The Duluth City Council unanimously approved another $300,000 in aid for Spirit Mountain on Monday night, making it possible for the struggling attraction to resume operations this winter. The recreation area has been idle since May, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced it to close.
At large Councilor Arik Forsman pointed to a 2004 economic impact study that found Spirit Mountain brought $5.9 million a year into the community and said that adjusted for inflation that would account for more than $8 million in today's dollars.
The cost of not helping Spirit Mountain to reopen would be considerable, too, noted at large Councilor Zack Filipovich.
He said the city would face about a $1.3 million liability, as it would need to refund season pass sales and incur other expenses.
In comparison, Filipovich said a $300,000 investment looks like the better deal. "Quite honestly, it makes this decision fairly easy, when you look at the hard numbers," he said.
"It's sort of like we're damned if we do, and we're damned if we don't," said 5th District Councilor Janet Kennedy.
While several constituents have suggested the city look to sell Spirit Mountain and cut its losses, Forsman noted that covenants and enabling legislation would make any such transaction a complicated and challenging undertaking.
"It would be an uphill battle — pun intended — to ever sell this hill," he said.
At large Councilor Derek Medved said that if the city ever hopes to bring in a partner to either manage or take an ownership stake of some sort in the operation, leaving the ski hill closed this winter would be detrimental to those efforts.
"If we were to shut Spirit Mountain, the value of that hill would go down significantly," he predicted. "So, I think a hill such as that holds more value being open and functional and also employing great people."
Duluth Mayor Emily Larson has appointed a task force to explore how Spirit Mountain can be placed on a more stable financial footing, and 3rd District Councilor Roz Randorf said that group should be given time to complete its work. Recommendations from the task force are expected in February.
"Without the hill, this winter, you could guarantee we'd have more small business closures — more small restaurants, more hotels. We'd have more people laid off," Randorf said, noting that the city could miss out on 400,000 visitors, during the typically slower winter months for the local tourism industry.
Speaking in support of providing Spirit Mountain with additional aid, 4th District Councilor Renee Van Nett suggested people think about the long term value of the recreation area and its spiritual importance. "We need it for generations to come. It's not just about us. It's about who's coming after us and what's coming after that," she said.
As quasi-governmental entities, Spirit Mountain and the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center have been unable to qualify for federal COVID-19 relief programs. But another resolution also passed by the council Monday called for federal authorities to consider extending aid to both.