Photos provided by Mary Sexton

Choteau residents mull the co-operative business model

In rural Montana, there are some problems that cannot be solved without cooperation among community members and the pooling of resources. When profit margins get so slim that the private market can not operate profitably, rural businesses must explore other creative models.

That is why the owners of Teton Pass Ski Resort, 35 miles west of Choteau, are considering becoming a cooperative. Teton Pass was listed for sale in 2017, but its lift hasn’t spun since the 2016-17 ski season. Teton Pass owner Nick Wood told the Choteau Acantha they experienced financial setbacks and were no longer able to operate the ski area.

Jan Brown, Executive Director of the Montana Cooperative Development Center, told us at Prairie Populist that Teton Pass faces some challenges. For one, it is not connected to the electric grid, so the ski hill 30 miles west of Choteau runs on a generator, which broke during the 2016-17 season. It would certainly be cheaper to run on power from power lines. However, the closest power line is located eight miles away. To estimated cost to connect the ski area to the power grid is at least $2 million, according to a feasibility study on Teton Pass.

Also, managers of the ski area must plow nine miles of the U.S. Forest Service road to the ski area. A spokesperson for the Forest Service said it lacks the necessary funds to plow the road all the way to Teton Pass. As a result, the ski area will be responsible for making sure locals and visitors can make it up the road.

Already, Friends of the Teton, a nonprofit comprised of local skiers who want to help, has agreed to help fundraise in order to keep the road plowed.

Importantly, the Choteau community has rallied around Teton Pass. Over 100 folks showed up for working group meetings to express their support for reopening the ski hill. Townspeople value Teton Pass for their own recreational use and enjoyment and also for its potential economic impact on the town.

“It has 30 jobs, which for the community is a big deal,” said Mary Sexton, Choteau Port Authority Board chairwoman whose daughter worked at Teton Pass. The Choteau Port Authority, formed in 2017, creates economic development for the town through tourism, manufacturing and even promoting art.

“When you look at the recreation economy, it is booming,” Mary added. However, she noted it’s mostly Montana’s larger cities like Bozeman, Missoula and Great Falls experiencing the greatest economic benefits from recreation. Mary is hopeful that reopening Teton Pass will help Choteau, a town with fewer than 2,000 people, experience some of the economic benefits that the larger cities have enjoyed.

Photo provided by Mary Sexton

Getting Teton Pass back up and running for the Choteau community won’t happen overnight

“We need to invest in our own towns,” said Jan Brown, executive director of the Montana Cooperative Development Center, while explaining the prospect of Teton Pass reopening as a cooperative. “It is the right way to save important places.”

A cooperative is a business model with a long history of working for rural Montana. Over 100 years ago, Montana farmers faced major barriers getting their product to market. Prior to co-ops, each farmer owned his/her own machinery and individually delivered grain all the way to market. By working together in a co-op, each individual transported their product to buyers in a less costly way than if everyone had tried to do it on their own.

The history of cooperatives in Montana started with our ag community, but such a business model has since expanded to energy utility companies, grocery stores, retail stores and even housing. In total, Montana has between 150-200 cooperatives, depending on how you count them.

Residents of the Choteau community hope there may be one more co-op in Montana by the end of 2019. The Montana Cooperative Development Center is currently working with the Choteau Port Authority to complete a feasibility study about the prospect of Teton Pass becoming a cooperatively-run ski area.

The center will work with the community surrounding Teton Pass if the potential co-op members decide to become a co-op at the conclusion of the feasibility study.

“We are an intermediary in (the) whole matter,” Jan Brown said when explaining MCDC’s role in Teton Pass.

The Teton Pass venue and property remain on the market, at a price tag of $375,000. A couple of serious buyers have expressed interested, but ultimately decided it wasn’t the right fit for them, according to Mary.

The ski hill’s future is still up in the air, but Choteau folks aren’t giving up. Mary Sexton explained that the ski area has irreplaceable sentimental value for the community. It is where parents teach their kids to ski a steep mountain, which in turn produces some pretty dang good skiers. Teton Pass is home to lifelong skiers, like Mary, who have been skiing the hill their entire lives.

Warm memories aside, the community sees Teton Pass as an economic asset.

Dylan Johnson’s first-ever day of skiing was at Teton Pass. Dylan has lived all around the state.  A student at University of Montana Western, he had a simple explanation as to why the community is so passionate about trying to reopen the local ski hill:

“It’s that small town pride for what you’ve got,” he said.

Mary said that the ski area would be an investment in the town’s future, as it will continue to draw people into their community as a way to boost tourism.

“The most rural places deserve investment,” said Jan Brown.
-Andie Creel

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Read about how the cooperative business model worked for Roundup