Additional snowmaking capacity soon could be coming to the Grand Avenue Nordic Center at Spirit Mountain.
The Duluth City Council is expected to take up a resolution Monday authorizing city staff to apply for state and federal grants totaling up to $150,000 to help purchase an additional pump and four more snowmaking guns - doubling the number now dedicated to Spirit Mountain's Nordic trails.
Due to some construction delays, the Nordic Center didn't open to skiers until late December this winter, but Brandy Ream, Spirit Mountain's executive director, said it got off to an encouraging start, as natural snow was in short supply throughout the region.
"Early on in the season the Grand Avenue Nordic Center was the only place in the city of Duluth where people could come and have consistently groomed snow," she said.
The Nordic center features snowmaking capacity for 1.5 kilometers of trail at present, but if the city's grant application proves successful, that could be expanded by another kilometer. Spirit Mountain would be expected to match half the grant with its own funds, chipping in up to $75,000.
Ream said the Grand Avenue Nordic Center is well on track to finish its first year of operation in the black.
"We have had very good numbers as far as season pass sales, as well as our daily ticket sales, and I'm even more anxious to see what will happen as we move into spring, when the snowpack starts to melt in other locations. But we should be able to continue to groom, able to farm the snow from places within our trail system and see how long we're able to keep that Nordic skiing going into the spring," she said.
The Duluth Cross-Country Ski Club has been a big booster of the project, and Club President Kari Hedin said the group now is "within shouting distance" of its fundraising goal of $750,000. Those funds will help support the continued buildout of the Nordic center, which awaits additional lighting and the construction of a 1.7-kilometer connector trail linking the system at the base of the mountain to the 20-kilometer network of trails up top.
The additional pump the proposed grants would fund could benefit both Spirit Mountain's Nordic and alpine operations. It would boost the maximum amount of water the ski hill can draw from the St. Louis River for snowmaking purposes from about 4,000 to 6,000 gallons per minute.
Hedin said the snowmaking capacity of the Nordic operation stands to play a huge role in ensuring local skiers have a place to train, even when nature fails to provide for the sport.
"It's very important, because I think we are going to see more and more unpredictable winters as a result of climate change," she said.
The city of Duluth also has invested $1 million in the Nordic Center. Jim Filby Williams, the city's director of public administration, said: "I think we've had a very solid year with phase I. The sales of season passes significantly exceeded expectations and pretty much had us at break-even for the year before we even got to Christmas."
The Nordic operation also hosted KidSki, a local program that helped teach 176 children to cross-country ski this winter.
Ream credited a team effort for the success of the center.
"We've had great partnerships from (Duluth Cross-Country Ski Club), the city and the community that's coming out to support the Nordic center. Everyone's come in together and made this a Nordic center that everyone wants to be a part of and that they can be proud of. And our staff, we've all worked very hard to see this happen and continue to make improvements, not only with the lower base area and the Nordic center but with our alpine operation, as well," she said.
The early success of the Duluth Nordic center and others bode well for the odds of attracting additional state and federal grant funds, Filby Williams predicted.
"We're very confident that the state and federal officials have seen the proof of concept for the value that snowmaking-supported Nordic skiing delivers, not only or even primarily because of what we've done, because we are only the latest of several such ventures in the Upper Midwest that have added this capacity," he said.
"The impact each time is identical. Not only do you see unusually high levels of participation when snow is otherwise scarce, but you also see community-wide increases in Nordic skiing participation in general, because all of a sudden you have a winter sport that you can rely on being able participate in, with a high level of confidence," Filby Williams said.