Nonprofit ski area turns no child away: sustaining Cochran’s traditional business model

Cochran’s Ski Area—combined with a unique non-profit mission that turns no child away—has placed them firmly among the must-ski slopes of worldwide skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts. Words // Genevieve Habeck
Photos // Courtesy of Cochrans and Pennie Rand Photography

Classic Vermont scenery and a quaintly bustling Main Street give way to a hidden treasure and unexpected training ground for Olympic athletes: Cochran’s Ski Area in Richmond.

This stretch of Green Mountains is no stranger to visitors and locals trekking to its bounty of outdoor adventures: the Long Trail runs through the mountains surrounding the town, the Winooski River flows through its heart, and the more well-known and larger ski resorts are a short drive away down I-89. But the unassuming yet solid character of Cochran’s Ski Area—combined with a unique non-profit mission that turns no child away—has placed them firmly among the must-ski slopes of worldwide skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts.

Located on the eastern side of Lake Champlain, Richmond and its close-knit community have bolstered Cochran’s into a timeless Vermont success story. In a world where mom-and-pop shops and small businesses are giving way to larger corporations, this hometown ski hill with global impact has become part of the fabric of Vermont’s tourism and business identity, with the twist of being North America’s first nonprofit ski area.

Cochran’s Ski Area was established during a time when small ski hills used to be the norm, especially in the premier conditions of the Green Mountains. In 1961, Mickey and Ginny Cochran purchased an old farmhouse for $10,000 in rural Richmond; Mickey, a former schoolteacher and engineer, had one caveat during their home search: it must have a sloped hill on the property where they and their growing young family could ski to their heart’s desire. The traditional, modest parcel of farmland was transformed into a genuine ski area with backyard trails and the famous rope tow—and with their Richmond neighbors joining in, the first iteration of Cochran’s Ski Area was born.

Mickey and Ginny, who met while skiing, quickly saw the opportunity to spread their love of skiing beyond their four children. Throughout the next decade, thousands of local schoolchildren and their parents would flock to the Cochran’s hill to receive free lessons. The family was as inclusive as their skiing style: their hills and their home were open to all, and the kitchen of the Cochran farmhouse served as the warming hut for all skiers and riders.

Cochrans-Ski-Area-02The Cochrans soon became the patriarch and matriarch of generations of legendary skiing racers known as the “Skiing Cochrans.” Mickey and Ginny’s children—Marilyn, Barbara Ann, Bob and Lindy—all made the United States ski team and each raced in the Olympics. Barbara Ann won a gold medal in slalom in the 1972 Games in Sapporo, Japan, and she continues her family’s legacy as the director of the ski school to this day. Over the years, the Cochran family expanded their site’s features and increased recreational programs to help bring the community together on the slopes, all at an extremely affordable cost. Their mission states, “No child will be denied the opportunity to ski or ride.”

Just how does a small nonprofit stay viable with some fierce competition out there? “It’s been an ongoing learning process and we’ve learned a lot,” says Barbara Ann. “Dad passed away in 1998, at which point we knew we needed to officially become a nonprofit. Once Mom died in February 2005, a lot of changes happened pretty quickly after that.”

After the death of their matriarch, the family held their first capital fundraising campaign. “The community loves Cochran’s, always has,” Barbara Ann says. “No one wanted to see it fall apart, and we badly needed new snowmaking equipment and the machines Dad had installed simply weren’t efficient enough. We needed snow to survive.”

The board of directors approached one or two major philanthropists for the money needed to keep the ski area viable, but it just wasn’t working, Barbara Ann says. The breakthrough came when they realized that to keep their slopes open, they’d need a plan as community-minded as they are.

The Cochran family started a grassroots fundraiser by asking families to give $2,000 each to make their way to the $50,000 they needed. And that worked. In 2007, they purchased the critical new snowmaking equipment that could draw water from the Winooski River, had some new pipes placed under their road, and with help from Vermont’s ski resort community, this powerhouse of a small ski hill was reborn.

“It’s incredible how the ski industry has rallied around us,” Barbara Ann says. “Wachusett Mountain in Massachusetts donated snow guns; Smuggs and Jay Peak have been so helpful all along; Killington loaned us a groomer when ours finally died, and then sold it to us at an extreme discount. Bolton Resort has helped us, particularly one time when we had an important race coming up. It’s just been extraordinary.”

In the past year, the board has taken another look at the operating budget, expenses, and the way they do business. “We’re now looking to transition to a model where we aren’t using fundraising or capital campaigns for so much of the day-to-day stuff,” Barbara Ann says. “We looked at all costs–tickets, rentals–and discovered that our prices were far too low and we were losing money regularly.”

They made the decision to bump up prices slightly—for example, a family season pass now costs $400 instead of $365—in order to simply stay open for business. These tiny changes are ones they’re hoping will make a big impact.

When asked what makes this ski area clearly so different, Barbara Ann says, “A lot goes back to my parents’ philosophy: it’s the Cochran Way. Dad always said ‘I just want to make skiing a heck of a lot of fun,’ and that’s how we do it. That’s just our motive in everything, even financially.”

In her current role in charge of the ski school, Barbara Ann sees her father’s legacy in every ski that hits the slopes. With obvious pride, Barbara Ann says, “Cochran’s just becomes like family. Dad always said that and it’s still true today.”