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For indoor slopes, business looks up

People queue for a ski lift at the Ski Dubai Park in Dubai. The facility is the third largest indoor slope in the world, holding over 6,000 tonnes of snow and can accommodate around 1,500 people.
People queue for a ski lift at the Ski Dubai Park in Dubai. The facility is the third largest indoor slope in the world, holding over 6,000 tonnes of snow and can accommodate around 1,500 people. (Victor Romero/ AP Photo)
Email|Print| Text size + By T.D. Thornton
Globe Correspondent / December 27, 2007

Indoor skiing is coming to the United States. Depending upon your perspective, this is either the next big thing in snowsports or a sign that the apocalypse is creeping closer to the skiing and snowboarding industry.

Purists who believe fresh air and Mother Nature are an integral part of snowsports might cringe at the thought of artificial winter. But developers bankrolling the climate-controlled ski runs and snowboard parks argue that indoor facilities can serve as a vital, year-round complement to the real deal, introducing legions of newcomers to the slopes in urban areas or in warmer regions where snow never falls.

Enclosed snow domes have existed for 20 years, but first-to-market honors in the United States could go to Xanadu, a $2 billion entertainment and retail village under construction at the Meadowlands Sports Complex. Scheduled to open in late 2008, the centerpiece attraction of the 4.8 million-square-foot project will be a 140-foot tall ski run. Its massive skeletal structure is already piquing curiosity as it juts from the horizon alongside the New Jersey Turnpike.

"People who don't know it's a ski dome wonder what it is," said Lloyd Kaplan, a spokesman for Xanadu. "It sort of looks like a ski jump into the next county."

Other faux snow meccas are on the drawing board: A Las Vegas firm planning North America's largest indoor water park recently announced it will be adding snow slopes, with a tentative opening in 2011. A North Carolina dome has been proposed, with six indoor triple-chair lifts and five runs built on an actual mountainside. Another ambitious developer near Atlanta wants to build a destination community that includes ski slopes, a regulation NHL hockey rink, a 1-mile snowmobile racetrack, hotels, restaurants, retail shopping, and residences.

The aspirations of the earliest enclosed ski facilities were far humbler. In 1987, Snowdome Adelaide on the dry coast of southern Australia premiered the world's first indoor run. Copycat interior slopes soon proliferated, primarily in Asia and Europe. Although Adelaide closed in 2005 because of the high costs of electricity, water, and liability insurance, some 30 others have flourished, carving a niche by bringing mountains to the masses, not the other way around.

"For beginners, it's perfect," said Martin Raymond, a spokesperson for Xscape, which operates three snow domes in England and Scotland. "It's not the mountain environment, but the best first step for beginners and those who want to sharpen up skills. For beginners, it is more attractive than unpredictable, and often windswept, Scottish slopes."

Xscape does not see itself as a rival to mountain resorts. "There is no competition between the indoor and outdoor sport," Raymond said. "A likely trend is that indoor skiing will increasingly become more of a reliable introduction to the sport. Ironically, indoor slopes are possibly the innovation that will maintain interest in the sport in the future and ensure that fresh talent and enthusiasm continues to keep skiing alive."

At Xscape's snow dome near Glasgow, even the Scottish national ski team uses the facility for training throughout the year.

"If the best in Scotland use the slope," said Raymond, "then it's clear that lesser mortals feel the benefit, too."

In other parts of the world, indoor skiing and boarding is strictly a novelty, but it's still a big business. Ski Dubai in the United Arab Emirates opened in 2005, and at 25 stories high, it's billed as the world's third-largest interior slope. The slope pass of $19 includes both equipment and apparel - gloves, pants, jacket, and even disposable socks because winter clothing is not often in the wardrobe of those who live in 100-degree heat.

Arabs who wear long, flowing dishdashas can rent knee-length coats to stay warm, as skiing in traditional robes is prohibited.

"Snow domes will probably keep popping up in unlikely places over the coming years," said Christian Dunnwald, the founder of Snowplanet in New Zealand.

"I built my first snow dome in 1996 in the Netherlands. As Holland is very flat, we used a mountain of debris coming from the heart of the city of Rotterdam after the Germans bombed it during the second World War."

Although the United States has yet to open a permanent indoor ski facility, New Englanders might be surprised to learn that the founder of the Boston Celtics played a prominent role in the birth of indoor snow.

In the 1930s, when the ski craze first swept the East, sportsman Walter Brown became obsessed with the idea of hosting a winter carnival at Boston Garden. Stumped by the cost and difficulty of importing snow for indoor use, Brown one day passed a fish market, where, according to Time magazine, "he noticed a handsome cod packed in ice that was chopped up so fine it looked like corn snow." The merchant showed him his grinding machine and Brown super-sized the concept, ordering larger versions that could handle 500 tons of ice.

In December 1935, a five-story ski jump was erected in the Garden rafters and hundreds of amateur skiers showed up, unaware it was intended for professional jumping demonstrations. The concept of indoor slopes and annual ski shows caught on, and were copied at Madison Square Garden and other arenas.

Part of the fascination was the snowmaking itself. Time reported in 1936 that "spectators were spellbound when workmen fed one of the machines 50-pound chunks of ice, which it chewed into flakes [and] spewed out of a 6-inch hose as glittering, precious snow."

Today, indoor snowmaking is a lot closer to how it's done outdoors: Water is forced through pipes and mixed with chilled, compressed air. Unlike at outdoor resorts where the snow guns sit off to the side of the trail, the nozzles in a snow dome can be mounted on the ceiling to save space. The building housing the ski run is basically a huge refrigerator, except it's the size of an airplane hangar or three.

"It's hard for someone from [New England] to understand this, but it's not just about snow," said Stephen Winters, who has an apt surname for a developer with a dream to build a $1 billion frozen community in Georgia. "It's the entire life experience, and the bottom line is our biggest reason for success is going to be global climate change."

Winters said he had an epiphany about bringing the world's tallest and longest indoor ski run to the South when he attended the opening of a German snow dome in 2000. Although he has yet to break ground and his grand plans are met with skepticism, Winters said Atlanta is the perfect location for just such a palace because it's within 100 miles of 6 million people and close to the world's busiest airport. He also hinted at an ecologically friendly process he would use, drawing on the region's abundance of humidity to provide water for snowmaking.

Winters said the European ski industry initially scoffed at indoor snow domes, but now even the premier mountain destinations are considering enclosed facilities because they fear being left out of the loop as the sport approaches a 12-month season.

When asked if he thinks global warming, over many decades, will eventually tip the trend so that indoor ski slopes outnumber natural mountain resorts, Winters said, "let's hope that doesn't happen, but I think we're headed that way."

In the meantime, skiers have a year until the indoor slope opens in New Jersey. The name choice for the complex is curious, because in ancient times, Xanadu was a city known for lavish, natural splendor. But more modernly, the term has evolved into a metaphor for pompous excess: In the classic film "Citizen Kane," Xanadu is the materialistic pleasure paradise where Orson Welles dies a lonely old man, imprisoned by his own wasteful extravagance.

Time will tell which type of Xanadu the nation's first indoor snow dome turns out to be.

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