It looks like the Spirit Mountain Recreation Area will finish the latest fiscal year with its budget unexpectedly in the black.
The operation is projected to close out its current fiscal year - which runs from May 1, 2015, to April 30, 2016 - with a net profit of about $33,000. That's a vast improvement over the more-than-$161,000 net loss Spirit Mountain had been budgeted to record.
"I'm positive and confident that there are better days ahead," Brandy Ream, Spirit Mountain's executive director, told members of the Duluth City Council Monday night. "Progress is being made."
However, Spirit Mountain required some special help to nudge its net income into positive territory. The city funneled $382,000 from tourism tax proceeds into the ski hill's operations this fiscal year.
That's $13,700 less than the subsidy Spirit Mountain received last year. But it's nearly four times the tourism tax support the recreation area was slated to receive in an originally approved budget for the current fiscal year.
A $5.547 million budget unanimously approved by the city council Monday night would return tourism tax funding for Spirit Mountain to 2015 levels - $395,700 - and Ream said it is her intent to seek similar sustained support in the future. The newly approved budget is about six-tenths of a percent higher than the current year's.
The city already has extended a $1.2 million line of credit to help Spirit Mountain work through its recent financial difficulties. So far, Spirit Mountain has been unable to repay that outstanding debt.
But if the recreation area can continue on its current trajectory toward renewed fiscal health, Ream said she's optimistic Spirit Mountain will be able to begin to chip away at the $1.2 million line of credit come 2017.
In August of 2015, Ream was forced to ask the city for emergency financial support to meet payroll, in the wake of a disappointing winter ski season. The city council approved up to $300,000 to help the operation, as needed. Ream said Monday, Spirit Mountain ultimately used just $50,000 - or one-sixth - of that amount authorized. (Ream later said that statement was not correct - updated story here)
"I'd like to thank the council very much for your support and patience over these last many months. I know it has not been easy on you to support an organization that seemed to always have its hand out. But things have changed. Things are improving at Spirit Mountain," Ream said.
Spirit Mountain boosted its operating revenue by 3.4 percent compared with last year, to nearly $4.39 million this fiscal year.
Meanwhile, it ratcheted down its operating expenses by 5.2 percent, to about $4.06 million this year. Spirit Mountain notched its greatest operational savings on employee wages and salaries, cutting total payroll spending by more than $257,000 - a 9.2 percent reduction from last year.
"This has been a huge line item that we've been working on," said Ream.
She cited two keys to improved labor savings: consolidated management functions and a new contract providing greater flexibility that allows the recreation area to make more efficient use of its unionized staff members.
"We're doing more with less," Ream said.