A Land for All Seasons

A Williston institution, Catamount Family Center has moved beyond cross-country skiing to encompass the four seasons and a new generation

by Tom Gresham

It's a stifling Monday near mid-day and the heat at Taft Corners in Williston is oppressive. Lunchtime traffic bogs down on the baked roads and the stagnant air yields little relief to motorists impatient to return to their air-conditioned offices.

The Williston property on which Jim and Lucy McCullough run the Catamount Family Center has been in the McCullough family since 1873. The main house was built in 1796 by Vermont's first governor for his son.

Meanwhile, a mere five-minute drive away, the dirt parking lot at the Catamount Outdoor Family Center is bustling with helmeted mountain bikers in tight-fitting gear. They check on their cycles before setting out eagerly into the heat to navigate the trails that zig and zag across portions of Catamount's idyllic 500 acres.

The stark contrast between the two landscapes and their inhabitants helps explain the popularity of the Catamount Outdoor Family Center. A striking, serene property with majestic views and lush woods, Catamount offers an easily accessible recreational refuge for the residents of Chittenden County, the most populous and developed county in Vermont.

The Catamount property features trails for mountain biking, hiking and running in the spring, summer and fall, and cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in winter. There are also facilities for ice skating, sledding and snowboarding.

Jim McCullough, who owns the Catamount property with his wife, Lucy, says the people who visit revel in outdoor sports, but essentially they love being outside. The land itself is the draw.

"We give people a chance to get out into the presence of nature," says Jim, resting at lunchtime with his shoes off on the porch of the historic Catamount homestead after a morning of work outdoors.

"People have less and less of a connection to their roots today. We get milk in a jug, eggs in a Styrofoam package" "and exercise in a gym," interjects his daughter Abbie Bowker, one of the managers at Catamount "and that's right," Jim continues, "we get exercise in a gym. But here we give people an opportunity to connect to nature and just be by themselves for a while. People appreciate that."

Abby and Erik Bowker, the McCullough's daughter and son-in-law, are co-managers of the Catamount Family Center, which features, among other sports, mountain biking, running, cross-country skiing and snowboarding.

The Catamount property has not been a serviceable dairy farm since 1954. Still, the McCulloughs and the Bowkers Abbie and her husband, Eric, are co-managers at Catamount like to think of themselves as farmers.

They provide hay to local dairy farmers each year, but more on point, they call themselves "farmers of fun."To resist the urge to surrender their property to developers surely for a robust price they have dedicated the land to a blend of conservation and public recreation, resulting in what Jim calls "our land-use experiment."

The Catamount property has been in McCullough's family since 1873, when his maternal great-grandfather, Smith Wright, purchased it. The centerpiece is the main house, constructed in 1796 by Thomas Chittenden, Vermont's first governor, for his son, Giles. Today, three rooms are available for bed and breakfast patrons.

Jim's mother, Julia, eventually inherited the property, and he remembers how seriously she took that responsibility. He says she held to it dearly even in difficult financial times, when selling would have meant relief. "My mother fought to keep all this."

He has been determined to similarly honor the family's commitment to the land, though the property has major appeal to deep-pocketed developers. There have been regular visits from potential buyers, he says the most recent a few months ago but the family continues to politely decline.

The family has said no even as Williston has experienced explosive residential and commercial growth, making Catamount's near-virgin state particularly stand out.

"The more things develop around us," Lucy points out, "the more valuable our place is to people."

The family's steadfast insistence to hold onto the property seems a bit surprising because Catamount has not been a lucrative operation. Jim calls Catamount "the most successful unsuccessful business there is."

The summer mountain biking camp programs are packed and turn away long lists of children each session; the weekly running and mountain biking races held between Memorial Day and Labor Day inspire stellar turnouts; and the trails are occupied with athletes no matter the season. In a good, snowy winter, the center has as many as 10,000 customer visits, including skiers and snowshoers. However, the steep value of the land and the corresponding property taxes combine with the cost of upkeep to prevent the operation from being profitable.

"What we've been doing here wasn't enough to sustain it into the future," says Jim.

Last year, the family decided it needed to make a change and acquire more stakeholders. On Jan. 1, Catamount became a not-for-profit with the goal of preserving the property for people to use and enjoy well into the future. The land itself remains in the family's ownership and is leased to the not-for-profit organization. A combination of memberships and tax-free donations supplement other fees.

