An Interview with John Kirlin

The Antelope Butte Foundation, a non-profit, grassroots effort to reopen the Antelope Butte Mountain Recreation Area, has made impressive progress since their 2011 inception. They have already begun restoration on the lodge and have raised $1,307,509 toward their total goal of $4 million for the purchase, restoration, and endowment of the Antelope Butte Mountain Recreation Area.

Because it is located on a scenic byway between Yellowstone National Park and Mount Rushmore National Monument, an estimated 330,000 people drive by the entrance of Antelope Butte each summer. Summer activities planned include scenic chairlift rides to 9,400 feet, zip lining, frisbee disc golf, mountain biking, music festivals, weddings and conferences, educational and “camp” opportunities, slack-lining, a portable rock climbing wall, air bag jumps, and food and beverage services for hungry, road-weary passengers.

John Kirlin, previously the packaging lead and warehouse senior for Black Tooth Brewing, was hired as the new executive director of the Antelope Butte Foundation at the beginning of December, filling a vacancy left by Andrew Gast in February.

82801 met up with Kirlin at the Black Tooth Taproom to chat about this new chapter in his professional life.

John: Now, I’m full-time foundation. Even more than full-time, really. It’s like they say, “If you enjoy what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” It’s true. All my spare time not spent at the brewery, was spent building trails or skiing, bike-riding… doing something of that nature.

Thinking about the job, and weighing out the brewery vs. Antelope Butte, one deciding factor was when I bought one of those small home-brew kits. It’s still in the box… in the attic. I have a great garage space, and I could do it. I mean, I worked at a brewery.

But, in my free time I never did that, I was outside playing and recreating. I was putting on events like The Dead Swede, helping Sheridan Community Land Trust with Biketoberfest… I was doing those things and actively seeking those things. Whereas, with the brewing stuff… I liked the idea, but I never really took the step to do it. I think that’s a telling sign.

What I look for when I need help, and for when we eventually start hiring, what I look for is passion over knowledge. Because someone who’s passionate about what they are going to do will learn how to do it no matter what. Someone who’s got the knowledge but isn’t passionate about it…?

I don’t have all the educational experience like a lot of executive directors. I don’t have a finance degree, or a business degree. I’m a PE teacher. But, the board recognized the passion in me. When Andrew left, they didn’t just jump on ZipRecruiter and put up a job posting that says, ‘We need this person’. No, they took on more responsibility.

They were waiting for the right person to come along. I was waiting and feeling out Antelope Butte the whole time, as well. I was saying, “Okay. How are they going to play this out? How are they going to pull off this year’s brew festival and summer festival without having an executive director? So Tony, Anthony Tarver, took a big role in a lot of those things. He’s a big reason why I finally asked. We were riding bikes. And he said, “Yeah, we’re still looking for an executive director…”

And I said, “Okay, tell me more about this.”

I’ve seen how much Tony has put into it and how passionate he is and excited about it. I’ve also seen the other board members’ passion and excitement. They’re not just volunteer board members that are doing it because it makes them look good on their resumes. No! They’re at all the events. They’re doing all this work on top of their 9-to-5s.

I get a kick from watching other people. That’s my educator side. Seeing someone when they get that lightbulb moment and go, “Aha!” It’s like when Jordan LeDuc (of Sheridan Bicycle Company) and I put on The Dead Swede bike race. We still have people who come up, like Dave Alden over at Tegeler Associates. He’s an avid cyclist. He’s gone and done Iron Man races. But he told me, “That was the funnest race I’ve ever been to. That was the most fun I’ve ever had at a bike event.”

Andreas, he’s from Columbia, but he lives up here now. He came across the finish line in tears he was so proud of himself. He’s never done anything like that and he went out and rode 100 miles up and down Red Grade. Just going up Red Grade is a feat in itself, but by the time you get down, you still have 60 miles to go. Andreas’ wife gave him a hug at the finish line, and he had tears streaming down his face. He loved it.

Like I said earlier that’s that light bulb, that “aha” I got when I was a teacher. You show someone a little bit of the world and they catch it and they go, “Wow!” Then it becomes a new drug for them. The great thing is, it’s better than a drug, because it’s natural. You’re not in an altered state of being, you’re in a real state of being. I’d rather see someone in a real world than in an altered world, because the real world is rad.

