PANORAMA - Snow business at Ski Bluewood

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Skier and Snowboarders ride the Skyline Express chair lift.

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Skier walk up to the Triple Nickle ski lift.

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BlueWood2--People sit on the deck at Bluewood Ski area Saturday afternoon.

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A snowbroader rides through the line at the PlatterPull at Bluewood.

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Bluewood Ski Area's ski instuctor Joelle Reynolds holding on to some ski poles as she looks back to the PlatterPull on Saturday the fifth of February.

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BART skier Hayden White passes by a gate during practices at Bluewood Ski area on Februray fifth.

The hottest place in town for coffee may just be 21 miles away.

And a full-service espresso bar isn't the only new thing at Ski Bluewood, but the easy chairs facing the slopes do make it a nice place to sip a latte.

Or snow bunnies can skip the latte and hit the slopes, knowing that the espresso isn't the only thing the new ownership group, led by Tri-Citians Mike and Kelly Stephenson, is doing differently.

"There's a new energy and a real positive feeling from everyone," said Mike Stephenson, who's been skiing at the area for about 25 years. "Everyone is just having a lot more fun."

The Stephenson's, including Mike's son Travis, officially took ownership of the ski area on Dec. 3 - also the same day the resort opened for business.

Although the group had a pre-takeover agreement that allowed them to prepare the facility for skiers and snowboarders in the fall before taking official ownership, it wasn't much time for all the work that needed to be done - ranging from clearing brush on the slopes to cleaning up the bathrooms.

But the work they've done has been noticed.

"It's a fun place to be again," said Curtis Siess, a Dayton resident, longtime skier and director of the Bluewood Alpine Race Team (BART). "The whole mountain has a new feeling."

And Siess would know. He's been skiing at Bluewood since his college days, and remembers when the parking lot was so packed that cars piled up on the roads.

"For the first time that I can remember, that happened again this year," Siess said, citing the days after Christmas, when more than 200 cars packed the lot.

The ski area has been in operation since the late 1970s, and previous owner Stan Goodell took the park over in 1983. After nearly 30 years of running the area, Goodell decided, after last ski season, to sell the facility. For a while, no buyer emerged and Siess, among others, feared the facility wouldn't reopen.

BART is composed of under-18 skiers from Walla Walla and the Tri-Cities, and a lost Bluewood season for this group - which Travis Stephenson once skied with - would have been detrimental, Siess said.

"If Bluewood didn't open, we didn't know where our home would be," he said. "We met last spring and no one knew if we'd have a mountain to ski on."

They made a contingency plan and contacted other race groups and ski areas, but the possibility of losing the closest ski area to most of the team still hurt this years' participation, he said.

Just 12 kids were signed up at the beginning of the year, Siess said. Although the number has risen to 15, there were 17 total throughout last season.

Stability on the mountain will help the group recruit kids - something the owners want to see.

"We really want to get kids groups up here," said Kelly Stephenson. "Skiing is a lifetime sport that kids can get involved in. It can help build kids' self-esteem and athletic ability, and it's something fun to do."

Kelly Stephenson has been skiing since she was about 20 years old and got both of her children, now in their 20s, involved when they were young.

And Travis Stephenson first strapped on skis at Bluewood when he was 3 years old. Now in his late 20s, Travis Stephenson is combining an undergraduate degree in business and accounting from Central Washington University with his passion for the outdoors and the family's new business.

Now, he's managing the ski areas 180 employees, ranging from the kitchen workers to the ski school instructors.

Part of that management has included adding televisions to the pub and dining areas, where a few dozen football fans warmed up between runs on Super Bowl Sunday, at Bluewood's first Night Skiing and Football Extravaganza.

The Triple Nickel run was set up with lights so skiers could hit the slopes at night, a popular feature at other Northwest ski areas.

"We'll see how it goes," Travis Stephenson said. "It was pretty popular on Friday night," which is when it was first set up.

But the Stephenson's haven't had much time to set up or start on their wish list of changes, which includes opening up more of the 1,500 available acres and developing summer activities, both in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service.

After all, just getting moving took some time.

"It happened very late last year, and we feel like the planning for some things has been behind the curve," said Mike Stephenson. "But we're trying really, really hard. But one thing that's been crystal clear is that every day, someone comes up and tells us what a difference there is here."

One of the biggest - and most noticed - changes to the lodge was a restroom refresher. The waste recirculation filtration system was improved, the floors replaced and the walls painted - meaning a better smell and experience in a very basic way.

Compliments on the improvements there have brought chuckles, say all the Stephenson's.

"People notice that," Travis Stephenson said. "it can be overlooked, but we've gotten a lot of positive comments on the bathrooms.

Dayton resident Debbie Hays, a former skier, ski mom and part-time mountain employee who occupies a desk a dozen feet from the bathrooms, sees the difference in the whole mountain.

"The atmosphere is so much lighter and more jovial," she said. "There's enthusiasm and people want to be involved. … I hate change, personally, but this change hasn't been painful. The new owners have opened their hearts and they listen to our suggestions. They've taken our history and comments and suggestions and they're open to it."

For Siess, the difference can be as obvious as a lift ride.

"Stan (Goodell) was supportive of us," Siess said of the previous owner. "But I never rode up on the chair with him. That just didn't happen."

It means the Stephenson's are Bluewood-ites, Hays said.

"They're from here, they ski here. People come to the information desk, and they ask, ‘Where's Mark and Kelly?' Not ‘Where's the new owner,'" she said. "It's an easy, wonderful, smooth feeling."

And it's a feeling the Stepehnson's plan to continue.

"All the profits at Bluewood will go back into the mountain," said Mike Stephenson. "All of the members of the group that bought it are committed to this being a long-term venture. We're in it for the long haul."

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