DULUTH – After the chairlifts stopped running seven months ago at Spirit Mountain, the leader of the public ski hill feared the worst.
“My gut is telling me we will not have a winter season,” Brandy Ream wrote to city officials.
Now the mountain is scheduled to open in a month under a new leader, and if the weather cooperates it could be a standout comeback season.
“We’re cautiously optimistic — I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm and some pent-up demand,” said interim Executive Director Ann Glumac. “People seem to be turning to the outdoors for their recreation as other things have been foreclosed by the pandemic.”
Skiers and snowboarders may forgo trips to larger resorts out west in favor of driving-distance ski trips, she said. And there has already been early interest in winter activities at North Shore resorts after a robust summer season.
So far season-pass sales are slightly behind last year, though with a price increase set for Nov. 1 a last-minute rush of sales is expected, Glumac said.
“We’re certainly hoping for a combination of needing to get out and do something in the fresh air and having more manageable travel,” she said.
Glumac, a cross-country skier who lives not far from Spirit Mountain, has been tasked with getting the ski hill through the pandemic, persistent financial distress and a possible change in how the mountain is run or even who owns it.
“We want to make sure we are seen as the community resource that Spirit Mountain really is,” she said.
Glumac started Sept. 1 after Ream’s resignation this summer. Through her consulting firm she has a long history of leading organizations going through transition and previously worked in state government and as president of the Great Lakes Aquarium.
“We’ve got some director-level folks we were able to retain, which allows Ann to focus externally on the shift in vision to being more community-oriented,” said Spirit Mountain board chairman Aaron Stolp.
Ream resigned unexpectedly in August to take another job. Brandy Ream was paid $138,000 a year while her husband, Jody Ream, who was the mountain’s general manager, made $94,500. To compare, the city’s highest-paid employee, Chief Administrative Officer Noah Schuchman, is paid $153,000.
Jody Ream’s job will not be filled.
“We’re being very, very cautious,” said Glumac, who will be paid about $130,000 a year and serve up to 18 months before a permanent director is found. “We’re trying to be conservative with revenue projections.”
The Duluth City Council approved $300,000 in additional tourism tax money for Spirit Mountain to help it open this year, which comes in addition to the roughly $1.1 million the city provides per year.
A task force charged with finding a new path forward for Spirit Mountain’s finances has met six times and will have a recommendation for the mayor by Feb. 1. Options being studied include selling or leasing part of the mountain, converting the current government-authority structure into a nonprofit or bringing on an independent operator.
A consulting group was also hired to study the mountain’s economic impact on the region — which could make the case for continued or increased public investment.
The relationship between the city and Spirit Mountain leadership was strained after an emergency $235,000 bailout was needed to keep the doors open last winter. When crafting a statement about the Reams’ departure, city e-mails show there was a debate between saying “acknowledges” instead of “thanks” for the pair’s five-year tenure.
The city opted for “acknowledges” in its statement in August.
Stolp, the board chair, said he hopes new leadership and the task force can help reset relations with the city.
“My hope as board chair is she’s able to help find some additional funding and revenue sources so we’re not back downtown again going through this same process with the City Council that none of us want to do, let alone repeatedly,” he said.
In the short term, the focus has been on reopening the mountain and waiting for the right time to fire up the snow guns to build a deep base for opening day, now scheduled for late November.
“I’m predicting a big year. Personally I love outdoor recreation, even pre-COVID, and I know full well how that whole scene has exploded,” Stolp said. “You’ve got a pretty good precedent set from spring and summer.”