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Blaise of Glory

By Phil Johnson

Ski Magazine, January 1991

Twenty years ago, at an age when what’s doing on Friday night usually rates as a major concern, 19-year-old Jim Blaise, college dropout and factory floor sweeper, bought Royal Mountain ski area in Caroga Lake, New York, 10 miles northwest of Johnstown. Royal Mountain had been operating since 1956, but by 1970, it had fallen on hard times and was up for sale in a foreclosure auction. Blaise, an ex-ski racer then spring at the prospect of endless floors to sweep, bid successfully for the property. (He paid $30,000, some of which came from his own savings account and the rest from some local investors.)

“What did I know?” he recalls. “At that age, it’s glamorous. All I could imagine was a lot of good-looking people lined up to pay money to ski at my place. That was the ski business to me. Since I didn’t know what could go wrong, I didn’t have anything to worry about.”

He learned fast. 

“The first day we operated was a great day: lots of snow and sunshine, and plenty of people. Then a bearing on the lift motor burned out. I didn’t know anything about motors and maintenance. It was 10 A. M. and we were out of business.”

Today, at 39, Blaise is a veritable graybeard in the business. But longevity isn’t the only thing that sets him apart from his peers in the ski business. Ownership, in his case, means doing some early-morning trail grooming, taking regular turns loading the lifts, and—for a break—flipping burgers and serving coffee in the base lodge. He hasn’t missed a day on the mountain in two decades. For most of those 20 years, Blaise, a bachelor, lived in two rooms under the ski lodge. For a morning shower, he had to go down an open air corridor to the ski patrol room—which taught him the real meaning of hustle. (He now lives in a log cabin he built four years ago that stands 100 yards from the base longe.) Between ski seasons, Blaise did whatever he could to earn money: cutting lawns, tending bar, working as a security guard. “Everything I did was to save money. Every dime I took in was reinvested in Royal Mountain,” he declares. 

Lacking the money in hand, payment on a promisee was commonplace, and it was nip and tuck much of the time. One time, after the power company shut off his service, he had to borrow a generator so he could hold a wedding at the area and generate enough money to pay his electric bill. 

But now it appears Blaise has turned the corner. At a time when ski areas throughout the East are searching for new revenue and counting friends at the banks, Blaise last year increased the terrain at his mountain by 40 percent and installed a double chair—the area’s first—to supplement the existing T-bar. No big deal by most standards, perhaps, but a major commitment for an area like Royal. 

Because of the efforts that he has made and because he has borne the burden with such good humor and equanimity, Blaise and his mountain have earned a corps of devoted fans and supporters. “No matter how bad the weather or the business, we always see Jim trying to make improvements,” says William “Doc” Charles, a longtime Royal partisan. “He never seems to be discouraged.”

On days when it’s right, Royal is a joy to ski. The mountain’s vertical drop (550 feet) and the length of the trails are modest. But good pitch and—more importantly—an intelligent layout combine to provide both legitimate challenge and variety on the mountain’s limited terrain. Because the area operates only on weekends and holidays, conditions are generally good, and a day ticket sells for $16 ($12 for kids under 12).

While owning a ski area is Blaise’s first love, the key to financial success has been motocross racing, something Blaise discovered by accident several years ago. Today, his mountain is one of the top 100 race courses in the country. During the wintertime, the number of skiers on any particular day here never exceeds 650, but for a day of motocross racing in a season that runs from Memorial Day to Columbus Day, the mountain routinely draws 2,500 or more. That means year-round operations and revenue. It also means the introduction of snowmaking to Royal Mountain over the next two years. And for Blaise it means” walking down the street in town rather than ducking in alleys to avoid creditors,” he says. 

What will prosperity mean to Jim Blaise?

Not much, it seems. He has hung curtains in his cabin’s windows. He still mows lawns in summer “for spending money.” And after 20 years, he has no plans to change his ski-day routine of grooming, loading, and flipping. “It’s all I’m qualified to do,” he says. 

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