In Belknap County, a battle over the future of a beloved local ski resort reaches a boiling point
Update, Feb. 23, 2022: As part of their ongoing push for reform at the ski resort, the Belknap County delegation has appointed a political ally to fill a vacant seat on Gunstock's board. But on the same day, a State House committee objected to a proposal that would give the delegation additional control over the mountain's finances. Read more here.
The sun was out but a cold wind blew as Carla Marsh readied to hit the slopes at Gunstock Mountain Resort in Gilford last week. A season pass holder who lives nearby, Marsh was acutely aware of the controversy surrounding her home ski mountain — but getting to the bottom of what’s going on hasn’t been easy.
“It’s extremely complicated, and you just don’t get the whole story,” she said. “You get pieces from this side and pieces from that side, and it’s hard to sort the true facts.”
Her struggle is understandable. The battle over Gunstock’s future has been playing out for months in the courts, the local press, the State House and county government meetings. It’s also become intertwined with a larger battle over the stewardship of other public resources in Belknap County, like the local nursing home, as some community members allege that local elected officials aren’t acting in their best interests.
At the root of the controversy at Gunstock is its unique governance structure. Built after the Great Depression with funding from the Works Progress Administration, the mountain is owned by Belknap County. But since 1959, Gunstock has been run by a five-person commission whose members are chosen by Belknap County’s state representatives.
That structure was designed, in theory, to protect Gunstock’s independence and keep politics at bay. But in recent years, some of Belknap County’s most conservative lawmakers have battled for greater control over the mountain: filing legislation to take charge of its budget, threatening to remove current board members and accusing some of those board members of criminal activity.
That battle is expected to come to a head tonight, as the delegation votes to fill a seat on Gunstock’s board left open when one commissioner stepped down due to concerns over state lawmakers’ recent actions, as reported by the Laconia Daily Sun. Depending on the outcome, Gunstock’s operations could be subject to more political oversight — whether the public wants it or not.
While the lawmakers leading the charge to overhaul Gunstock’s operations allege financial mismanagement and a lack of transparency, locals aren’t exactly championing any real call for change. Last winter, the mountain reported a record-setting season despite the pandemic. Last fall, it released an ambitious expansion plan that could turn it into one of the largest ski areas in the state, according to the Laconia Daily Sun. And when given the chance to weigh in on the delegation’s plans, the public's response has been clear: They don’t want lawmakers managing the mountain.
That disconnect between what the community wants out of Gunstock and what elected officials are doing instead has been on display for months at delegation meetings, led by Belmont Rep. Mike Sylvia.
A five-term lawmaker who has in recent years signed onto a document declaring the state government illegitimate and used racist language as part of a campaign to get New Hampshire to secede from the rest of the country, Sylvia has in at least one public hearing accused some of Gunstock’s current board members of criminal defamation, improper influence and conspiracy, among other alleged misdeeds. He has also dismissed some of the people opposing the delegation’s recent actions at Gunstock as “Marxists” seeking to protect the interests of the elite.
Sandra Mucci, a Meredith real estate agent who has spoken out against the delegation’s preferred Gunstock board candidates, said she’s alarmed by the vitriol coming from state lawmakers at recent public meetings.
“The anger in that room was tangible,” Mucci said. “I mean, you could taste it.”
That anger has also spilled into recent hearings at the State House. When some Belknap County Republicans introduced a bill to give them approval over all of Gunstock’s spending, more than 1,200 people registered their opposition. Among them was Gunstock board member Gary Kiedaisch, who said the Belknap County delegation isn’t acting in good faith.
“We’ve asked them to sit at our table, they refuse,” said Kiedaisch, whose resume includes a stint as the CEO of Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont. “We ask them if they have any questions about the financials, they don’t ask.”
Rep. Norm Silber, a Gilford conservative who sponsored the bill to seize greater control over Gunstock, said the mountain’s record-high revenues are immaterial to him. In his view, no taxpayer-owned entity deserves the independence Gunstock has.
“They just do whatever they want,” Silber told NHPR. “They spend whatever they want without any oversight and without any transparency and without any disclosure and that’s the problem.”
And this line of thinking, however at odds with reality, clearly has the backing of at least some of Silber’s colleagues in the state Legislature. Its true reach may be revealed today, when the Belknap County delegation is scheduled to fill the current vacancy on Gunstock’s board and another panel of lawmakers is set to debate the bill to take away some of the ski area’s independence.
Woody Fogg, a former head of state emergency management who sat on Gunstock’s board for 15 years starting in the 1980s, worries that more legislative involvement will only compromise an asset that should be dear to everyone in Belknap County. But Fogg sees the delegation’s push to exert more control as a reflection of a broken political climate.
“A symptom of the times, but the lack of collegiality is what strikes me the most,” Fogg said. “We used to have so much of that.”
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