DULUTH – Spirit Mountain won’t be opening again until it’s covered in snow, canceling weddings and other summer activities at the popular recreation area.
The pandemic-prompted decision was made after the board that oversees the public ski hill decided staying closed was “better not only for the organization but for the city of Duluth, too.”
“We examined Spirit Mountain operating under different scenarios from opening in the summer to opening in the winter and not opening at all,” Executive Director Brandy Ream said in a statement Wednesday. “This has been an excruciating process, in which painful decisions have been made, and to be frank, it hurts.”
The Duluth City Council will consider the public ski hill’s $4 million budget next week, which “presumes that Spirit Mountain staff will remain on layoff until preparation for winter operations begin in September and will remain closed to the public until the winter season begins in November,” according to city documents.
The mountain’s budget projects receiving $420,000 in tourism taxes for operations, as it normally does, even as those tax collections have fallen dramatically, potentially putting other recipients at risk of not receiving funding.
The board considered opening July 1 for a shorter season, but it would require an additional $200,000 from the city. The mountain has increasingly been a destination for mountain bikers in the warm months.
Ream will give a presentation to the City Council and give more details on long-term plans on Tuesday.
Finances were already tight heading into the summer; the mountain generates enough cash to cover operations but not enough to keep up with capital investments.
In December, the City Council bailed out the mountain with an extra $235,000 in tourism tax dollars after a blizzard canceled the annual Snocross race. In March, Spirit Mountain’s board approved a $5.3 million budget — which assumed no COVID-19 impact — and were told the city was exploring a task force to help get the ski hill’s finances back on track.
Then the mountain closed in mid-March as the COVID-19 pandemic swept into Minnesota, ending the season early.
“We love what Spirit brings to our community, to our loyal pass holders, and we take pride in providing our region with the exceptional services that we do,” Ream said. “Yet, decisions had to be made to protect our business, and so that we can reopen and be as successful as we can be.”
On Wednesday, the city said the Spirit Mountain task force would be formed this summer and would take a look at private partnerships or even a possible lease or sale of some or all of the mountain to ensure its long-term feasibility.
“There’s no quick, easy answer,” said Jim Filby Williams, the city’s director of parks, properties and facilities. “[We’ll] choose how to proceed in a way that would be most cost-effective and beneficial to the community.”
More details on the task force will be shared in July.
If the mountain shut down completely it would result in $2.6 million in obligations the mountain wouldn’t be able to pay, according to the city, and Duluth would remain on the hook for $500,000 a year in debt service for the Grand Avenue Chalet, also paid for by tourism taxes.
Spirit Mountain was created in 1974 by the Legislature as a recreation authority; the governing board is appointed by the mayor.
The city said that because it is publicly owned, Spirit Mountain has been ineligible for the federal Paycheck Protection Program that would have helped pay employees this summer.