All Commentary
Tuesday, April 1, 1980

Saying No to a Snow Job

It is reported in Greek lore that Diogenes sought with a lantern in broad daylight trying to find an honest man. If he were to return today he might find the search for a businessman who refuses government assistance in times of distress to be almost as fruitless an effort. But it wouldn’t be totally futile were Diogenes to visit the SugarCreek Ski Hills in Bellbrook, Ohio.

It is heartening when examples of men and women acting on sound principle come to our attention. William J. Staley is such an individual. As the owner of the SugarCreek Ski Hill, Bill Staley is facing a financial crisis because of a lack of snow this past winter. The cause of his troubles seems completely beyond his control; can he be blamed for poor management decisions because he didn’t anticipate a mild winter? And even if he had superior forecasting abilities, there is not much a ski industry entrepreneur can do to compensate for a lack of snow.

What follows is an open letter written by Mr. Staley, a participant in a 1979 FEE Summer Seminar, in response to suggestions that the federal government provide low interest loans to help ski operators faced with financial problems. It is an inspiring example that self-reliance is still alive in the United States.

Dear ________:

This letter is in response to your request for information to be submitted to the Small Business Administration—the end view being low interest government loans.

First, let me introduce myself. I am the owner of SugarCreek Ski Hills, Inc., in Bellbrook, Ohio. SugarCreek is a medium sized back-yard ski area, grossing seven hundred fifty thousand to one million dollars per year from all sources. Over the fifteen years of our existence, we have grown slowly—via the rope tow, T-bar, poma route—installing our first chair lift in 1977. There have been good years, the late sixties and late seventies, and monumental monstrosities, such as 1972 thru 1975.

Today is Thursday, January 17, 1980. Out my window I see ugly patches of ice separated by green grass and blotches of mud, all of which translate to a disaster area. The weekend weather forecast is for completely marginal snow-making and if anything can be salvaged, it may cover the weekend payroll, certainly no more. The unpaid bills stacked on my desk are no longer accommodated by the proverbial “hat” in which they are thrown—no hat is that big. In short—and to extract a quote from your letter—I am not “one of those fortunate operators who are doing well.”

My position is probably no different than hundreds of operators east of the Mississippi—add or subtract a zero here and there to reflect the relative size of operation. Our di lemma is the same. We have a problem and, somehow, it must be solved. I applaud any effort to help. However—parenthetically and emphatically—Washington, D.C. is the wrong answer. Wrong for two reasons:

1. Involvement with Washington is a disastrous short-run solution that will ultimately extract payment far exceeding any benefit received. Resultant spillover regulation, intervention and red tape can literally be expected to drive the cost of skiing completely out of the market place—beleaguered and bankrupt operators with it.

2. Any help received from Washington (low interest loans, guarantees, etc.) can only be gained at the expense of every taxpayer in the country—widows, orphans, poor people, and all of those millions of people who don’t give a damn about skiing. We would never think of “begging” them for a dollar, but we are willing to surreptitiously steal it from them via special legislation, preferential treatment, and the like. Washington has no money to give that it has not taken from someone else.

So the issues are practical and moral. Government help ends self-help and ultimately devours the efficacy and the spirit of its supposed beneficiary. What then is the alternative? I can only give you mine.

1. Immediate and candid communication with my bank/bankers and suppliers.

2. An absolute, twenty-four hour per day commitment to providing every hour of skiing to my customers in the remaining days of this winter. There should be six to eight weeks left, so the jury is still out.

3. A willingness to go all the way to resolve the current crisis—personal notes, personal guarantees, and complete absorption of my personal estate into the financial mix.

4. A resolve to solve my own problems with those where a mutuality of interest exists—skiers, suppliers, employees, family and friends—but in no case with innocent bystanders.

Finally, we must realize that we are a capitalistic free enterprise economy, where success and failure are earned—not granted or bestowed—whether by King Arthur of King Bureaucrat. If we are willing to reap the rewards of profitable enterprise, a corollary responsibility is accepting the agony of defeat. In no way can we justify shifting that responsibility to someone else.

If our planning has been deficient, our calculated risk miscalculated, our illusions of grandeur a little too grand, and our lust for growth a little arrogant—we can at least accept the responsibility for our plight. We must say, with Cassius, “The fault dear Brutus is not in the stars, but in ourselves.” We got ourselves into this mess. We will get ourselves out.

William J. Staley