Ski Bluewood changing hands

The new owners say the ski area will be open for the upcoming season.

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A Tri-Cities couple who met on the slopes are in the process of purchasing Ski Bluewood.

Mike and Kelly Stephenson of Kennewick are the managing partners of a newly formed limited liability company purchasing the Columbia County ski resort from retiring owners Stan and Nancy Goodell.

Mike Stephenson has been a ski instructor on the mountain, about 21 miles south of Dayton, for more than 15 years. He is currently the training director at the ski school.

The acquisition of the destination resort comes just in time, officials say. Though under the gun, the Stephensons and their partners will be able to open for the 2010-11 season -- a move area officials say is vital to the economic vitality of the community.

"It's the best of all news," said Duane Wollmuth, executive director of the Southeast Washington Economic Development Association.

"We've made it through some down years when there hasn't been a lot of snow and haven't had a lot of open days. The communities have survived, but obviously it has an economic hit on lodging, food establishments and the surrounding areas."

Wollmuth has served on two committees since last spring determined to find a way to keep the resort running since the Goodells announced their plans to retire.

He and economic development officials from Columbia County explored as many options as possible for the operation -- from the formation of a nonprofit organization to run the business to the possibility of a government-managed operation. A private buyout made the most sense, Wollmuth said.

It made the most sense to the Stephensons, too.

"My husband has been up on that mountain for years," Kelly Stephenson said this morning. "He's just very passionate about that mountain."

As he began talking about the possible closure among friends, he developed more and more support for an acquisition, his wife said.

Details of the purchase were not immediately available, including the price and the identities of the investors.

Apart from the formation of the limited liability company, the next step is taking on the ski lift maintenance that normally would have started in the spring. Kelly Stephenson said getting the website running is also a priority, especially since season tickets would normally be available this time of year.

The Stephensons plan to honor all current season passes and resume sales of passes for the season.

They hope to develop the 1,500-acre property designated for recreation by the U.S. Forest Service as a year-round destination for activities.

Mike Stephenson, who got his start at Bluewood as a race team parent before becoming an instructor, believes the mountain is a crucial resource for working with kids. An agricultural consultant who co-owns Professional Ag Services, he hopes to offer programs that will provide for year-round employment and activities.

In the meantime he and his wife are focused on getting the operation up and running for this year.

"Ski Bluewood is a huge resource for this area and for families," Mike Stephenson said in a prepared statement.

"For many years this ski area has offered children and adults the opportunity to experience the outdoors and to learn and participate in the lifelong sports of skiing and snowboarding. Many great memories have been created for kids who came here with their families, with the local school programs or to participate in the race tam both as youngsters and college programs.

"We want to ensure that children will continue to have access to the mountain and that the community will still have this valuable recource."

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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