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Spirit Mountain director: Bitter cold battered budget

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news Duluth, 55802
Duluth Minnesota 424 W. First St. 55802

Although the recent ski season will go down as one of the longest anyone can remember at Spirit Mountain, thanks to snow that arrived in November and persisted well into April, frigid weather cost the operation dearly, according to Renee Mattson, its executive director.

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She explained that subzero temperatures forced the hill to shut down during what normally would be some of its peak business periods this winter, causing it to finish the year about $46,800 in the hole. Mattson said it’s virtually impossible to recover from forced closures during what are traditionally key times in the season for visitors.

In presenting Spirit Mountain’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year — running from May 1, 2014, to April 30, 2015 — she laid out ambitious plans to bolster revenue. Spirit Mountain aims to boost its season pass revenue by about 25 percent and its individual lift ticket revenue by 35 percent next year.

Mattson acknowledged the ski hill can’t realistically expect to achieve those gains simply by drawing more people to the slopes. Instead, she said it will be necessary to raise the price of passes and tickets.

“We’re going to be getting our season pass costs more in line with our competitors’,” she told members of the Duluth City Council on Monday night.

While Mattson predicted Spirit Mountain still would offer lower-priced season passes and individual lift tickets than most of its competitors, she said: “We can’t afford to give away our product anymore.”

In addition to increasing its revenue, Mattson said Spirit Mountain will work to rein in costs. She said season pass holders will have access to 60 hours of skiing per week next winter, versus the 79 hours per week they enjoyed this past season. The hill had opened at 9 a.m. daily but plans to start operations at 1 p.m. Monday through Thursday next winter. Its weekend hours would remain unchanged.

Mattson said Spirit Mountain remains committed to keeping itself an affordable option for local families, but she also said the hill has to strike a balance.

“At the end of the day, we are still a business,” Mattson observed.

The Duluth City Council voted unanimously to accept Spirit Mountain’s $6.06 million budget Monday, with 3rd District Councilor Sharla Gardner absent on a trip to Washington, D.C.

New director to be hired

Mattson is in her final days as Spirit Mountain’s executive director after nine years on the job. She announced her plans to leave a few months ago, after her husband, Terry Mattson, former executive director of Visit Duluth, landed a job as president of Visit St. Paul and the RiverCentre Authority.

The Spirit Mountain Authority’s Board of Directors reported that 57 people had applied to succeed Mattson, and the field has since been narrowed to four finalists, with a decision expected to be announced shortly.

Spirit Mountain has worked to diversify its operations, offering year-round activities, but Mattson said the ski season still accounts for the lion’s share of its budget.

Nevertheless, she said nonwinter activities have been playing an ever-larger role. Mattson cited the growing popularity of rides and other attractions at Spirit Mountain’s Adventure Park.

She also noted the increasing popularity of the mountain bike trail network at Spirit Mountain.

The Duluth City Council approved an additional allocation of $80,000 Monday night to expand that trail network. Funding for the improvements will come from hospitality tax collections that exceeded the city’s budget expectations for the previous year.

Mattson said the money should be enough to build three more trails, including a free-ride area, which she described as sort of a terrain park unlike anything else in the area for mountain biking.

Last summer, Spirit Mountain also began offering rides aboard its upgraded largest lift to bicyclists eager to access top-of-the-slope trails as well as autumn sight-seers.

“It far exceeded my expectations,” Mattson said, noting that about 4,000 lift tickets were sold during the off-season last year.

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