The Loppet Foundation is welcoming a new leader as the Minneapolis nonprofit gears up for its largest event of the year, the City of Lakes Loppet Winter Festival.

Claire Wilson, a former deputy commissioner with the state Department of Human Services, will start Monday as the executive director, the nonprofit announced Wednesday. She replaces John Munger, who in July abruptly left the organization that he helped start nearly two decades ago.

Wilson, 45, of Minneapolis said it's a "homecoming" for her since she was a founding member of the Loppet and its first full-time employee in 2003. She takes over at a challenging time for nonprofits during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has canceled events and programs leading to declining revenue.

The Loppet has nixed several events this year and cut 11 staff positions. The winter festival in January and February is being retooled to comply with COVID-19 rules, eliminating events that can't be social distanced and pausing registration for the Luminary Loppet, which usually draws 10,000 people along a path of candles on the frozen city lakes, until the organization determines a safe way to host it.

At the same time, Wilson said the foundation expects revenue to rise with the growing interest in skiing.

"COVID has really pushed a lot of people outside … rediscovering the park system," she said.

Wilson, who helped create the Loppet's first youth program, now the Trail Kids program, hopes to continue to expand access to the outdoors and sports and partner with the Minneapolis Park Board. The Loppet's board president, Jonathan Van Horn, added in a statement that Wilson is an "effective, inclusive leader" focused on growing opportunities for underrepresented communities.

Wilson, who grew up in Louisiana and fell in love with cross-country skiing while at college in Maine, said she's a "huge fan of winter" and an avid skier, which first drew her to become involved with the Loppet when it started in 2002 as a ski race. After other jobs, she worked at the Department of Human Services before leaving the state agency in August 2019 amid leadership turmoil.

At the Loppet, which is based at Theodore Wirth Regional Park — Minneapolis' largest park — Wilson will now oversee a $3.4 million annual budget and 25 employees. Over the years, the foundation has expanded beyond skiing with programs and events year-round, including biking and running.

Ray Aponte, the Loppet's adventures director and a former school principal, served as the interim executive director after Munger stepped down and will now run youth and adult outdoor programming and manage the Trailhead, the $11.6 million lodge at Wirth Park.

"My hope is that we're able to continue to help the community as they foster their love for the outdoors and continue to be recognized as the place to go if you want an outdoor adventure in one of the most beautiful parks in the nation," Wilson said. "[Wirth] truly is a magical place."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141