Jerry Falwell’s University To Launch Snowless Slope And Park


Kendal Ski Club, UK
Courtesy Briton Engineering

What do snowboarding and Jerry Falwell have in common? While this sounds like the intro to a joke that begs a punch line, the late televangelist and founder of the moral majority also founded Liberty University, which is building the nation's first Snowflex, snowless slope and park. When Falwell founded the Baptist institution, the image of snowboarders hitting a quarterpipe on the facility's private 5,000-acre mountain range probably didn't top his list of recruitment tools, but the times they are a changing and it sounds like the image of our sport may be as well. For better or for worse.

The Rise and Slide of Snowflex

For years, Euros have been able to enjoy a variety of summer solutions to get their shred fixes. Indoor slopes made famous in Dubai abound in the UK and on the continent, there are hundreds of dryslopes where riders can sketch down lattice worked plastic bristles that support orthopedists by claiming finger and wrist bones daily, but perhaps the best innovation on this front is the development of a material called Snowflex.


Snowflex is the brainchild of Briton Engineering's founder Brian Thomas, who married a space-age, astro-turf like substance, a layer of padding, and small misters, that recycle water to keep the slope slicked up like an otter, in 1993 in an effort to make the UK dryslope phenomenon more realistic and safer. Since this slow-burning light bulb moment came to fruition, Briton has been steadily gaining ground with projects in the UK, France, and Hong Kong featuring parks that capitalize on the ability to build standing features that never need to be groomed and are always ready to rip regardless of the weather.


The poster child for Snowflex and Briton's slope design is the 105,000 square foot Noeux-les-Mines in France, which features an Olympic sized pipe, quarterpipe, hand rails, kickers, a hip, and a cornice drop to name a few of the flavors of freestyle fun.

Briton has been working for years to break into the US market and has several potential projects in locations including Texas and Wisconsin, but Liberty University has beaten them to the punch and will be opening a 40,000 plus square foot facility in the beginning of 2009 featuring a table top, two hand rails, an 11-foot quarter pipe, and potentially a halfpipe, all of which will be accessed by lift, completed in a matter of months, and cost a mere 1.75 million dollars.

Know the Code

After reading the PRESS RELEASE on this development, I decided to find out more information on the project and emailed the PR contact for Lynchburg, Virginia based Liberty, an institution of higher learning I had never heard of. While I get a lot of emails from random people, I was more than a little surprised to receive a reply from someone named Jerry Falwell who said he would be calling to discuss the Liberty Mountain Snowflex Center. Jerry Falwell? Images of fire and brimstone, the moral majority, and hundreds of incendiary comments came to mind, none of which involved snowboarding, and the real story morphed into finding out more about the school. A task that would have to wait as my phone rang several minutes later. It was Jerry Falwell, Jr.


Junior's dad founded Liberty University in 1971 as a faith based college focused on spiritual and theological life. According to Wikipedia, unlike most ski resorts, the university's code of student conduct, “The Liberty Way”, includes possible reprimands and, later, fines, for activities such as attending dances, violating curfew, viewing R-rated movies, drinking, smoking, viewing sexually explicit material, entering the bedroom of a member of the opposite sex, having an abortion, and participating in unauthorized petitions. On several occasions Falwell described the school as “Bible Boot Camp,” and exhorted Liberty’s students to burn it down if it “ever turned liberal."

Jerry Falwell, Jr. took over at Liberty’s helm after his father passed away in 2007, and says he is working to change the image of the institution to a certain degree and lure more students to join the school's 20,000 plus congregation by bringing the Snowflex slope to the campus.

Here are some excerpts from Falwell's conversation with Transworld Business.

TWB:
Why'd you decide to go with this project rather than finding an alternate use for the space?

Jerry Falwell, Jr.:
We're in a unique spot where we've got a 5,000-acre mountain right here on campus and we're right in the middle of an urban area. We've been looking at different ideas for years for using the property and it's pretty steep so it's not really practical for a lot of uses. We hired a firm in Salt Lake City called Alpentech a few years ago, a mountain recreation engineering firm, to look at different ideas and they told us about gravity sports that you see in places like Park City in the summer time. We went out and took a look at some of those. A lot of those are more in the nature of amusements. They also told us about Snowflex and we thought (it) would be a better fit for a university because you can have skiing and snowboarding teams.


