A reopening and a reckoning at Gunstock Mountain Resort
This story was originally produced by the New Hampshire Bulletin, an independent local newsroom that allows NHPR and other outlets to republish its reporting.
After a 13-day closure this summer, the issues that shuttered the county-owned Gunstock Mountain Resort in Gilford were recently resolved. The senior management team that had abruptly quit returned to work, Adventure Park ziplines reopened, and stages were erected so the Christian music festival SoulFest could begin. Come winter, the ski mountain is set to run as usual.
But the battle over Gunstock wasn’t just about the fate of a mountain resort. It was a confrontation over the proper role of government and the very identity of the state Republican Party. Whether government-run public resources should be privatized was up for debate.
Belknap County leaders have cut budgets for the nursing home and sheriff’s department. Earlier this year, a small group in the town of Croydon gutted the local school budget. Thirteen state representatives voted this year to secede from the union, four of them from Belknap County.
Gunstock’s temporary closure was one more glimpse of what some members of the Free State Project have been advocating for since they targeted New Hampshire as the place to make their political vision reality and began moving here 20 years ago. But while many traditional New Hampshire Republicans may often see common cause with the libertarian-minded Free Staters and those who share their views, the Gunstock saga revealed limits to the uneasy alliance.
And now lawmakers and voters alike are just beginning to apply the hard-learned lessons, in Belknap County and beyond. Voters are getting organized, a political action committee has been created, and new candidates are running for office.
“These issues are serious enough that if they’re not corrected – they can only be corrected at the ballot box – people could wake up some morning and Gunstock is history, and the Belknap County Nursing Home could be privatized,” said Brian Gallagher, former chair of the Gunstock Area Commission. “And that could be very difficult for folks as they age and can’t afford private care.”
For some, Gunstock’s closure was a wake up call about the direction the county was heading.
“We never should have gotten to that point,” said County Commissioner Peter Spanos. “Gunstock should never be turned into political football like it was.”
How did we get here?
To understand what happened at Gunstock, it helps to begin with the complex governance structure for the mountain. There are three governing entities involved – the Belknap County delegation, Gunstock Area Commission and Belknap County Commission – and even more factions.
The delegation, made up of the county’s 18 state representatives, appropriates money to county operations. They also appoint the five-member Gunstock Area Commission, which oversees the ski area. Two members of that commission opposed the mountain administration, and for a time had the support of delegation members considered sympathetic to privatization.
The Belknap County Commission’s three members are elected directly and oversee operations of all county departments, buildings, and land. All but one are Republicans in a county that’s long been a party stronghold. Hunter Taylor, clerk of the county commission, is the sole Democrat on the commission but was formerly a Republican. He quit the party during Donald Trump’s presidency.
Gunstock’s reopening hinged on the resignations of two Gunstock Area Commission members: David Strang and Peter Ness.
Strang and Ness maintain that Tom Day’s administration was involved in illegal financial wrongdoing, claims that have not been substantiated. The two created such a hostile work environment that continuing to work at the mountain was untenable, said Day, the mountain’s general manager.
The board then splintered between commissioners fighting for Gunstock to reopen and those fighting against what they saw as a corrupt administration.
“Look out at that mountain that’s not currently operational – that’s because of you,” Commissioner Jade Wood said to Strang and Ness, at a July 26 commission meeting in which she, Commissioner Doug Lambert, and around 250 members of the public called for their resignations.
In an interview, Lambert said Ness and Strang had interfered with the mountain’s management, such as when Strang instructed the chief financial officer not to comply with a routine annual audit.
“It just set everything off,” Lambert said. “The level of toxicity grew to the point where it more or less crippled their relationship with the administration team.”
With Ness and Strang on the offensive, board meetings became increasingly contentious: a hornet’s nest of attacks, accusations, and aggression. One onlooker called it open warfare.
But that situation was only possible because of the county delegation’s support of Ness and Strang. The delegation had targeted other commission members in November. Members with experience were replaced with those seen as political friends, such as Strang, who is treasurer of the Belknap Republican Party. That’s led to widespread criticism that the delegation was supporting commissioners based on political allegiance rather than expertise.
“The delegation basically persisted in this assault on the Gunstock Area Commission and the management,” said Sen. Bob Giuda, a Warren Republican, whose district includes Gunstock. “Behind this there’s a will that’s been expressed to privatize, which is against the law and against the will of the vast majority of the people.”
