Duluth city officials just may have figured out a way to scrounge together the funds it needs to get Spirit Mountain up and running again in time for skiers and snowboarders to hit the slopes this winter. Spirit Mountain has been closed since spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
At a Thursday agenda session meeting, Duluth city councilors discussed a proposal to tap a fund dedicated for recreational amenities in the St. Louis River corridor for the purpose of providing Spirit Mountain with the money it needs to resume operations. Spirit Mountain has identified several capital improvements that have been made since 2018 that would qualify for a reimbursement of up to $340,000 for ski lifts, snowmaking equipment and the alpine coaster.
But Councilor Derek Medved expressed concern that Spirit Mountain's requests for city aid will continue to mount.
"If they're asking for startup funds in the amount of $300,000, I don't even think that comes close to the amount they will be asking for next time. So when does it end?" he asked.
In response, Noah Schuchman, Duluth's chief administrative officer, pointed out that the $235,000 in assistance the city provided to Spirit Mountain in the fall of last year was as a result of an event — the 2019 Amsoil Duluth National Snocross — that was canceled shortly after it began, due to a massive Thanksgiving weekend blizzard.
In contrast, he said, "This funding is being provided as a result of the pandemic, and much like other institutions in the community and other businesses, Spirit Mountain needs help to continue operations as a result of the pandemic."
Schuchman noted that Spirit Mountain has not had access to any of the federal COVID-19 relief funds other businesses and entities have been able to obtain, making city support through these trying financial times even more crucial.
Councilor Arik Forsman agreed that quasi-governmental entities, such as Spirit Mountain and the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, are currently falling through the cracks. To strengthen the safety net, he has proposed a resolution, in which the Council would call on the federal government to make such operations eligible for emergency aid.
This year Spirit Mountain will not host the Snocross, according to Jim Filby Williams, the city's director of properties, parks and libraries. He said nixing the Snocross from its schedule should actually put the ski hill in a stronger financial position, considering the considerable costs of supporting the event and the resources it diverted away from getting ski runs ready for early-season guests.
Schuchman suggested that denying Spirit Mountain the support it needs might be shortsighted.
"If the Council chooses to not approve this item, the alternative would be to close down Spirit Mountain, and the unfunded obligations there are well past this cost," he said. "So it is a choice essentially between spending... $1.5 million or $300,000 now to give Spirit Mountain the opportunity to exist and thrive in the future.
But 2nd District City Councilor Roz Randorf questioned whether the costs would really be that great for a temporary closure of Spirit Mountain until February, when a task force is supposed to come forward with recommendations for the best course forward. When the Council last met, it approved the expenditure of $74,000 to hire a consulting firm to help the Spirit Mountain Task Force evaluate current operations and explore its options.
Filby Williams warned that a continued closure could risk additional loss of talented staff and continued deterioration of equipment and buildings. He also said an idle hill would likely prove less attractive to any prospective third party that might be interested in assuming some sort of management or even ownership role.
Several councilors asked the city for guidance on what more assistance Spirit Mountain would likely require, and Filby Williams said that was impossible to predict and could swing from one extreme to another.
If the pandemic worsens, and Spirit Mountain is forced to shut down again, he noted that the outlook could be quite bleak.
But Filby Williams said that if the ski hill is able to operate through the winter uninterrupted and the outbreak can be held in check, "People will be so understandably hungry to have opportunities to be active outside together without risking disease transmission that skiing will be in demand, like golf was this year."