Mill Town Capital invests in historic Pittsfield ski area
By Mike Walsh
It’s a small sign, just two words in black on a white backdrop.
Yet, the three of us linger beneath it in silence for a long moment.
“Food + Bar”
Simple. But, Kevin McMillan and Carrie Holland appear nearly gobsmacked. They love it. Holland, the managing director of Mill Town Capital, jokes that the style must remind McMillan of home.
And she’s right: The sign easily could read Fish + Chips on a London pub.
McMillan is the new general manager at Bousquet Mountain. He was born across the pond but has been stateside since college and spent the past 29 years managing Zoar Outdoor in Charlemont. He came aboard in August, after Mill Town purchased the small ski area in Pittsfield and vowed to invest in improvements everywhere, from lifts to lodges to snow-making, lighting, and even a new website and merchandise.
From where we stand on the back deck outside of what previously was the ski watch kiosk window, one could turn around and see upward of 100 workers performing duties from lift construction to landscaping.
The two note that it’s nearly impossible to know exactly who is doing what on any given day.
Countless moving parts are working in unison as Bousquet barrels toward a hopeful opening day before Christmas. McMillan admits the goal is Dec. 18; manpower and Mother Nature will make the ultimate decision.
It’s the day before Thanksgiving, temperatures are dropping and powder junkies from Williamstown to Sheffield are starting to think about digging their skis and boards out of attics and basements in advance of the coming season.
The race is on, and if there’s one thing the groundwater blood of Bousquet knows, it’s racing.
In fact, former Olympic ski racer Krista Schmidinger, who first honed her turns on the snow off Dan Fox Drive, also is a part of the new Bousquet team. Familiar faces Cindy Bartlett, Marc Latimer and race program director Mike Vecchia are holding down the fort as well.
Still, in the midst of such a mammoth undertaking, it remains important for McMillan and his team to take a moment and appreciate the little things. Like an updated sign above a window from which post-run beers and burgers soon will be handed out to thirsty shredders from near and far.
“It’s unbelievable,” Holland said earlier, admiring a new trail map sign near the main entrance to the mountain. “Every time I come by here, there’s something else new or something that has changed.”
The list of updates is as long as a run from the summit around Easy Rider and down through the corner stretch of Drifter back to the base, but it’s noticeable even via a quick detour off Route 7.
The main building, which long has been Bousquet’s Tamarack Lounge and main lodge, received a facelift in the form of matte black paint throughout the exterior. The second-floor porch was removed from the back of the building, and new window units are obvious against the aging wood siding. An entire new lodge is in the five-year plan, but for the coronavirus pandemic-altered 2020-21 ski season, they are making due.
They’ve even been drilling and blasting rock near the summit to alter the fall line to aid in snow-making and retention.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the lodge won’t be operational for skiers and snowboarders to kick back in between runs. Instead, almost all transactions will take place through those new windows, including food and beverage service, rental equipment and ticketing. There will be small retail space inside what was Tamarack, with the aid of folks from The Garden board shop in Pittsfield.
Instead, a series of cabanas are being set up along the mountain’s base, which will provide some points of relaxation for families who can rent them out for the day like a snowy Sandals resort right in the middle of Berkshire County. McMillan said there will be deals that include amenities like hot chocolate or even fondu platters.
A long underused open-air structure, which typically would be seen housing off-season equipment from fencing to waterslides, also is an important facet of the new Bousquet experience. There will be an outdoor bar and seating area, with sweet and savory waffles, and the ability to close down one side if the wind packs too much of chill. The spot will offer views of both lifts, as well as the new beginner area.
Oh, and the waterslides have been fully removed.
It’s here where we pause once more and take in the entire scope of what’s happening, and can actually envision what January will look like. The sounds of bulldozers and excavators drift away, and a faint recognition of a pair of twin tips carving up corduroy on Beeline is percepted.
Don’t get the idea that this local gem is going full corporate resort, though. Mill Town’s goal is far from seeing late founder Clarence J. Bousquet doing 360s from his resting place. Much of the spirit both he and longtime owner George Jervas created and fostered at Bousquet still will be pervasive to the experience — just some of the machinery and piping Jervas built himself more than three decades ago is getting spruced up.