And we brought that kind of energy to Biketoberfest also. The kids had a ball. That was a huge thing, because you see those kids, and if they’re having fun that’s how you know you’re doing it right. If they’re having fun and the parents are having fun too, and feel safe about their kids having fun… that’s what Antelope Butte is going to be all about. I grew up in Casper and Hogadon is a similar thing: It’s a local community ski hill.

Some big hills, like Jackson, you’re going to spend $100 per person to go ride green runs? Whereas Antelope Butte, we want to have a ski school where kids and families can come and learn. Then you can go and have that experience of your lifetime going on family vacation to Jackson, or go heli-skiing somewhere. But you’ve got to establish roots. Without established roots, a solid foundation, you tilt and you’re going to fall.

82801: With your preferences, it seems like the fact that this is a non-profit is perfect for you.

John: I agree. And, with education progression being at the forefront of our model… I’m really excited about that. We know we’re not going to be the epic backcountry Mecca. We’re not Togwotee Pass, or Teton Pass. We don’t have a tram. We don’t have a high-speed anything. We don’t even have high-speed internet, which is something I have to figure out at some point.

I believe in working with other entities, like the YMCA and the Land Trust. Let them do their mission really well, let them excel and be awesome. And we will excel and be awesome at what we do.

We have a great mountain facility and we have the opportunity to do so many things up there. The YMCA has great programming and great outreach, especially for youth and under-served populations. They can reach those community members really well and do great programming for them. How can we partner with them? Now, the Y can offer some programming and transportation to our facility. Boom, the community wins!

We’re setting up our initial endowment fund to help cover the costs of scholarships. We’ll have a sliding scale, very similar to how the YMCA does their family scholarships. We plan to have that, because it’s in our mission to provide affordable, accessible, year-round activities. I’m about building life experiences that aren’t just going to be about skiing.

There’s so much more. There’s such social development that goes on in outdoor living. In these groups, you develop new friends. Because a community is just a group of people. That’s all they are. And you can take that wherever you go. The great thing about Antelope Butte, it’s in Big Horn County. It’s not in our community, but it sure is our community. You go up there, you take your community with you, and then you bring a new community back. It’s about who you’re with, and are you having a good time?

82801: Are you guys going to buy snow machines to make snow?

John: That could go into our master plan eventually. There’s a timeline though. We are on Forest Service land. So we don’t own the land. We own all the improvements on the land. So all the facilities, everything, that’s us. But the land itself is still federal land. And we had to go through our permits just like Sleeping Giant in Cody, Grand Targhee, they’re a Forest Service ran area.

For us to even be open, we have to bring everything up to code and the status that it once was. Then we can actually apply and get approved for our 40-year ski area permit. Every resort, every area does that. Then you’re not applying every year and going through the paperwork.

Once we have that, then we can submit our new master plan. So, for us to put tools into the ground and develop, like new mountain bike trails, before we start building any berms we have to have our 40-year permit in place.

The great thing about it is that we can do a lot simultaneously. I can turn in my application for a 40-year permit, and as soon as that’s approved, I can, literally two seconds later, hand them our master plan, which will have ecological studies and start cutting plans for new trails.

82801: How is the work on the lodge going?

John: We’re doing rehab and bringing it up to code. We’re going to run the two lifts and put in a magic carpet. All that has been approved. Emmerson submitted a master plan that got approved that included a new hotel-style lodge. That could come, but for now we’re working with the federal government. Everything has to be very transparent. That is fine, but you have to work at the pace of government. There is some red tape, too, because we’re kind of this new thing. This new idea and this new improvement could be greatly beneficial to the community. But it’s not the same as what’s been done in the past.

We do some work with the Wyoming Business Council. We’re a part of the recreation sector, which isn’t a thing… which is kind of silly. Oil and gas have been big in Wyoming, closely followed by tourism and recreation. Agriculture brings in less than 1% of revenue to this state, yet it has its own state department. There’s not a department of recreation though, which is about 11% of the revenue for the state. That’s kinda weird, but it’s old school and it’s the way things are. And it’s starting to change.

82801: How does the board work for your foundation?

