MANSFIELD — In the 1960s David Carto heard Columbus investors were looking to start a ski resort near Mansfield. As leader of the newly started local ski club, Carto felt it was appropriate to introduce himself and see what he could do to help.
By the end of a business lunch the next day, Carto was a stockholder in what would soon become Snow Trails — Ohio’s first ski resort. The operation opened in 1961.
Carto, now sole owner of the Possum Run Road resort, is a 2011 North Central State College Entrepreneurial Hall of Fame inductee for transforming Mansfield into the “ski capital of Ohio.”
Carto’s secret to 51 years of success?
“If you have something you enjoy doing then you could probably succeed at it if you apply yourself,” Carto said. “It’s a lot easier than trying to do something you don’t enjoy.”
Passion is the one thing Carto has plenty of, according to his son-in-law Scott Crislip, who has been handling the business for the past 12 years.
“When he started, I’m sure he didn’t realize what (Snow Trails) would be today,” Crislip said.
Carto became a skier in the 1950s while traveling with the military, but when he returned to Mansfield, his hometown since age 12, there weren’t many opportunities to pursue the sport.
He and a few other skiers formed a traveling ski club, sometimes venturing to Gambier, where they spent hours packing snow on a makeshift hill to enjoy less than a half a day of skiing. But the infrequent trips weren’t enough.
“It was amazing how many people were willing to go through those lengths just to ski,” Carto said.
That’s prompted his interest in the business.
“A lot of people in Ohio are active skiers,” Carto said. “They like to ski in Ohio once or twice and then move on to other states.”
The real challenge was finding the right location for a snowy-slopes trail in Ohio. After surveying the area, Carto and the group purchased a small farm nestled in the Possum Run Valley.
The original barn and farmhouse are still features on the landscape, the barn having been turned into the Snow Trails lodge.
With winter temperatures consistently running five to 10 degrees lower in the valley than in surrounding areas, the farm proved to be an ideal location because the naturally chilly weather made for more efficient snow making, Carto said.
Snow-making machines, which blanket the trails, are the key to the whole operation, Carto said. Ohio’s snowfall alone is not enough to support the sport.
Snow Trails was the first ski resort in the Midwest to be entirely reliant on snow machines; it’s how the resort can “guarantee skiing conditions” throughout the winter.
“We made history,” Carto said. “I guess you could say we were pioneers.” Business is expensive, though.
The machines that groom the snowy slopes cost around $300,000 each. Add in fuel costs and the amount of electricity needed to make the snow and run the ski lifts and the bill is astronomical, Carto said.
During their roughly 90-day season, the resort has to generate enough revenue in ticket sales, equipment rentals, lodging, store purchases and food venders to sustain it during the 274 days out of season — and pay the resorts nearly 500 seasonal employees.
Carto’s success story stands in stark contrast to many other Ohio entrepreneurs who tried to start their own ski resort in the state.
A year after Snow Trails opened several other ski resorts popped up in Ohio, including Mad River Mountain near Bellefontaine and Mount Chalet near Cleveland. But none have seen success like Carto’s business.
Mount Chalet has since become a housing development and a number of others had to close their doors: Sugarcreek trails near Dayton closed after 12 years; Echo Hills near Lancaster closed after 10 years; and Spicy Run in Southern Ohio closed after only three years.
Carto credits his success to the ever-changing landscape of Snow Trails. Since starting in 1961, the resort has added six ski lifts, two transport carpets, and a tubing park.
“I guess people didn’t want to keep up with the improvements that we did,” Carto said of his competition. “We kept improving every opportunity we could to attract more customers.”
Crislip reiterated the operation is constantly moving forward.
“Dave’s tenacity and constant reinvesting in the business made it successful where others failed.”
For this upcoming season, the resort added a new trail called Timberline that guides skiers through a rounded path on the outskirts of the resort and a better training area for beginning skiers.
“Bottom line, I got into skiing because I love to ski and I got into the ski business for the same reason,” Carto said.
Crislip says the resort will only get bigger and better in the years to come as it “continues Dave’s legacy.” Crislip’s sons are already involved in operations to ensure Snow Trails remains a true family-operated business.
“I want them to be able to look back and be proud of what their grandfather started,” Crislip said.
Note: This is the sixth installment in a series on North Central Ohio Entrepreneurial Hall of Fame inductees from 2003 to present.