“They took a commission that had produced a $9 million profit last year and replaced it with their own henchmen, who then proceeded to berate, abuse, and disrespect the management team, until the management team said, ‘We’re done,’” said Giuda.
Gunstock has been owned and operated by the county since it was built in 1937 as a public works project under President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to get the country out of the Great Depression. In 1959, the Gunstock Area Commission was created. The county’s state representatives appoint commissioners who serve staggered terms, intended to provide the mountain a degree of insulation from the swinging pendulum of politics. Onlookers and board members say that insulation has eroded under the current delegation.
“The past Gunstock Area Commission members were on the string of the Free Staters,” said Rick Zach, who worked as an IT-administrator at Gunstock. There is a new political action committee, Citizens for Belknap County, a bipartisan effort to support candidates it deems responsible and remove “extreme legislators.”
Belknap County has long been a conservative part of the state that went for Trump in 2016, but the makeup of the Republican Party has changed with the arrival of “liberty loving” members of the Free State Project. And that’s revealed a rift in the party, between fiscal conservatives and those in favor of limiting government to the extreme. Some in the latter faction believe the county shouldn’t be in the business of operating a ski hill at all.
‘Dissecting government from the inside out’
Some Free State members hold powerful positions with sway over who gets selected for the Gunstock Area Commission, like the chair of the delegation, Rep. Mike Sylvia, a Belmont Republican. Sylvia did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.
“What drastically changed was two election cycles ago, the Free Staters moved to New Hampshire with the express goal of dissecting government from the inside out and chopping it up into pieces because they didn’t think governments should tell people what to do,” said Zach.
The Free State Project was founded in 2001, emerging from the Libertarian Party. The idea was that “pro-liberty activists” in pursuit of personal freedom would pledge to move to New Hampshire once 20,000 people signed up. The group met that benchmark in 2016, triggering the move. They chose New Hampshire as a small, liberty-minded state, with the hope of concentrating like-minded people to maximize their impact on business, government, and the community. The group advocates for extremely limited government and reducing taxes and regulations.
“With its small population and live-free-or-die culture, New Hampshire is the ideal place to pioneer reform,” reads the Free State Project website. One section of their website promotes the “accessible politics” of New Hampshire. The Free State Projects claims that over 6,000 members have already moved to New Hampshire, with 45 elected to state and local government.
“Thinking that the government shouldn’t run a ski resort is ‘extremist,’” wrote another.
The Free State Project has had success in other parts of the state as well, as in Croydon where Ian Underwood, a member of the Free State Project, proposed slashing the public school’s budget by more than half. That decision was ultimately reversed, after parents mounted a campaign to hold a second vote.
And before the Free State Project, there was the Free Town Project where libertarians moved to Grafton, gained positions in local government, and did away with rules, regulations, and tax expenses by defunding the town’s public services, including its library and police.
A county ‘running on empty’
In Belknap County, the delegation’s actions and preferences haven’t been restricted to the ski area. Three elected county commissioners are charged with county spending, but the delegation controls the purse strings. And the current delegation has cut funding to both the nursing home and the sheriff’s department.
“They’ve chopped the nursing home. They’re at war with the sheriff’s department. That type of thinking is a huge threat, whether it ends up like Croydon or not. That’s what we’re going after,” said Alan Posnack, chair of the Citizens for Belknap PAC.
While the Belknap County Nursing Home has 94 beds, only 55 of them are currently filled based on the staffing it can afford under the current budget. The nursing home budget has not kept pace with the rate of inflation, which has increased 29 percent in the past 12 years, while the budget has increased only 3 percent, according to County Commissioner Hunter Taylor.
County Commissioner Spanos said budget cuts to the nursing home have been deep. “A lot of departments are getting very close to running on empty and that will have to be addressed,” he said.
Of the three police cruisers the county hoped to purchase, it was able to buy only one. And a request to fund a drug interdiction training program for the sheriff’s department was denied.
Zach blames Sylvia’s leadership: “Their job is to disassemble government, and they’re succeeding at it.”
While Gunstock has been bailed out by the taxpayers in the past, since 2001 the ski area has been required to contribute to the county’s coffers. It’s had banner years under its current management, which has meant more money for the county. Last year, Gunstock paid the county $220,000. This year, that number will be even higher, with Gunstock contributing around $340,000 to the county’s coffers.
