It’s been five years since Liberty Mountain Snowflex Centre was completed, permanently capping Candlers Mountain with a synthetic snow surface that defies the seasons.
The white beacon attracts attention, and confusion. Snowflex General Manager Drew Sherwood said it still receives calls today from people who are astounded even after hearing an explanation.
“They just don’t get it,” Sherwood said.
But the seemingly fish-out-of-water business model is buoyed by funds from Liberty University and is yet another university venture that offers services to both students and the general public.
Of the 56,000 tickets sold last year to skiers and snowboarders, Sherwood said, nearly half were sold to the general public. The rest were students, who can use the slopes for free. That number is more than double its ticket sales for its first fiscal year — ending July — of about 24,000.
“Would it be sustainable [on ticket sales alone]? No,” Sherwood said.
The material is similar to a thicker version of artificial turf, but painted white instead of green. Nozzles are spread throughout the hundreds of feet of carpet, blasting mist onto the material. Beneath it is a 2-inch layer of foam for padding.
“You can’t replace [real snow] with anything,” Sherwood said. “But when you’re in an area that has no snow, this is the best that you can have.”
Nate Feldman, a freshman who came to LU to be part of its ski and snowboard team, agrees. “Snow has its benefits, but this has its benefits as well,” he said. “It’s a completely different style of riding.”
The slope is studded with railings, stairs and ramps. Below the lodge is a trampoline for experimenting with airborne moves.
Even the lodge strives for ski-slope authenticity, with bear skins and stuffed heads of elk, moose and rams hanging on the wall. Below its roomy ceilings are leather couches and a fireplace. It’s an area, Sher-wood said, where students often come just to study, and not necessarily ski.
“If I had been here earlier, I would have been at [Snowflex] immediately,” said Patrick Finn, a junior who recently transferred to LU.
Sherwood, who is an LU alumnus and currently is working toward his MBA there, said the idea for Snowflex originally started around 2007 as a positive alternative for students’ free time. Start-up costs for the facility were about $8 million, he said.
“The idea is we provide an atmosphere for our students to not get in trouble,” Sherwood said.
“We don’t have the fraternities,” he said, adding that LU, as a dry campus, wanted the students to have a positive alternative to drinking.
“Our business model isn’t necessarily to be stable with the Snowflex center [on ticket sales alone],” he said. “Recruit, maintain the body usage and give them stuff to do and at the same time be a marketing source for the university.”
LaHaye Ice Center, on University Boulevard, is also an LU facility that generates income from the gen-eral public under the university’s campus-recreation department.
For the first two months, when Snowflex opened in August 2009, students made up most of the ticket sales. But for the first year, the general public was responsible for about 70 percent of those sales. Shortly after, LU opened up the slopes for free to students of Lynchburg College, Randolph College and Sweet Briar College.
“Over the years, we’ve seen pretty steady increases,” Sherwood said.
Sergei Troubetzkoy, director of tourism for Lynchburg, said he’s only heard positive feedback on Snow-flex from tourists.
Five years after being the first slope of its kind, Sherwood cites only a small artificial slope in Colorado used for tubing. Outside of that, Snowflex remains the only artificial slope in North America.
“It’s one of two [facilities like this] in the world,” said Nate Feldman, a freshman who came to LU to be part of its ski and snowboard team. “… So, we’re really, really lucky. Honestly, no one else can ski 365 days a year.”