DULUTH – While not quite the $23 million in upgrades a consultant recommended last month, Spirit Mountain is planning some major work that its interim director said will better make the public ski hill a "community resource."
"It is a community resource, and we know we need to be accountable for the investments we make," interim Executive Director Ann Glumac told the Duluth City Council on Monday night. "We cut our expenses and some of our hiring plans and that has resulted in an operating profit for this fiscal year (that) we will be able to invest in our capital needs."
Investment proposals include: a free skating rink at the Grand Avenue Chalet; new rental equipment; mountain bike trail development; beginner area improvements; and a lounge.
Glumac said revenue was up 17% over last season's $5.4 million but did not share specifics, saying figures would be available in June. Warm weather ended this year's ski season a week early and delayed a full opening in November. The pandemic cut short last season as well.
The plan, Glumac said, is to put the city's $475,000 in tourism tax payments and the hill's profit toward infrastructure needs and new investments.
"We don't intend to use those dollars for day-to-day operations," Glumac said. "We want to be able to generate the revenue we need to operate."
What will be accomplished this year remains to be seen, but Duluth City Council Member Joel Sipress said that "it's extremely important we demonstrate some success."
"Show what we can accomplish with a little before we start asking for a lot," he said.
The SE Group, a ski industry consultant firm, found that by investing $23 million in the mountain, Spirit would be "achieving healthy operating margins that would allow it to weather weaker seasons, reinvest in maintenance and service its debt toward being a self-sustaining operation."
The city has spent an average of $1.2 million in tourism taxes each year for the past five years supporting Spirit Mountain, including a $235,000 bailout in December 2019 and $300,000 on a lift last fall.
For the mountain's next fiscal year, which starts in May, Glumac expects $5.2 million in revenue, which would be a 3% decrease from the fiscal year that ended in April 2020.
"We've seen steady growth over the past several years but we're not counting on that for our planning," she said. "We want to build a modest cash reserve, a savings account if you will. We want to be able to have that safety net."
A city task force made no specific spending recommendations but pointed out in a report "investment in maintenance of this aging resource has been sporadic to nonexistent," beyond what's needed for safe operations.
Glumac said Spirit Mountain will be meeting some of the report recommendations by hiring "guest ambassadors" to check every ticket on every lift; increasing ticket, pass and rental prices except for midweek at the Adventure Park; and making the Grand Avenue Chalet "Spirit Mountain Recreation Area Headquarters."
"This would really encourage our residents and our visitors to see … everything it has to offer," she said.
Glumac also said she may stay on as interim executive director longer than originally planned as changes continue and the mayor-appointed board that oversees the mountain is hesitant to bring a new leader on during the transition.
"I'm certainly willing to do that and the board seemed interested," she said.
City Council Member Gary Anderson said the board should bring its own recommendation to the council based on the SE Group and task force reports.
"I would rely heavily on the recommendations of the board as to what decision I would make," he said. "I would encourage the board to look at that very seriously."
Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496