Andy Bishop, a Williston resident and former professional mountain bike rider, has used the trails at Catamount with his wife, Daria, for about 12 years. He speaks admiringly of the McCullough family's insistence on keeping the land undeveloped, pointing out they could have just sold half of the land and become millionaires.

"They've decided to dedicate their life to keeping this land open for recreation and conservation and education to the detriment of their own personal finances," Bishop says.

The family says the center's six-month-old status has not produced dramatic changes for customers.

The change has been obvious to Catamount's management team. For one thing, says Jim, the stress accompanied with operating the facility as a business has lessened.

"A huge weight was lifted off my shoulders," he says. "That's one way that things have changed. That's an intangible."

Abbie says the change has allowed the family to broaden its view of the property and its future. When the center was a business, she says, it was difficult "to see the forest for the trees." She and her family found themselves mired in the day-to-day operations of the place.

Taking the Catamount Family Center nonprofit has brought more stakeholders into the mix and eased pressures on the family. From left are co-managers Abbie Bowker, Erik Bowker, Lucy McCullough and Jim McCullough.

Now, with the help of a committed board of directors, whom the family handpicked, Catamount's management has begun to develop plans for "some bigger, more visionary type of projects," including an indoor facility.

Bishop jumped at the chance to join the board of directors when it was formed. He says the organization hopes to maintain its family-friendly offerings, but also to expand them to attract more Chittenden County residents.

"There are potentially a lot more people to use this grat land space," he says.

Growing accustomed to their skin as a not-for-profit has not been an instant transition.

"Part of our old New England stubbornness is that we've never really asked anyone for help before," says Eric. "Now, we're able to ask for help, and we're starting to do that, but it's still a learning process about how to do that."

The Catamount property has been open to the public for recreation for 27 years. The McCulloughs and Bowkers are physically fit practitioners of many of the outdoor sports they host at Catamount, so they are cognizant of the ways to produce an ideal experience for their visitors.

They are also perpetually open to the requests of their customers and members. For instance, Catamount let the South Burlington High School snowboarding team build a practice layout last winter that meant team members and others in the county could snowboard without traveling to one of the downhill ski areas.

"We don't have the personnel to drive new things, but if it fits the mission then it can be a synergistic thing," says Abbie. The snowboarding "was something where we didn't have to do any extra work. It wasn't something we had to promote or maintain."

The running and bike racing series demonstrate the deft touch Catamount's management has shown reading the public's interests. The running races average 145 participants a week; the biking races, a hefty 240 a week.

Eric notes that mountain biking races have seen declining participation nationwide, but the attendance at Catamount has steadily grown.

"Wednesday at Catamount is the largest continually running weekly (mountain biking) race in the country," Eric says. "There's nothing else like it anywhere."

The races are competitive, but with an overriding sense of fun first. Some families bring picnics to the events, and hosts of children, some on tricycles, participate in the competitions.

The emphasis on family stems directly from the people running things. Jim and Lucy have been together since they were sweethearts at Burlington High School. Catamount and Williston has been home for Jim his whole life, except for the period he attended the University of Vermont. Lucy grew up in South Burlington.

With his distinctive beard and direct manner, Jim has a familiar presence in Williston. He regularly delivers sharp opinions on topics at selectboard and town meetings, and, in the spirit of Vermont's citizen Legislature, he is serving his second term in the House of Representatives. He has embraced that role with evident relish, emphatically telling Williston voters during last year's campaign to send him back to Montpelier because, simply, "I'm doing a good job."

Jim and Lucy say ceding Catamount's management to Abbie one of three adult daughters and Eric seemed natural. Abbie, who also teaches art at Champlain Valley Union High School, has been working at Catamount off and on since she was 5 years old.

She initially majored in English in college, then spent a summer working at Catamount, where she rediscovered the appeal of the place. She responded by transferring to the University of Vermont, where she became a recreation management major and frequent helping hand at Catamount.

Eric arrived as an employee at Catamount in 1995. An avid cyclist, he had been a customer. He says he quickly "fell under the spell of the place and the people" most notably that of his future wife.

Now, they have become the next in line to serve as caretakers of the Catamount property a role that has been treated reverently over the years.

To Jim, the reason for that is simple: "We know exactly the gift we have here," he says. •

Originally published in August 2005 Business People-Vermont