The future site of the Liberty Mountain Snowflex Center.

TWB:
What appealed to you about Snowflex?

JFJ:
First we looked at real snow, man-made snow. We don't really get cold enough here in the winter to maintain much of a snow cover, so we went over and took a look at Snowflex in Scotland. It's a lot more forgiving than the other substances. On the other (surfaces) you can fall over and break your thumb because there's holes in them. These, there's two or three inches of soft cushion underneath it so if you fall it's really softer than falling on real snow.

TWB:
What did you think of the slope in Scotland?

JFJ:
I've skied since I was a teenager just once or twice a year so I'm not really good at it, but even somebody like me who's not an expert doesn't have any trouble on it. To me it was a lot like snow skiing conditions that you find here in the East. Most of the people there were teenagers and college-aged kids doing jumps…I don't know what you call it, tabletops and rails and quarterpipes. Our goal is to do something unique with this mountain that benefits the college and helps us bring alumni back. We have tens of thousands of alumni across the country that we want to reconnect with and bring them back for weekend visits with their families and this gives us something that not that many people have, especially in the United States. I think it's gonna catch on though. There's a lot of places in the Southeast and Texas that this would be the only option.

TWB:
How much will this project cost?

JFJ:
The Snowflex surface, misters, installation, and I'm pretty sure the lift is included in our contract. That part's about 1.75 million dollars. I've heard ridiculous numbers for the one in Texas, but I think that includes a lot of other things besides just the Snowflex. That's the reason I think that it will catch on here because it's something that municipalities can afford, and something that colleges can afford, and it's not gonna break your budget. It's well within our recreational budget for the next few years.

TWB:
Do you have any idea for the cost of annual upkeep?

JFJ:
The idea is for the fees we charge users to cover any operational costs. We had a donor that stepped forward and is covering the up front costs. So all we really need to do to break even is to cover our operational costs.

TWB:
Will outsiders be able to use the facilities?

JFJ:
Absolutely, every day. Our students and prospective students will have priority in pricing and at certain times of the day it might be open only to them. First and foremost it is a benefit for our students and a recruiting tool. But it's good for us and good for the local community to open it up because it provides operating revenue and gives the local citizens here something to do. We're not exactly an entertainment Mecca. We're the largest city in the country without an interstate. Shows how much clout we have I guess.

We're a Christian school and Christian education has been stereotyped as having regulations and do's and don'ts and strict rules and we don't think it has to be that way. We think if you have regulations for no coed dorms and no beer bashes like we do, you don't have to be a monastery either. We don't want to be known for what we're against; we want to be known for Liberty being a fun place and a good experience.

TWB:

So you're looking to alter the perception of the school?

JFJ:
We think Christian education is unfairly stereotyped as a monastery type education that's not much fun and we don't believe it has to be that way and it's not that way at Liberty and we hope this gets that message out.

TWB:
Do you see snowboarding tying in well with Liberty or have you heard any concerns?

JFJ:

I hear about the skateboarding culture as being sort of rebellious or whatever, I don't know much about it, but the snowboarding and skiing… the kids I saw over in Scotland that were doing this were clean cut, middle class kids just having a good time. I didn't see anything that looked like hoodlums. I think snowboarding is a little different than skateboarding in that respect. You've gotta be able to afford to buy a snowboard and get to the slopes. Somebody asked us if we thought this would draw the wrong crowd and I just don't see that happening. I think it's a good, positive, wholesome entertainment and that's one of the reasons we're doing it.

TWB:
How do you see this site developing?

JFJ:
We went and looked at the Olympic Park in Park City and I guess there's something similar to that in Lake Placid, but there's nothing this far south.. I think you'll see kids training for higher competition here over the years as we certainly would be open to that. When it's warm there's not many options. There's just a few places in the country where they can practice.

We're not planning on a half pipe but we're looking in to. We have the tabletop and the quarterpipe, but maybe a halfpipe is something we should do. We're putting the final touches on the plan now.