“We’re first and foremost focused on local skiers. That’s the target,” said Holland, who herself grew up on those slopes and dug out a season pass from 1999 to prove it. “Everybody has a soft spot for Bousquet. Everybody has a story, and so far the response has been overwhelmingly positive. They recognize the strong commitment, and people are excited to see the changes.”
It’s all looking in line with what Jervas’ longtime partner, and most recent owner, Sherry Roberts, wished when she and the Tamarack Ski Nominee Trust sold the mountain to Mill Town in May.
“I just truly believe they are going to make it a destination for young families. I had made a commitment when George passed that my goal was to find someone to continue it as a ski area,” Roberts told The Berkshire Eagle earlier in 2020. “This will be nice news for the community. … Mill Town will be very invested in making it a success.”
Jervas fashioned much of the mountain’s infrastructure by hand in the 1980s, and snow-making technology has come a long way over the past 35 years.
The pump house across the street is all new, with a major upgrade to the snow-making system.
As contractor Ian Honey puts it, they have replaced the heart.
Honey comes to Bousquet along with Snow Machines Inc., and he has embraced the job of rebuilding, refurbishing and rerouting much of the area’s organs. It’s a unique opportunity to get back to small mountain roots for a guy whose resume includes six years spent creating terrain for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Had Tokyo 2020 not been postponed a year because of the coronavirus, Honey might never have heard of Bousquet.
McMillan says they have replaced about 20 percent of the snow-making piping — Honey’s arteries — and about half the mountain’s hydrants and guns. There is more to be done, but it’s hard to estimate the complete undertaking until flipping the switch on the season.
At this point, one might be wondering why you haven’t heard too much from McMillan directly. That could be because of his top two rules to success in management: “No. 1, build a good team, and No. 2, rely on your system.”
That’s what made Zoar so strong the past 30 years, and what got McMillan onto Mill Town’s radar. The Schaefer family, which owns Berkshire East, and more recently came to purchase Catamount and Zoar, quickly was brought on to consult with Bousquet. That was what Holland said was the first order of business.
McMillan’s relationship with the Schaefers goes back to his time working lifts and rentals at Berkshire East, before taking the reins at Zoar.
“He was sort of rolling off the peak season at Zoar, and Kevin has such a strong background in outdoor recreation and the hospitality aspects of it. It was a perfect match,” Holland said.
Since August, McMillan has set about building his team. That includes mountain operations manager Nate Bovard, who arrives by way of Sugarbush and Berkshire East. He will be tasked with making sure the mountain is good to go on a daily basis, along with Honey and the SMI crew.
Bovard’s wife, formerly Katie Martin, raced at Bousquet for the former Saint Joseph Central High School and then in college at Castleton State.
There’s oversight help from Jon Schaefer’s squad, which had a big hand in getting the helicopter up to place stanchions for the new triple chair — replacing the old yellow double lift — that will spirit skiers to the summit quicker than ever.
The local flair still will be unmistakable, though, with Bartlett bringing about 30 years of history as the face of the ski school program, and Vecchia’s team carrying over decades of experience in a race program that is as storied as any in southern New England.
McMillan also said he has every intention of welcoming back the high school league to race Grand Slalom if school committees OK a season.
Behind the scenes, the Garden will have a stake in retail, while Ski Fanatics is plying Bousquet with the best rental help around, and even the food and beverage wing is coming from locals SoMa Catering.
“We want to be very intentional about the culture we’re creating and defining at the mountain,” said McMillan, whose third rule is to simply, “Just be kind.”
Bousquet is going to look and feel different when locals arrive this winter, and not just because of the pandemic. But, if everyone, from Bousquet management to eager shredders queueing up the lift line, remembers McMillan’s final rule, it’s going to be a great season. Even if you’re getting your cocoa through a window under a vaguely European sign for one year.
The magic still is in the hill and waiting to be released when you charge up and make a good, hard line.
Mike Walsh is a sports writer with The Berkshire Eagle, where he authors the bi-weekly Powder Report column. He’s a bordering-on-30 snowboarder with a degree from Marist College and a natural curiosity for the finer things in life.