MARS HILL, N.C. (WJHL) — An older man from just down the mountain and a young woman from the city with an interior design background may look like an odd pairing, but Orville English and Deborah Hatley are holding two ends of a baton — the passing of Wolf Laurel Ski Resort.

Hatley and her husband David met English several years ago when they bought 300 acres of undeveloped mountain land in Unicoi County, just across the state line in Tennessee, where they’re building an exclusive resort.

The Hatleys and English hit it off, and he began talking to them about his readiness to sell the ski resort he’d owned since 1992, as long as it went to the right people.

Orville English and Deborah Hatley at the bottom of a lift at Wolf Ridge Ski Resort March 8. Hatley and her husband David just bought the resort from longtime owner English. (WJHL photo)

“He invited me and David and the kids up here to come and visit the ski resort and we like to say that he was like a silent seller,” Hatley said while standing in the lodge that they’ll renovate before next ski season.

“I think that he really wanted to see this resort go to another family. We’re both on the same page. We’re not trying to commercialize this place, we want it to be family owned.”

Hatley also said the couple is intent on “keeping the bones” of the resort, including its lodge that was originally constructed before English even bought the resort, which first opened in the late 1960s.

That said, the Hatleys plan to invest well over $10 million in upgrades after paying close to that last week for the 344 acres itself, which includes about 300 single lots that could add significant rooftops. The upgrades will include about $3 million this year ahead of the next ski season for a makeover of the existing lodge and adding to older snow making equipment, among other things.

“Really trying to make sure that we can amp that process up and get the whole mountain covered as fast as we can whenever we can take advantage of those lower temperatures,” Hatley said. “Capitalize on the ways we can make snow and make it fast.”

Bikes and zip lines — the 365-day ski resort

As she walked around the lodge with knick knacks (including some stuffed wildlife) cluttering the floor and longtime general manager Johnny Goin crowbarring shingles off interior columns, Hatley said plenty of other plans are underway for keeping skiing viable. Those include the addition of extra staff to cater to folks who may not have a lot of experience.

“Sometimes people are coming here for the first time, they have no idea how to put on a ski boot or skis. We’re really going to use our background in hospitality to bring in that level of service with our employees and create an overall better experience for our guests,” she said.

Rental skis inside the Wolf Ridge Lodge, where the Hatleys plan major changes. (WJHL photo)

But ski resorts have turned more and more to adding features in a bid to become year-round destinations, and that’s in the Hatleys’ plans. She said some suitors had pitched the idea to English the last couple of years.

“Part of our year-round experience is creating a mountain bike park and also adding a restaurant and a lodge. There’s a community here in Wolf Laurel that’s already established, around 900 homes,” Hatley said. “These people are looking for other places to eat and have a drink.”

As the couple works toward adding a second lodge higher up the resort, which tops out at 4,700 feet, getting a liquor license, opening a restaurant and adding features like a zip line, they’ll focus on one near-necessity for the year-round game.

“We’re looking at putting in a mountain bike park, which has really got a pretty coveted following,” Hatley said. “Some people say that’s bigger than the ski industry.”

She said that’s especially important with an uncertain climate picture that could shorten ski seasons.

“This is about adding some more value to the property and value to our region to really make this place a a year-round destination, to add to the value of tourism in Tennessee and North Carolina, and also to bring some continuity to our resort.”

Then there are the lots. English, who walked in to check out the progress and chat with Hatley, was an infrastructure guy who was ready to add more homes in 2007. Then the Great Recession hit.

Hatley said she hopes the couple can find the right path toward adding capacity for visitors without spoiling the magic of the mountains.

“You can see for days, honestly. I believe it showcases seven of the highest mountain peaks here on our side of the mountain, so it is absolutely stunning. Adding a bunch of infrastructure up there … could take away from that so we want to be very strategic on how we develop it and where we develop it.”

Not throwing out the baby

Hatley said she and her husband plan to keep a majority of employees and add others.

“Orville English, his son Andy and daughter Kim, they’ve been a part of the building of this business since they were 6, 10 years old, so they actually are eager to stay on and they’re going to be a wealth of knowledge,” he said.

“We’re newcomers and we’ve got a lot to learn. We think they want to stay on because they believe in what we’re doing, that we’re not here to change that overarching concept of feel. We’re not here to make this place a commercialized area.”

With a crowbar still in hand, Johnny Goin took a break to explain why he plans to stay with the Hatleys. The Abbeville, S.C. native first encountered what was then called Wolf Laurel in 1976 as a student at Mars Hill College.

Johnny Goin has been working at the resort through most of the last 46 years and the general manager plans to stay on through the ownership change. (WJHL photo)

“My first job here was making snow, and that was a big year for snow, 150 to 160 inches, so I lost my job the 18th of December and graduated to working the lifts,” Goin said.

“’76 was my first year, and learning just about everything you could to do with a ski slope. I think we all at that time were willing to work in all different departments — so I found my love for it at that time.”

He said he’s spoken to the Hatleys a few times and that they seem sincere and honest.

“They seem to want to take this ski area to a different level, to a level that it needs to be at this time, and I would love to be with them to see it happen and to be with people of their caliber that can feel the area the way that I can,” Goin said.

“Even though they haven’t been involved in the ski industry per se, I believe they can feel it already and I believe they will do some great things with it.”

With new snowmaking equipment and other upgrades and Wolf Ridge’s easy proximity to large metro areas — it’s only about 10 minutes off of Interstate 26 — the longtime industry veteran thinks the future is bright for many more people to make the kinds of memories he has, even if they won’t all put a lifetime into the business.

“I used to do my homework studying for college on that fireplace,” Goin recalled.

“Everything about this brings back a memory to me. I can put my hands on the walls, the things I’m tearing down now that were here since I was here, and I can feel the emotion of all the people that’ve been through here.

“If you can keep the snow on the ground, keep the momentum going and the people happy with what they’re doing, and keep it in a family atmosphere … I love to stay with the people. I don’t sit in an office. I like to stay on the floor daily talking to the people, letting them know what we’re about and who has the company and the history of this area itself. I’d like for that to always be known.”