DULUTH – When Mayor Emily Larson pitched a $24 million investment into the city-owned Spirit Mountain Recreation Area in April, she made it clear that selling the mountain was off the table.
"This is not just a piece of land we can go out and sell," she said. "I would love to have this as one straightforward option to consider. It just isn't one we have, or one that is practicable. "
While some residents would love the city to get out of the ski business and let a private owner completely take over the costs and risks, layers of federal and state laws severely restrict a possible sale; it is politically hazardous to sell so much city parkland; and the mountain is a sacred place for Indigenous people.
"It's clear that sale of the property in its entirety is a practical impossibility," said Jim Filby Williams, Duluth's director of parks, libraries and properties. "We have examined that possibility thoroughly enough to know that with confidence."
The largest and most immediate hurdle to selling the mountain is the Land and Water Conservation Act, from which Spirit Mountain has drawn funding several times since the recreation area was created in 1973.
Though a sale is technically possible, it would require a lengthy environmental review, National Park Service approval and the replacement of the property with a similar recreational area for public use.
In other words, to sell Spirit Mountain, the city would need to build another one.
"Even if we wanted to go down that path, and it is not at all clear that elected officials would want to go down that path, but even if we did, it is clear that would be a prohibitively expensive proposition whose costs by design would at least equal the financial benefits we would be seeking from a sale," Filby Williams said. "And it's also not clear whether it is even physically possible in the city of Duluth to devise, purchase and construct an outdoor recreational facility of any imaginable kind that would constitute an adequate replacement of Spirit."
Filby Williams said there are also covenants related to state bonding money the mountain has received over the years that restrict the city's ability to sell the entire mountain or even portions of it.
"Virtually all of these grants prohibit sale to a private party for another purpose or prohibit sale to another party, period," he said.
The state legislation that created the Spirit Mountain Recreation Area also requires eight out of nine City Council members to sign off on the sale following approval by the planning commission and the parks and recreation board.
Though the law does not require it, the mayor-appointed Spirit Mountain board would also have a say in any sale. City Council members and city administrators have signaled they want to work more closely with the board as the mountain's future is decided.
"Any such decision would be made together by the city and Spirit Mountain leadership, either of whom could effectively put the brakes on the process," Filby Williams said.
There is no indication that even a simple majority of City Council members wants to expend the time and resources exploring a sale, especially after the Spirit Mountain task force took it off the table while putting together its recommendations that were issued earlier this year.
A proposal to put a golf course at Spirit Mountain nearly two decades ago saw considerable pushback from the Indigenous community; an outright sale would likely be even more contentious.
Wayne Dupuis, a Spirit Mountain task force member and environmental program manager for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, told the task force the name Spirit Mountain is derived from the Ojibwe "Manidoo madjiwe." He said several other tribes, including the Lakota, Dakota and Cheyenne, have connections to the area that date back to the 1600s, according to the task force report.
Part of the task force's recommendation includes making the area's Indigenous heritage more visible at the recreation area.
The closest the city could come to getting off the hook for Spirit Mountain financially is a long-term lease with a private operator. That option is being explored, and it will take several months to put together a request for proposals.
"There's a number of publicly owned ski areas across the country, some of which had similar [sale] restrictions, that have been leased in that fashion," Filby Williams said. "A significant portion of our residents would like for the city to vet potential options, and we intend to do that."
Already, the Duluth City Council has voted to forgive $900,000 of Spirit Mountain's debt to the city, provided the mountain invest that money into infrastructure over the next several years. That will in part help the mountain look more attractive to a potential private operator, but City Council Member Derek Medved says the city should move faster and look for private interest in the mountain before making any major financial commitments.
City administrators say Spirit Mountain is in no shape to be marketed yet, given its backlog of infrastructure needs, and the clock is ticking on preparing a request for the Legislature in 2022.
Larson wants the city to make a bonding request next year for $12 million in state support for improvements to the recreation area. The city would take out its own $12 million bond, half of which would be paid for by tourism taxes and the other half by Spirit Mountain revenue, under the mayor's proposal.
The discussion over Spirit Mountain's future will likely continue for a number of years before any money is moved, and work would not begin until 2023 at the earliest if the plan is approved.
Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496