NC trend: Powder power
By Bryan Mims
Ryan Costin has swooshed down snow-capped mountains from Argentina to New Zealand, from the Rockies to the Sierra Nevada. He studied resort management at Western State Colorado University, surrounded by peaks topping 14,000 feet. But in his mid-20s, North Carolina’s mountains called him home. After all, the family business is skiing. Costin’s grandfather, Ray Costin, bought the Beech Mountain Resort in 1985, so while growing up in Charlotte, Ryan spent winters skiing the slopes and watching his dad, John Costin, run the operation.
Beech Mountain Resort, which opened in 1967, thrusts 5,506 feet above sea level. The town of Beech Mountain, in Watauga and Avery counties near the Tennessee line, is the highest east of the Rockies. Like many resorts, its history includes financial stress: Its initial ownership group, led by Tweetsie Railroad developers Grover and Spencer Robbins, filed for bankruptcy in 1974, and the venue struggled for years to attract a loyal following. When Ryan Costin came to work in 2008, the resort was more than 40 years old and showing some wear and tear. After two winters on the job, he became general manager, overseeing infrastructure improvements and ramping up snowmaking capacity.
“Overall, the ski industry in North Carolina is pretty strong,” says Costin, 33. “We’re accessible to some pretty large markets. We have a very good clientele base.” The resort is within a three-hour drive of the Triad, Charlotte, Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C., and Knoxville, Tenn. It also reels in visitors from Atlanta and Florida. A study by the N.C. Ski Areas Association showed snow skiing pumped $197.2 million into the state’s economy during the 2014-15 season when 653,654 visitors hit the slopes. Attendance peaked at 671,554 five years earlier, though reporting methods varied in earlier years.
Beech Mountain has 95 skiable acres with 16 trails and 830 feet of vertical terrain. Nearby Sugar Mountain Resort, by comparison, has 21 trails, 125 skiable acres and 1,200 feet of vertical terrain. Last year, Beech added a tubing park at the base of the slopes. “You can get on your tube and basically ride it like you’re going sledding,” Costin says. “It gives people that adrenaline rush of sliding down the snow, and they don’t necessarily have to have skis or snowboards strapped to their feet.”
Being so far south, Beech Mountain has no choice but to make its own snow. The resort has 65 snow guns and dozens of other smaller snowmaking nozzles. Its southern exposure also can usher in long mild spells, like the one last December, when record-breaking warmth blanketed much of the East Coast. “We didn’t see any opportunity to produce snow, and it ultimately meant losing our Christmas holiday period, which is a very busy time for us in the North Carolina mountains. Fortunately, when it did turn around, we had a very prosperous January and February.”
Beech Mountain typically opens for skiing in mid-November and continues through late March, packing in 100 to 120 days with about 350 seasonal employees. It’s less than 300 miles south of West Virginia’s most famous ski resort, Snowshoe, with its 57 trails and 1,500 vertical feet, but Costin says the slopes operate in different spheres. “I think we get more of a Southern market than Snowshoe does. They certainly offer different amenities that we don’t, but one of the nice things is, if you look at North Carolina as a whole, and if you take Sugar and Appalachian (ski resorts within 30 miles), and you put us all together, we create a pretty nice package deal.”
His goal is to introduce more North Carolinians — and Southerners in general — to the heart-thumping fun of snow skiing. “A lot of people still don’t know about skiing in North Carolina. I think there’s a misperception of how great of a product we really have here, not only at Beech Mountain but all of the ski areas in North Carolina.”
Beech Mountain isn’t exclusively a winter destination. The resort in 2013 opened mountain biking trails, hiking trails and disc golf courses for use during the summer. It has four restaurants and a brewery, the Beech Mountain Brewing Co., located at the Alpine Village. For Costin, a married father of two — a 6-year-old daughter named Harper and an 18-month-old son named James — it’s a lofty position.
“It’s been interesting to come back as an adult and indulge myself in this operation and this endeavor and really see it reach its true potential.”
Provided by Beech Mountain Tourism