Pembina Gorge Foundation in final stages of Frost Fire purchase

The Pembina Gorge Foundation is close to finalizing the purchase of Frost Fire Ski and Resort as a purchase agreement was executed on March 1 with a closing date of May 31.

Posted 04/21/2017

By Melissa Anderson

The Foundation was founded first, to ensure Frost Fire would remain open and become a permanent public amenity for northeastern North Dakota. Secondly, the property provides a natural “hub” allowing for an expanded visitors & heritage center with North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department.

“We couldn’t have had a more perfect opportunity.  This is a legacy project for North Dakota and the stars are certainly aligned, “Kristi (Mishler) Wilfahrt, co-founder of the Foundation and project consultant, says, “This purchase forms the foundation of a long-held community and regional dream of creating a well-managed four season playground, perhaps an international destination with something for everyone – from birders to hunters, to hikers to swimmers, skiers to bikers, campers to golfers, fossil diggers to theatre, and much, much more.”

The Pembina County JDA/Red River Regional Council and the Community Foundation invested more than 700 hours in 2016 alone in developing the project and establishing the Foundation. The development team includes: Dawn Keeley, Executive Director of Red River Regional Council / Pembina County JDA and acting project director and co-founder of the Foundation; Kristi (Mishler) Wilfahrt, Philanthropy and Project Development Consultant and the acting foundation director and co-founder of the Foundation; Matt Gardner, Recreation Division Manager of the ND Parks and Recreation Department and Mike Duerre, Pembina Gorge State Recreation Area Manager of ND Parks and Recreation Department. Those involved, both the development team and the standing board of directors, see a long-term vision to enhance this long-term amenity to have an area of the state that caters primarily to the 1.2 million people living within two hours of the Pembina Gorge.

“The formation of the Foundation and acquisition of Frost Fire are key to meeting objectives in the Pembina Gorge State Recreation Area Master Plan (2014),” Keeley said, “The master plan lays out a framework to create a recreation destination like no other in North Dakota. The private public partnership with NDPRD is truly one of the most unique. Through 2015 and 2016, we’ve been encouraging support of the development of the master plan. With the Frost Fire property purchase, we will be able to support seven key priorities within the SRA Master plan – really, bringing the master plan to life.”

The Foundation plans to build upon decades of development – both at Frost Fire as well as the State Recreation Area and the Rendezvous Region. A major shift is the business model from privately owned by Judith and the late Richard Johnson for the past 40 years to a non-profit corporation. As a non-profit, the Pembina Gorge Foundation can seek and attract grants, donations and philanthropic gifts to continue investing in enhancing the property and establishing new amenities. As a nonprofit, any profits generated by the Foundation are reinvested in the mission of the Foundation.

The Foundation has initiated the Pembina Gorge State Recreation Area Campaign with a goal of raising $3.1 million which will fund three phases of the purchase and development of Frost Fire. Phase I and II of the campaign’s efforts will raise approximately $2.1 million for the purchase, maintenance and improvements at Frost Fire. To date, the Foundation has secured $700,000 in private donation and commitments including capital and endowment gifts. Phase III of the plan will focus on building a $1 million endowment to support the long-term sustainability of the non-profit as well as provide scholarships so that all people can enjoy the activities regardless of the ability to pay.

“The Foundation’s purpose is to preserve and enhance the experience of the Pembina Gorge, while connecting people to positive, life-changing experiences and to develop and support historical, cultural, educational, natural and recreational opportunities and other tourism assets and services,” Keeley stated.

The Foundation will continue to explore ways to grow the business through investing in the facilities, developing a strong marketing plan, expanding partnerships with other organizations with common missions, and exploring new business ventures.

The Frost Fire Resort is a four-season amenity nestled in the Pembina Gorge approximately seven miles from Walhalla. The property was developed by Richard and Judith Johnson over the past 40 plus years with more than 20,000 visitors per year. The business opened its doors for operation on Christmas Day 1976.

For Judith and the late Dick Johnson, Judith stated, “Dick and I always dreamed of seeing the gorgeous Walhalla area improved and developed in such a way that it provides an enhanced recreational and trade area. The Pembina Gorge Foundation establishment was our hope – to bring partners like the state park, public donations and others together to help develop the Pembina Gorge.  It’s a natural extension for Frost Fire.”

The Frost Fire property is 172.75 acres and includes downhill skiing and snowboarding, tubing, and cross country skiing. The lodge is approximately 9,600 square feet and provides space for gatherings, ski and snowboard rentals, sales, concessions, offices, changing facilities and restrooms.

Fans of the Frost Fire Summer Theatre won’t miss a production as the Foundation has plans for the program to continue in 2017. One new feature that patrons can take advantage of beginning with the 2017 production will be an online ticketing system that will be made publicly available before the end of April. The Foundation has hired David Paukert as the summer theatre manager. The show will be “Smoke on the Mountain” – a engaging, fun story set in 1938 North Carolina that features the Sanders Family Singers performing at Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church with 30 gospel songs.

While Frost Fire has maintained many of its famous attractions, one aspect of the Foundation taking over the management is the improvements that will be made to the location. As part of its feasibility analysis, Advanced Engineering and Environmental Services (AE2S) conducted a thorough inspection of the entire facility and developed a prioritized list of needed and recommended improvements to the facilities. At this time, the Foundation is reviewing approximately $200,000 in improvements to be made in 2017 including repairing a leaning lift tower, replacing the lodge deck, improving bathrooms, replacing the roof on the “barn” portion of the lodge, repairing/leasing  a groomer, replacing two snowmakers, building a bar, improving the theatre, and purchasing office and business equipment.

“With the AE2S report and the Foundation’s ability to raise philanthropic funds, the board of directors will continue to make facility improvements to both address deferred maintenance as well as enhance the customer experience,” Keeley stated.

The Foundation is currently planning to hold a town hall meeting in late May/early June to inform regional businesses on this project and seek ideas on how the business community can support and capitalize on this opportunity. The Foundation will also hold a “grand re-opening” celebration in early summer 2017.

For more information on Frost Fire or if you would like to donate to the Pembina Gorge Foundation, please contact Kristi Wilfahrt at 701-317-6729 or Dawn Keeley at 701-520-0487. Also be sure to check out the Frost Fire Facebook page and the Frost Summer Theatre page as they are being updated with new information.