The ownership of Lutsen Mountains laid out some ambitious plans to upgrade and expand its ski operations in the coming years, during a Tuesday press conference in Duluth.

Co-owner Charles Skinner called Lutsen the anchor of Cook County’s $160 million tourism economy.

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But he said: “Our ski area competes in a national market that is undergoing dynamic change. The challenge for destination areas like ours is to keep pace with skier preferences and make the necessary investments to survive long-term. So today we are thrilled to announce the purchase of a new $7 million gondola.”

Skinner referred to the purchase as the largest single investment his family had ever made in Lutsen. The new gondola will replace a unit that has been in operation for 45 years now. He said the new gondola should be up and running in time for the next ski season.

“The original gondola has served us well,” said Tom Rider, Skinner’s brother-in-law, and co-owner of Lutsen. “However, the new gondola will increase our capacity from 300 visitors per hour to 2,400 visitors per hour, ensuring travel to and from Moose Mountain without lines.”

Bigger footprint

The new gondola would be just a start, however. Skinner said he hopes to see Lutsen expand onto 400 acres of land that is now part of the Superior National Forest, allowing it to more than double the size of its ski operations.

“The Forest Service land will increase ski terrain from about 140 acres of ski runs to 300 acres, eliminating crowding on existing runs on our busier days. It will also add easier novice and intermediate runs that are really important to our family market,” he said.

Some of the national forest land likely would be used to accommodate a skier services building and parking under the proposal.

Skinner said there’s nothing out of the ordinary in Lutsen’s plans.

“About half the ski areas in the U.S. are on federal or county land, including about half the ski areas in Minnesota,” he said. “Just about any destination ski area you can think of out west is on federal land. So this is a very common process and use for ski areas in the U.S.”

Brenda Halter, supervisor of the Superior National Forest, confirmed that there is plenty of precedent for the accommodations Lutsen is seeking.

“Actually, it is quite common in the West and some of the Eastern national forests, especially the Northeastern national forest, to have ski area special use permits on national forest land,” she said.

But Halter said U.S. Forest Service staff has had only preliminary discussions with Lutsen representatives, and that no formal proposal or application has been submitted.

Skinner said he hopes to have that paperwork completed by early 2015.

Halter cautioned that approval won’t be automatic, however.

Extensive review

“It’s a big undertaking, and we want to look really carefully at what the effects of that might be, both the positive and potential negative effects. Right now, it’s just a proposed expansion,” she said.

“Once we get their application, we’ll begin the analysis. We’ll work with tribes and the public,” Halter said, explaining that the review will need to comply with the National Environmental Protection Act. The process will likely involve an environmental assessment or an environmental impact statement, she said.

A statement from Lutsen said it typically takes one to two years to complete a NEPA review.

“We’ll have some public engagement, and we’ll be able to demonstrate the effects of what’s being proposed and then make an informed decision,” Halter said.

Rider offered assurances that Lutsen would be a good steward.

“The new runs will be built with state-of-the-art trail design and construction techniques that will minimize soil loss. Storm water management best practices will be used to eliminate impacts to adjacent land. And the project will open up new scenic vistas for the Superior Hiking Trail,” he said.

Skinner said Lutsen is prepared to look at a number of options, including a request for special use permits or possibly a land swap.

Rider noted that the plans call for the expansion to occur in an area that’s not part of the Poplar River watershed. He said Lutsen has been working with neighboring land owners and other agencies to improve the health of the stream. With the help of about $2.5 million in funding from various agencies for improved conservation measures, Rider expressed optimism that Poplar soon will be delisted as an “impaired waterway.”

Growth imperative?

Even though Lutsen is the largest ski area in the upper Midwest, boasting 95 runs and a total vertical drop of 820 feet, Skinner contends it must grow to remain competitive nationally.

“In the last 30 years, more than 300 ski areas in the U.S. - almost half of all the nation’s ski areas - have closed because they were too small or failed to keep up,” he said.

“National trends suggest Lutsen will need to about double our skier visits to keep pace with other destination ski areas across the country and in order to gain the critical mass it needs to remain viable,” he said.

If Lutsen is able to execute its expansion plans, it won’t be cheap. Skinner said that ownership is prepared to invest about $30 million over the span of the next several years to complete its build-out. That’s above and beyond the $7 million it is plunking down for a new gondola.

David Ross, president and CEO of the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce, called Lutsen a great partner that adds to the allure of the North Shore.

“The North Shore brings visitors, investment and recognition to our region. In every way, their success is our success. So it is with great excitement that we learn of this timely investment,” he said.