John: As I’m getting traction, I’m now able to make more and more of the day to day decisions. But when it comes to big purchases I have to present it to the board, write up a proposal. The board can either vote on it via email or I have to wait until our board meeting for a lot of the big ticket items. Like, if we’re going to buy a new groomer. Very similar to the pace of government. They’re voting on this, so you have to give them time to think and vote. And if they only meet once a month or once a quarter…you can only go as fast as that. For me, it’s actually been good because patience is one of the things I have not had a lot of growing up.

                                    82801: The summer events have been amazing. They’ve proven that it’s a thing that people will go to.

John: Yeah. People love it. They’ll go there even if they don’t have cell service. They’ll complain for a minute, especially if they come up with their teenage kids. But most of the parents take it as a warm welcome. “We get to disconnect from our devices and spend time with our family.” Even the brewfest is a family event. We have designated drivers, a bouncy house for the little kids; activities for all ages.

Eventually, summers will subsidize our winters. Especially in low snowfall years before we get snow making capabilities. Summers will be more profitable because you don’t actually need as much staff. You don’t need grooming all the time. You have your amenities staff, your guest relations. With tour buses coming down every single day from Yellowstone, we can get people to stop in and take a picture, get a cheeseburger, buy a T-shirt.

We can get people staying in Bear Lodge, Elk View, Arrowhead, or staying down in Shell, Greybull, or Lovell and we can make it a stop for them. Especially if we make it a stop where they plan to stay for more than just lunch. In our master plan, I also want to be able to put in a designated campground. If we can get them to want to stay overnight or do a couple of days of activities, I think that’s a win.

I spend a good portion of my time writing grants and meeting with foundations. In the last nine months now, I think we’ve brought in a little over $800,000: We’ve brought in $250,000 just since the beginning of November. The Scott family have been our biggest supporters through their various foundations. It’s relationships and experiences. And experiences build relationships, and vice versa.

There’s a learning curve to understand the Wyoming mentality and to gain the trust of  other Wyoming foundations. Wyoming is very relationship-based. If you don’t have a belly-up at the bar relationship, you’re kind of in an uphill battle. That’s what I’ve noticed.

Some people might call it the “good-ole-boys” mentality, but that’s what has always made Wyoming what Wyoming is. As I’ve come on, that’s been one of my bigger goals, is to establish and just catch up with those relationships. The board members were picked for various reasons. Because they have these relationships built already. Now my job is to get a relationship established with the whole gamut of them and gain their trust that I’m here for the community.

The great thing about Wyoming is there’s so much to see. There are different regions and geographies that you can see by going one way or the other. Just get off the interstate a little bit, and you’re going to see a whole ‘nother world.

In 2014, I did what I called the Mu-Cycle Tour. I decided, “I’m going to go play music across the state, do a tour via bicycle.” I did 11 gigs. Nine of them were at breweries. I started at Snake River in Jackson, and ended at Crow Peak in Spearfish. I rode my bike across the entire state with a guitar and a trailer. I had some support some days, like getting over the passes I had vehicle support so I could unhook and I could just ride. I averaged about 73 miles each day. I’d get up, ride my bike, see some cool stuff, and see the entire state at a different level and a slower pace. Then I got to work for four hours every night, played and drank all night, and then got up and did it again! It was great, it was a fun experience, and I thought, “More people could do this, more people should do this.”

I made a stop here. It was actually kind of out of the way, but I love Black Tooth. I’d played here since their second anniversary when I first came up here with the band and we played stroll night. I’ve played every stroll night since for the last five years and it’s been so much fun. It’s because of that connection and me coming back to play at the brewery that I moved to Sheridan.

On Fat Tuesday of 2016 I came up for a solo gig. I planned on coming up to play and go back to Casper that night. I played and we were talking in the back by the coolers with Barnes about work and the new expansion. He said, “Oh we’re hiring.” I asked, “What do you pay?” And he gave me a number and then gave me a text message later before I even left town, “No seriously, let’s chat. This would be great. We’d love to have you.” I packed up, I called my wife on the way home and said, “Hey can we move to Sheridan?”

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About The Author

Kevin Knapp grew up in Big Horn and Sheridan. He has a background in anthropology, Native American studies, and video production. He can be reached at kmknapp@mcllc.net

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