DULUTH – Nestled between Spirit Mountain and the St. Louis River sits a rare find in Duluth city limits — ample open space to build a sweeping new development.

With the ski hill, river access and a number of popular trails on or near the property, developer Brad Johnson says the 27-acre RiverWest site is at the confluence of all the things that make people want to visit or move to Duluth.

"It's kind of an epicenter," said Johnson, a Chanhassen-based developer who said RiverWest would capitalize on the city's reputation as an outdoor destination all in one setting. "We've got everything."

The project has been more than a decade in the making and is now in need of folks to fill it in with lodging, housing and retail. This spring a public road and utilities will stretch into the property, and the state is paying for a stoplight at the new intersection.

"We're planning to have a critical mass of things that will come out of the ground vertically starting next fall," Johnson said.

A small single-family housing development is already underway, and Ski Hut owner Scott Neustel is on board to sling outdoor gear at a new retail location right across the street from Spirit Mountain's Grand Avenue Chalet.

What Johnson and his development partners are really banking on is a hotel or resort property to draw people to the area and complement Spirit Mountain's appeal.

"Lodging, it turns out, is probably a key element to the success of that whole area," Johnson said. "Spirit Mountain has some lodging at the top of the hill, but there is no real lodging at the base of the hill, which people tend to like because they can stay nearby — or in our case just across the street."

Johnson said he has had interest from a restaurant owner; even a winery could join the mix.

Townhouses could also spring up as the development proceeds, which would help feed the city's dire need for housing at all income levels.

"There's a high demand for new construction," said Shaina Nickila, Lake Superior Area Realtors board chairwoman. "It's tricky to find lots to build on."

The site was once home to the Riverside Golf Club, a nine-hole course that operated during Duluth's boom years in the 1920s through the 1940s. Most recently it has been a forested tract typically trekked only by those on the Munger Trail and Waabizheshikana, the Marten Trail, along the river.

With the area cleared and awaiting tenants, city officials are backing the development's potential.

"The progress at the RiverWest site is a milestone for the city in the realization of planning and private-sector development efforts in the St. Louis River corridor," Adam Fulton, Duluth's deputy planning and economic development director, said in a statement. "It … will provide exciting new opportunities for access to Duluth's vibrant recreational amenities near the river and the city's growing multipurpose trail system."

It could also provide a boost to Spirit Mountain, which is undergoing some soul-searching via a city task force exploring ways to put the public ski hill on firmer financial footing. But even with limited runs and pandemic restrictions, Spirit Mountain has sold more lift tickets and season passes so far this season compared with the same period last year.

Touring the snow-covered development site across the street from the slopes, Johnson said a number of potential tenants have a strong connection to the ski hill.

"They grew up skiing at Spirit Mountain like our kids did," he said, "and they will either try to benefit by having a business there or as the consumer."

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496