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story.lead_photo.caption Snowboarders and skiers enjoy the grand opening last month of Big Snow American Dream in an East Rutherford, N.J., mall.

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- To visit America's newest ski resort, follow the Jersey Turnpike, exit at MetLife Stadium and Meadowlands Racetrack, and head next door to American Dream.

Which, of course, is a mall.

Actually, it is a $5 billion behemoth still under construction from the people who brought America the Mall of America. When done, this consumer cathedral will be our nation's largest in square footage.

The mall's highlight is Big Snow American Dream, a mouthful for an audacious enterprise, which is more than 4 acres, packed with 5,500 tons of man-made powder and billed as North America's first indoor, year-round, real-snow, real-slope ski and snowboard experience.

At first glance, Big Snow appears to be a head-slapping, refrigerated folly. It's a lot of white stuff piled into a warehouse, dotted with trees and ersatz Alpinery. Mall skiing is an endeavor no one was asking for, akin to building a life-size replica of Noah's Ark, which Americans have also done, in Kentucky.

There are indoor ski centers around the globe, notably in Dubai, rich in sand, devoid of snow. Ski Dubai is a winter theme park, complete with penguins, a bobsled run and transparent Zorb balls that patrons climb into before rolling down the hill - like being inside a giant snow globe, except the snow is on the outside.

But East Rutherford is close to skiing of the outdoor variety. There are two New Jersey resorts an hour away, including Mountain Creek, owned by Joe Hession, the big guy at Big Snow.

So why sink $110 million into Jersey mall skiing? Because it may revolutionize the sport, expanding and diversifying its base.

One December Wednesday before lunch, Douglas Nazur, 41, a contractor from Astoria in Queens, N.Y., hit the mall and the slope. Technically, there are three trails, and a terrain park for hot-dogging.

Originally from Ecuador, "a really hot place," he said, Nazur had never snowboarded before Big Snow opened two weeks earlier. Now he's on his sixth visit -- and he's zipping down the slope "without falling on the floor."

Big Snow is no Vail, which may be the point. There are zero lines at the quad lift, and only a couple dozen boarders and skiers on the slope. Nazur completed four runs in less than an hour, three free of toppling, he said. "I am committed to knowing exactly what I'm doing indoors this season."

Nature is held in abeyance at Big Snow, where it is perpetually 28 degrees. "It just feels weird but in a good way. There's no wind. There's no sunburn. And you're basically on the doorstep of New York City," said boarding veteran Skip Hagerty, 36, a recreational sports consultant from Sayreville, N.J. "We are definitely going to come here in the summer," said his friend, bartender and freelance writer Glen Braunsdorf, 39, of Tinton Falls, N.J..

"There are two barriers to getting people skiing and snowboarding," said Hession, Big Snow's president and CEO. "The first is getting there. The second barrier is price."

Big Snow hopes to eliminate both. It's located in the country's most densely populated state. Two-hour packages with all necessary gear (including pants and a jacket) are $69.99, and a block of six lift-only passes comes out to $16.66 a visit. To avoid interminable lift lines, only 500 patrons are permitted at a time on the trails.

"It's bringing the mountains to the people, and abstracting the sport," said University of Kansas professor Andrew Denning, who wrote a history of skiing. "It's a form of democratization."

The domestic ski industry is neither as robust nor as diverse as resorts operators desire, and it faces a mountain of obstacles. Climate change has been brutal and expensive. Since 1983, the number of ski areas has contracted by more than a third; many of those shuttered were smaller, more affordable, family-owned operations.

Only 3% of Americans ski, 10.3 million patrons per season.

Skiing and snowboarding are what Hession classifies as "hard fun," loaded with initial big hurdles -- cost, travel, fear -- but delivering big rewards -- as opposed to the "easy fun" of watching other people compete at the sports on television. Four out of five people who first attempt the slopes never return.

More than half of regular skiers earn annual incomes of more than $100,000, according to industry research, and 87% of them are white. Notre Dame history professor Annie Gilbert Coleman entitled an essay on the subject The Unbearable Whiteness of Skiing. Snowboarding, attracting younger and less wealthy patrons, became popular in the 1970s and '80s.

Baby boomers are aging out of snow sports. Millennials aren't opting in. Skiing is an inheritance sport, highly predicted by geography and family. Half of all patrons begin skiing and snowboarding before the age of 11; more than three-quarters by age 21.

Hession anticipates a half-million patrons during Big Snow's first year of operation, half of them novices like Nazur, which would produce a 25% spike in national first-time visits. By comparison, Mountain Creek (a medium-size resort) averages 300,000 skiers per season. Killington in Vermont, the East Coast's largest destination, welcomes about 800,000.

Long the white elephant of New Jersey, American Dream took 16 years and three owners to build, and was previously named Xanadu. When completed, the mall will be 45% retail and 55% entertainment, including a Nickelodeon Universe theme park, and an NHL regulation-sized ice rink. Three restaurants will offer expansive second-floor views of Big Snow, providing entertainment for people who prefer chairs to chairlifts, the mall take on apres-ski without the ski.

It's the mountains' seemingly unconquerable beauty that first attracts people to ski and board. The mall removes people from nature. Indoor skiing follows "the natural trajectory of increasing dependence on technology and development. You want skiing to be out in nature," said Coleman, the Notre Dame professor.

But she wishes skiing were "less expensive. I wish it was more accessible." Big Snow, she acknowledges, is both. Perhaps it will prove the gateway experience: "I hope it gets people to the mountains."

SundayMonday Business on 01/12/2020

Print Headline: N.J. mall offers shopping, skiing

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