Tribune Review: By Paul Peirce

Forecasts for frequent snowstorms from late fall through spring have one group of Southwestern Pennsylvanians happy: those who waited 11 years for the reopening of Laurel Mountain Ski Resort in Ligonier Township.

“We were definitely excited when we heard Accuweather's long-range forecast for above-normal snowfall in this area for the skiing season,” said Katie Buchan, communications manager at Seven Springs Mountain Resort.

“Finally, Laurel Mountain will be open this year for skiing. It's finally going to happen — that's been the feeling around here,” Buchan said.

The resort atop Laurel Mountain, along Westmoreland's border with Somerset County, closed at the end of the 2004-05 ski season. Seven Springs signed a 10-year lease with the state in 2008 to operate the Laurel Mountain slopes.

On Friday, workers were making progress on the ski lodge after the resort was infused with $6.5 million from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Buchan said the upgrades include a modern ski lift, significant improvements to the trails, snow-making equipment and nearly double the snow-making capacity from a new pond with a 27 million-gallon capacity.

Ligonier Construction Co. in Laughlintown was awarded the $5.158 million general construction contract. Merit Electrical Group in Oakmont received a $369,800 contract.

You can count Ligonier Mayor Ormond “Butch” Bellas among those who can't wait until the snow flies.

“I remember when Laurel Mountain was known as the ski capital of Pennsylvania back in the 1950s and 1960s, and we want to make that true once again. We're really looking forward toward the positive economic infusion it will have on both sides of the mountain ... here in Westmoreland and on the other side in Somerset,” he said.

The ski resort opened in 1939 for Rolling Rock Club members. In 1964, the property was gifted to the state with the stipulation that no summer activities would occur there and no lodging would be constructed. It closed from 1989 to 1999, then reopened and closed several times between 1999 and 2005 because of mild winters and financial problems.

“Through the years, I have written to at least three Pennsylvania governor administrations, starting with Tom Ridge, then Ed Rendell and finally Tom Corbett to emphasize how important reopening it was, because we really have no industry here in the Valley. ... Our bread and butter is tourism,” Bellas said. “Finally, it's going to happen.”

Bellas, 71, and his family learned to ski on the slopes in the 1970s, and he worked on ski patrol there from 1999 until 2004. His daughter, Kim, of Ligonier, who also worked ski patrol, recently was named the slope's ski patrol director.

Buchan noted that the resort is marketing a special pass that allows visitors to ski all three resort-operated slopes: Laurel Valley, Seven Springs and Hidden Valley Resort in Somerset County, which was purchased in 2013.

Individual season passes to Laurel Mountain also are available. The cost for a full-season regular adult pass for ages 18 to 64 is $450; a junior pass for ages 12-17, $390; and a children's pass for ages 6-11, $360.

Buchan said the slope opening date is up to Mother Nature. But there is a recipe, she said.

“We need five or seven days of heavy snow-making, with temperatures 20 degrees or lower, and also low humidity. It seems like a lot of factors, but historically it is pretty consistent when it occurs, and we anticipate it in mid-November,” she said.

Seven Springs has received a lot of calls for information about the Laurel Mountain opening, she said.

“People remember Laurel Mountain has one of the steepest skiing grades in the state. The Lower Wildcat (slope) has a 72 percent grade,” Buchan said.

The slope will be for skiing and snowboarding only, which Seven Springs will manage. Buchan noted the facility is in a state park area that has cross-country and snowshoeing activities as well.

“We now have three beautiful ski resorts in our family, and we hope the public enjoys them. It will be a new chapter for us,” she said.

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