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MVSTA a powerful but humble force in the Methow

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Last week, World reporter K.C. Mehaffey wrote about some innovative efforts that the Methow Valley Sport Trails Association is making to increase the number of visitors to the valley and serve the local community better.

MVSTA took some risks by expanding free skiing from youths 13 and under to 17 and under. They launched a pilot program that allows so-called fat bikes on the trails to expand the types of winter use, and over the last several years they expanded the trails that can be skied with dogs. This is not an organization that is afraid to change.

Allowing more kids to ski free was a financial risk for the organization — one that other cross-country venues have avoided. So far, according to executive director James DeSalvo, it has paid off nicely. Skier visits and revenue have both improved. The anecdotal evidence, he says, is that families are coming to the valley and staying longer because it's more affordable. The gamble appears to be paying off.

Even better, it's giving more youngsters a chance to get outside, enjoy skiing and perhaps get acquainted with a healthier lifestyle that will benefit them for years to come. There was a conscious decision by the board that serving families and kids is important. "We wanted to make a statement," said DeSalvo.

These are the kinds of bold moves that smart, entrepreneurial organizations make. Often times, nonprofits have difficulty going beyond the comfort zone of how things have always been done. Clearly, the leadership of MVSTA is cut from a different cloth.

I spent a few hours with DeSalvo recently to see what could be learned from the MVSTA experience.. What I found striking was the passionate commitment to building a healthier, more economically viable community rather than simply developing more recreation opportunities. The Methow Valley is not blessed with a diversity of economic opportunities. Agriculture is still an important factor, but tourism is the key driver and so MVSTA is crucial to the valley's success.

DeSalvo and the board at MVSTA are acutely aware of the impact they have on the valley. Their economic analysis suggests that for every dollar spent on ski passes, roughly $25 is spent in the community on lodging, food and entertainment. That's powerful.

As we walked along the streets of town, DeSalvo could hardly go ten steps before being greeted or honked at, Their office was relocated to Main Street last fall to improve visibility and the foot traffic has increased dramatically.

For an organization with a $750,000 or so budget, it's a lean operation. DeSalvo is the only full-time salaried staffer to go along with a small team of four or five part-timers. They get more than 2,500 hours of volunteer labor and a lot of help from businesses in the community.

But the scope of its operations are impressive. It boasts the most extensive nordic trail system in the country and keeping the more than 120 miles groomed is an expensive task.

DeSalvo has been in the valley for 13 years. Previously, he worked for Outward Bound, then worked for MVSTA as a trails manager before taking the top spot three years ago. He and his wife have two youngsters and a third on the way. They're fully committed to the community.

The desire to build community continues to be a driving force of DeSalvo and the MVSTA board, he said. He's proud of the Community Backyard Ski Day held recently that allowed locals to ski or enjoy the skating rink free of charge. Businesses donated equipment and some in the community who had never been on the trails got a taste of a different side of life in the valley.

This is a tough place for those with limited economic means. Everyone here seems to have three or four jobs because there isn't much of an industry in the valley. But it's also a place where people step up and give a helping hand. DeSalvo said that sometimes the help can be overwhelming. Such is the tradition of community in the Methow.

DeSalvo loves his job. "It's exciting to be really connected to the community and developing healthy routines for kids and families," he said. "We wouldn't want to be anywhere else."

The commitment to building a more resilient community has resulted in MVSTA being a powerful yet humble force in the valley.