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Cockaigne Ski Resort

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Cockaigne Ski Area won't reopen

The devastating fire that destroyed the historic main lodge of the Cockaigne Ski Area in January was much more damaging than imagined.

The blaze closed the Chautauqua County landmark for several days before it was able to reopen with donated equipment to get through the rest of its season. But now it is closed for good.

For the first time in 46 years, no skiers will schuss down Cockaigne's slopes.

Plans by its 82-year-old owner, Jack Van Scoter, to rebuild the lodge -- which had been constructed as the Austrian Pavilion for the 1964 World's Fair in New York City -- in time for the Southern Tier ski resort to reopen for the upcoming season have fallen apart.

Cockaigne, located in Cherry Creek and known for its abundance of natural snow, is officially closed.

The facility was particularly popular among school ski clubs and organizations, which will be forced to either ski at other resorts or cancel their programs altogether because of additional driving distance and cost.

"It was a way of life, not just a place to go. It was like having your second home burn down," said Carol Wagner of Hamburg, whose family has spent their lives skiing the slopes of Cockaigne. "We stood there and watched the flames come out of the lodge."

Wagner and her husband, Doug Sr., own 11 acres across the road from Cockaigne and built a ski chalet there in 1975. The family has had season passes since 1977, and two of their children were Cockaigne ski instructors. One of their sons went on to join the state racing team and qualified for the Junior Olympics in the late 1980s. "We've had a lot of people come out of that little place," said Carol Wagner.

"It is heartbreaking because we're a little spoiled," said Doug Wagner Sr., 78, who still is an avid skier. "A lot of our friends are from Ohio, and a lot of Ohio people have built chalets near mine. I'll still ski [elsewhere], but it just won't be the same. It'll be a big void."

Instead, the 200 acres of slopes is for sale for $500,000. Van Scoter, who has operated Cockaigne since 1970 and is its third owner, also is looking to sell all lifts, snowmaking and grooming equipment and remaining maintenance buildings. In all, Cockaigne has more than 1,500 acres.

"I'm just heartsick that Chautauqua County lost 201 jobs this winter. I am not rebuilding the lodge personally, because I'm 82 years old and have been out of debt for many years," Van Scoter said in an interview Thursday afternoon. "To go into debt at this point in my life doesn't seem to be reasonable."

Van Scoter, the fifth generation of his family in the Town of Pomfret, was a hands-on ski resort operator -- often known to ski families on a first-name basis and seen wiping tables or helping out in the lodge.

As recently as August, he was hoping to nail something down with a Jamestown businessman who was interested in operating Cockaigne this winter. Building a new lodge, he said, would run in the vicinity of $400,000.

"We did have an architect on alert and were working toward developing plans for a lodge. The deal just didn't materialize," Van Scoter said. He also has been approached by ski families interested in taking over operations, but nothing has come together.

Complicating the situation was the fact that Van Scoter had no insurance on the lodge at the time it burned, saying that the $7 million it would have cost to duplicate the Austrian pavilion made the cost of insurance prohibitive.

Adding to the problems were two spates of vandalism over the summer, totaling nearly $30,000 in damage.

In July, two teenagers were accused of causing $8,405 in electrical damage to lift houses and defacing property when they entered 10 buildings on the property. Then in August, someone else broke in and stole $20,700 worth of tools and equipment from the maintenance building, Van Scoter said.

"The vandalism kind of took the heart out of my plans," he said. "If I weren't 82 years old, I would have a building going up right now. It's very hard."

Van Scoter and his attorney, Andrew Goodell, an assemblyman and ski instructor at Cockaigne, have said they've received about two dozen inquiries from prospective buyers interested in Cockaigne. The ski area is sprawling, has a number of natural gas wells to help with heating and also boasts slightly more than eight miles of horse trails that are envisioned as a center point for an expanded horse trail system extending through Boutwell State Forest and future connections into Cattaraugus County.

Van Scoter said he has always envisioned the property as an equestrian development in the summer months, with a ski operation in the winter. The site contains 800 acres of hardwood forest and 600 acres of crop land. Cockaigne had horse barns from when horse racing was done there years ago, as well as camping areas.

"We're now working through those inquiries, giving them the information they need to make a decision. Hopefully, Cockaigne will be up and running for next winter," Van Scoter said.

Cockaigne, with a base elevation 1,100 feet higher than Lake Erie, is small but features a handful of slopes and trails. It has always been known for its abundance of snow -- last year it was having one of its best winters -- and a family atmosphere, affordable pricing and shorter lift lines dominated its appeal.

Van Scoter said he would be interested in allowing a new owner to acquire all of the remaining land at Cockaigne at some future time.

The head of the Chautauqua County Industrial Development Agency said Thursday that the agency is willing to offer financial incentives to help a new buyer of Cockaigne.

"We made it very clear to Jack -- that to anyone they're talking to, we're ready to get involved and willing to assist," said Bill Daly, the agency's CEO and administrative director.

Property tax abatements for a period of years, a revolving loan fund and other incentives are part of a mix that would be available to jump-start the business again.
The Buffalo News - December 2, 2011

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