Park City-based National Ability Center plans to expand facilities, starting with its Mountain Center, in 2018
Process brought on by growing clientele
September 18, 2017
It all started with the Mountain Center – the National Ability Center's home base for ski and snowboard programming. Snow sports was and is still a high priority for the NAC. The non-profit essentially serves anyone with a disability or trauma, from Paralympic hopefuls to providing hippotherapy to children, and facilitates nearly every kind of outdoor recreation.
Over the past 30 years, the NAC's attendance has snowballed, outgrowing its double-wide outpost at the base of Park City Mountain Resort. In 1996, an anonymous donor gave 26 acres near Quinn's Junction to the NAC, which became the site of their headquarters in 2001. In 2014 the organization started planning to expand again. On Friday, Sept. 8, the National Ability Center held a ceremony revealing those plans for a large expansion project meant to help the agency support its growing population of attendees.
According to a packet of information passed out at that ceremony, most of their attendees are active duty, injured military and veterans, and children and adults on the autism spectrum, plus their respective family members, at roughly 30 percent per category. Over the last five years attendance has grown by 96 percent, bringing 5,500 individuals and their families through 35,000 adaptive recreation lessons per year.
Because they serve such a broad population of people, they have a lot of different reasons for expanding: more rooms with wheelchair access, more places to relax for people adjusting to the altitude or after outdoor activities, and a general compartmentalization of activities so no group is drowned out in the noise of another. Currently, serving those needs is a balancing act, especially when the NAC is in high demand, as CEO Gail Barille explained in a walking tour of the facilities.
"In the middle of summer, when we have several camps going, a day group visiting, people in our lodge overnight and when you try and teach a lesson in this inner space," she said, pointing to a small, corral-looking area bordered by a log fence, "it's really hard to teach there."
The problem is probably most apparent in the Mountain Center, across from the Baja Cantina.
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In a video created by a staffer last winter, a tide of people flood into and out of the building between 8:50 and 9:20 a.m.
The door is constantly swinging open, and the room is often packed.
Steve Robinson, who oversees the NAC's programming, got his start as a volunteer at the mountain center. Since then he has seen it become more crowded over the years.
He calls the expansion "much needed" and "overdue."
Robinson said each participant might be accompanied by several family members, plus one instructor and up to three volunteers helping run the lesson with up to 60 lessons per day. Then there's gear: all the equipment and clothing required for adaptive skiing and snowboarding, plus some equipment waiting for future lessons, plus office supplies.
"It's crazy," Robinson said. "We need a mountain center more than anything else."
Which is why it was unanimously chosen as the NAC's top priority in the upcoming expansion, and is slated for construction in mid to late 2018, followed by an expansion to the equestrian center.
The new mountain center, which will be built near the current location, aims to deliver a more resort-like experience. Less hustle and bustle, and a style more in line with the other lodges.
"As Park City as a resort grows, we do too," Robinson said, because adaptive athletes want to ski and snowboard Park City for the same reasons everyone does: because it's a world-renowned ski destination, but with the bonus of having the NAC's headquarters just minutes from its slopes.
"To be able to offer a world-class facility at a world-class resort is key with the growth," he said, discussing the plans for the Mountain Center. "We have a bathroom, that in and of itself is a huge improvement. We don't have running water or a bathroom at our current facility. And with our population, they need that, sometimes more than anyone else. Little things like that are going to make a massive impact."
As is the location, he said.
Currently, the mountain center is at "plaza level," Robinson said, which means guests have to face stairs or an elevator while carrying ski gear to get to the front door. The new design would allow guests to park at the front door, and go straight inside with direct access to the slopes. This also applies to some summer programming, like mountain biking, which also uses the Mountain Center as its base.
In addition to the Mountain Center, the NAC has five other construction projects, including a community and programs building, a new recreation center, a campground and ranch expansion, a second lodge, and the equestrian center, all at the NAC's primary location near the intersection of State Road 248 and U.S. highway 40.
The NAC is still fundraising for the projects, but with $11 million of its $15 million target, the organization has a good start.
Barille said one of the most striking parts about the having 1,500 volunteers annually is, sometimes they find that the services are actually geared toward them. Sometimes seniors volunteer, then learn that the program can help them as much as they can help the program.
And because the NAC serves people from ages 3 and up, there is hardly anyone who couldn't someday look to the NAC for help getting outdoors.
"If we all live long enough, we are all going to join that disability minority," she said.