The county can spend those funds as it sees fit, and with costs rising due to inflation, Spanos said it’s vital that Gunstock remain open. “It’s much appreciated and it’s badly needed,” he said.
Spanos said that’s one of many reasons the county commissioners fought for Gunstock’s reopening.
“We’re getting to the point in the county where the county can’t meet its obligation, in the name of ‘We want the lowest taxes,’” said Brian Beihl, another organizer behind the Belknap County PAC. “Moderate Republicans are starting to say wait a minute, we believe in low taxes, and limited taxes, but we can’t have no government.”
‘They mask themselves as Republican’
Gunstock’s closure sparked the Republican Party’s highest ranking state official, Gov. Chris Sununu, to denounce the county delegation’s leadership after staff quit. He called Gunstock a jewel, blaming both the county delegation and the Gunstock Area Commission for the resort’s closure and calling for their removal.
“Representatives Mike Sylvia, Norm Silber, and Gregg Hough, along with the remaining members of the Gunstock Area Commission have lost the trust of the citizens of Belknap County,” he wrote in the July 21 letter. “These individuals have made bad decisions, and until they are removed from their positions and replaced with good people who recognize the wonderful asset that Gunstock is, the County will continue to suffer.”
Earlier this year, Sylvia put forward a constitutional amendment proposing New Hampshire secede from the United States; of the 13 votes in favor, four came from the Belknap delegation.
“They don’t believe in democracy,” Sununu said at a press event on July 27. He called these representatives un-American and distanced himself from them. “These are not Republicans. They can call themselves Republican because they put an R after their name, but they’re not. These are anti-government individuals.”
But Sununu said his issue was with the individuals and not the Free State Movement, whose members often join the Republican voting block. There is no Free State party, so some candidates run in the Republican Party. Once elected, they have helped the Republicans secure a majority in both the House and Senate, where they’ve voted to advance various Republican priorities.
But now that some are advancing politically unpopular initiatives – such as secession and privatizing Gunstock – some Republicans are questioning the alliance.
“I think one of the problems is they mask themselves as Republicans because they do share some common values with us,” Giuda said. “There are some good people. There are also some that believe it is their job to destroy.”
Many on the ground in Belknap County are not interested in that distinction. “Belknap County is an aberration,” Zach said. “The Free Staters have taken it over. This invasive species has spun the Belknap County delegation into either openly Free Staters or Free Staters in philosophy and sympathy.”
Posnack, chair of the Citizens for Belknap PAC, was blunt about the group’s mission in response to what they see as extremism.
“Our goal is to clean house,” he said.
The repentant Republicans get organized
This has left some Republicans in Belknap County to reckon with their own choices at the ballot box – while they look ahead to the upcoming election as a referendum on the showdown at Gunstock and the composition of the current delegation.
Zach has been registered as a Republican for decades, but he regrets voting a straight Republican ticket for state representatives in 2016. “We voted these guys in,” he said. “Apathy is the word. It was apathy and not caring. We were assuming they were going to be looking out for us. The wide, wide impression is, ‘Shame on me. Look at what I did.’”
Residents said it was hard to get information about who was running for office and what they stood for.
“The repentant Republicans are saying, ‘Boy did I screw up. I didn’t look, and I didn’t know who I was voting for,’” Zach said.
Now, the Citizens for Belknap County PAC is working to make sure voters are armed with information for this election cycle. The bipartisan effort grew out of the outrage over the problems at Gunstock, and its organizers plan to ride that wave of anger, vetting candidates and supporting those they feel will govern responsibly.
People who didn’t used to be politically engaged have gotten involved.
“I never voted in a midterm and I’m running this damn thing,” Posnack said.
Residents echoed the rallying cry to get out the vote. “This community has a treasure,” said Meg Jenkins of Gilford, during a Gunstock Area Commission meeting last week. “We need to vote in the primaries. We need to vote on Election Day. You need to vote for what is best for the community, not a small, strident amount of people who have a very different agenda.”
With the mountain now open, whether this momentum will persist and how it will shape the results of the upcoming election remain open questions. Those results will impact the county: how much it spends on public safety and health care. And the results will determine the county’s relationship with Gunstock moving forward, and whether the newly established peace will persist.
New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.