Kentucky thought it smelled white gold in them thar hills when, 1981, the state Development Finance Authority issued $3.2 million in bonds to finance a small ski resort at General Butler State Park, in Carroll County. State officials publicly downplayed some of the project's more obvious liabilities, including terrain that was less than Tyrolian and a climate more suited to brood mares than schussboomers. "Our market is not the expert skier," explained parks commissioner Lou Karibo. "Our market is people who just want to go out there and fall down a few times."

As it turned out, the biggest pratfall was taken by Gov. John Y. Brown Jr.'s economic development policy, of which Butler Park was to be a significant element. A private company, Northbank Ski Management Inc., was invited to lease the land and build and operate the ski facility. It was the first time private money had been invested in the state park system. Six weeks into the aborted 1981 -- 82 season, Northbank shut its operation down, claiming nearly $1 million in operating deficits. Six months after that, the corporation was indicted on charges of theft by deception.

The ski area, meanwhile, passed jointly into receivership at the hands of the Parks Department and the Commerce Department, which gamely reopened the slopes last winter under new management. Having borrowed another $300,000 to improve the site, Kentucky officials hired Paoli Peaks Inc., a southern Indiana ski area -- management company, to keep the chair lifts climbing. Alas, the chairs didn't climb, and the snow didn't fall. Paoli finally pulled the plug on Ski Butler late in February by which time temperatures had soared into the mid-60s and the bluegrass was bloomin'. Revenues though, were strictly downhill -- from an expected $750,000 to a disappointing $200,000.

Parks Department officials have asked for an additional $200,000 to open the ski area this winter and are hoping to have the bonded debt restructured to be spread over 20 years, instead of the original 11. They are also seeking better snowmaking equipment and clear title to the property -- which Northbank retained under terms of the initial agreement -- so that they can run it themselves. What they propose to do about the weather is another thing altogether. But Ski Butler already promises to be one of the exceedingly rare instances in which state officials of any stripe have failed to make a mountain out of a molehill.