and an electric fireplace, but, says Ali, "I'm trying to think how to be politically correct. It just doesn't have that cozy feel. It's industrial."

Shepard's a good candidate to keep Hoodoo down-to-earth even as it modernizes. A Wisconsin native and self-avowed former hippie, he and wife, Tish, lived in a commune in the Coburg Hills on arrival in Oregon. They stayed there when Shepard moved from graduate studies at the University of Oregon to begin his successful foray into real estate in the early 1970s. (In the boom between 1975-79, he made $1 million turning around four apartment complexes.)

He's still not afraid to appear in the buck at hot springs around Hoodoo, and he's added campy touches at the mountain: the loud Hawaiian shirts he sports in the spring, and the Hodag mascot, a green monster that, legend has it, emigrated to Hoodoo from Wisconsin.

But other details at Hoodoo set the old-timers off. For instance, it costs $10 to park your RV in the Hoodoo lot now; it used to be free. The Gerathses repeatedly tell Shepard how to get some of the old charm back: goodies such as season passes for $199 (they're currently $495), free trips on the beginner chairlift, or just more time on skis for Shepard. Six seasons after his arrival, there's a sense in talking to the Gerathses that the jury's still out on whether Shepard is the right fit for Hoodoo, or any ski hill for that matter.

"Chuck's a great guy, he's just pigheaded," Rick says. "He's got no mountain sense."

Shepard willingly engages anyone, including the Gerathses, on how best to run his hill. He's even asked candidly on his website, Why are you guys going to other mountains? He's baffled by his skiers' lack of loyalty.

For all their armchair quarterbacking, the Gerathses still see a lot to love at Hoodoo. It's unpretentious, hard to get lost on its 36 trails, and the summit, surrounded by black diamond runs, is still a challenge to the savviest shredders. "It's hard core," Rick says. "I mean, look at what the weather is doing out there today, man."

JUST AS ALI GERATHS ANNOUNCES she will brave the cold, Shepard's son-in-law, Mathew McFarland, shows up. He produces a $5-off coupon to Martolli's pizzeria in Sisters and tells her to use it to check the sharpness of his lift operators.


Give it to the first operator who asks to see your pass before noon, says the 33-year old McFarland. "Otherwise you get to keep it. So there's incentive for you not to show your pass," he says, giving her a cheeky grin.

McFarland and his wife, Tasha, the oldest of the Shepard's six children, came to work for Shepard in August 2000 after McFarland spent 10 years in management at Brighton Ski Resort, 30 minutes southeast of Salt Lake City. By any industry measure, Hoodoo is a big step down from the slick Brighton, which gets at least 300,000 skier visits a year to a series of 10,000-foot peaks drawing 500 inches of annual snow, compared to Hoodoo's 300 inches in a good year. His wife wanted to be closer to her family and so McFarland's making a good-natured go of the shorter, wetter season in Oregon. "It's like farming watermelons," he says, and, as his squeezable 3½-year-old son, Chisel, climbs up into his lap, he adds, "This is the best part."

One of the trickier parts of the job for McFarland is navigating the whims of Shepard. The current division of labor has McFarland managing the day-to-day operations, with Shepard doing the marketing (Tasha will eventually oversee Umbrella Properties and Hoodoo, according to Shepard, but she's currently playing full-time mom for two young sons). It's sometimes hard, however, for McFarland to see when the transition of authority will be complete.

"He's claiming he's handed it over, but when he wants something done his way he does it himself," says McFarland, looking relaxed while on a touchy subject. "A lot of confusion comes because he doesn't want to relinquish control. He'll tell people to do something and then he'll do it himself, or he'll do something and he just won't tell people about it."

"I love being here and working with Chuck," Tasha says, "But when we disagree on business I take it personally." Mathew McFarland knows it could be a lot worse. Last summer, when he blew out 11 windows in the new lodge while blasting rocks on the mountain, Shepard didn't put up a fuss in signing off on replacements. "He's doing a better job than a lot of other hand-offs — look at the Hiltons," McFarland says. "The dad's still in charge at 70."

Shepard is 57.

AT LUNCH TIME, SHEPARD STRIDES OVER to where McFarland is sitting on the second floor of the lodge. The batteries in the fireplace are corroded, Shepard says, and they need to be replaced. McFarland gives a nod. The lodge is quickly busying with a few hundred hearty, boot-stomping souls looking to refuel. This would be a decent mid-week skier count. Chisel needs to go potty so McFarland takes him up to the family apartment that forms the top floor of the lodge. Grandma Tish, who only helps out sparingly with operations, holds fort up there.

Shepard is settling into a chair among the lunching masses when a red flag goes up: a teenager dragging his snowboard to his lunch table. No equipment upstairs. Chuck immediately hustles over and sends the boy back downstairs to drop his board, just as the youngster had set his eyes on his sandwich.

On his way out to Hoodoo's tubing run, Shepard passes by the table again. The snowboarder's father tells Shepard how he recently squandered four hours at Mt. Hood Meadows wading through crowds in the parking lot and some red tape in the marketing office to get his season pass. Shepard seizes on the moment.

"You know, we're doing to skiing what Marriott did for the hotel industry," he says, loud enough so the surrounding tables can hear. "Everybody in the industry started hating them because their service was so good. They raised the standard."

The two dads at the table nod politely.

Downstairs, Shepard says he doesn't understand why the guy goes to Meadows if he continues to face hassles there.

He climbs behind the wheel of his forest green Lincoln Navigator, license plate WHO DO, and rolls through a series of parking lots to the tubing hill, known as the Autobahn.

Munchkins and adults alike are flopping on the oversized rubber tubes at the top and flying down the cold, packed snow in giggling fear. Then they hook into a rope tow and ride back up the incline. Hoodoo Chuck is beaming. "All of this was my idea," he says of the Autobahn. "From beginning to end."

Two teenagers come careening down into the dip at the end of the run, narrowly missing some others heading to the rope tow. The young attendant who is supposed to be heading off these collisions is gazing off into the trees. Shepard doesn't say anything. Another sledder softly bumps someone at the bottom. Shepard calls to his staffer and tells her to start forcefully directing traffic. She can't hear him. Shepard gives a laughing sigh and says, "I should really go down there."

He doesn't. Instead he heads to a canvas yurt where tubers get their hot chocolate. But he's still preoccupied, even grappling, with what he should do. Will he always be wrestling with his ski business like this?

A few minutes pass. He finally gives in, walks out of the yurt and heads down the hill to set the attendant straight.

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