A major challenge to a plan to greatly expand and enhance county-owned Gunstock Mountain Resort is a political belief that the government should not be running a ski area in the first place.
Rep. Norm Silber is among members of the Belknap County Legislative Delegation who believe taxpayers would be better served by leasing the area to a private operator, similar to the way the state leases Mount Sunapee to Vail Resorts.
Under such a scenario, local residents benefit from payments made by the private operator, including rent and money paid in lieu of property taxes, and the county avoids the financial risk of running a ski area.
Silber, R-Gilford, also makes a philosophical argument.
“I don’t think it’s a role of the government to be operating what is essentially a commercial enterprise,” he said. “This is basically being run as a private business and any county government really has no business doing that and competing against other private industry, private businesses.
“I’ve heard from people who’ve said they had restaurants and bars and felt that they were being undercut by the food and beverage operation Gunstock, which is subsidized by the taxpayers because it doesn't have to pay taxes.”
Silber and the rest of the delegation presently are limited in what they can do to control future operations at Gunstock.
That’s because a 1959 enabling statute puts its financial control into the hands of the Gunstock Area Commission, which has a plan for a road to the top of the mountain, amenities at the summit, greatly expanded skiable terrain and a hotel.
However, Silber plans legislation that would wrest financial control from the commission and put it in the hands of the delegation.
The delegation’s power to make commission appointments could also influence the direction of the panel.
A document filed before the Monday delegation meeting quoted Silber as saying he had recruited Commissioner Peter Ness, who joined the five-member panel in 2019, and Jade Wood, who will soon join the commission. In a year, Brian Gallagher’s term on the commission will end, and the delegation may choose to appoint a new person to that seat.
The document was filed by four of the commissioners in an unsuccessful argument that some members of the 18-member delegation should be disqualified from voting on a request to remove Ness from office over allegations of conflict of interest and insulting behavior toward resort employees.
Ultimately, the delegation voted 11-5 to dismiss the allegations involving Ness.
The disqualification request said some delegation members had improperly prejudged the request to remove Ness. It quoted Silber as saying in an October 13 meeting with two of the commissioners he has a “solid block of 13 to 14 delegates that vote with him,” the Ness removal request would be “dead on arrival” and Gallagher would not be reappointed next year.
In an interview, Silber said he was merely trying to explain his “reading of the political realities of the relationship between the delegation and the Gunstock Area Commission.
“There are clearly two different blocks in the delegation. There’s a block that seems to stick together through thick and thin and let Gunstock do anything they want to do and there’s the other block, which happens to be a larger block.”
For his part, Commissioner Gallagher said he will continue to work for positive change at Gunstock. He said leased partnerships are envisioned as part of the overall improvement plan.
“The difference of opinion is who will have overall supervision of the operation,” he said. “A majority of the current commissioners believe that community power should remain in the organization.
“If we’re able to execute the master plan and new things are built with private money on the Gunstock property, those are taxable entities and that will raise an awful lot of money for the county and the town of Gilford.
“We'll get that message to the public as well. If you want Gunstock to be turned into a treasure, you need to make sure your representatives understand what you the voters want, and if they are unable to comprehend that, then you should replace them at the ballot box.”