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DULUTH — After years of precarious operations, Spirit Mountain plunged into its full ski season this month with its heftiest profit in years, cold snap-ready reserves and a mission to broaden its base of users.

Years of lackluster pass sales and a major winter storm led to an emergency bailout in December 2019 for the city-owned recreation area, and the pandemic precipitated another cash infusion after months of closure. A task force convened by Mayor Emily Larson later reported the mountain's economic impact — $22.4 million according to a study of the 2018-19 season — but that millions in investment were necessary for it to flourish.

"It just seemed like Spirit Mountain was always on the brink," said Arik Forsman, president of the Duluth City Council and co-chair of the Spirit Mountain task force. "Now, it feels like they've got it."

People point to new leadership, conservative spending, maximizing off-season revenue and new marketing as cause for the turnaround.

Interim executive director Ann Glumac, who was hired to replace Brandy Ream in 2020, said she's focused on paying down years-old debt owed to the city, and expects that to be completed in 2023. Profits have grown in the past couple of years, she said, ending the mountain's last fiscal year at more than $1 million. Stronger pass sales and higher prices, along with boosted summer activity — a record 73 weddings held there this year — have allowed for the kind of smaller investments on things long deferred, like a new groomer and point of sale system and new snow-making equipment. Glumac was even able to set aside $250,000 for emergencies.

"A two-week cold snap can really wreak havoc," she said, since most of Spirit Mountain's money is made between the holidays and the start of March. "We had two cold weeks last February and it was sobering to look at our revenues plummet."

Still, the reversal has been accomplished without a major cash outlay from the city. The city has spent an average of $1.2 million in tourism taxes annually in recent years supporting Spirit Mountain, open since 1974. But a $23 million investment recommended in the task force report by the SE Group, a ski industry consultant firm, hasn't come to fruition.

While Larson sought $12 million from last year's state bonding bill — to be matched by city tourism taxes and Spirit Mountain — the Legislature's failure to finalize a package of tax cuts and spending last session meant a no-go for state investment in Spirit, at least this year. Without it, big-ticket buys like renovations or replacement of the nearly 50-year-old chalet, new lighting and replacement of at least one of the original ski lifts aren't possible, leaders say.

"That's a challenge we face to keep Spirit Mountain in the game," said Ryan Abel, longtime director of mountain operations and maintenance.

Even so, he said, "I feel it's the best Spirit has ever been."

Whether the city should continue to operate Spirit Mountain is oft-debated, but leaders have said it would be near-impossible to sell, because of state grants it's received and its connection to Indigenous tribes, among other reasons. If the millions in state bonding money is granted, Forsman said this month he would like the city to explore leasing the operation.

One of Glumac's task-force recommended goals has been deep community outreach, traveling the city to remind residents of Spirit's lesser-known amenities, such as the campground and adventure park, its new free skating rink at the bottom of the mountain and hiking and mountain-biking trails.

She was "stunned," she said, by how many people saw it as just a ski hill.

"So we are trying to turn our face to our community in a way that I think had been lacking for a while," Glumac said.

Michele Dressel is chair of the Spirit Mountain board. She credits long-time staff running operations and new leadership working together with the city for the mountain's turnaround. She lived in Colorado for decades, she said, and has seen smaller cities suffer when their recreational ski hills closed.

"I think it's now understood Spirit Mountain is a gem ... and an economic force," she said.