Imagine owning a business that you didn’t properly maintain. Instead of doing necessary repairs you, instead, spent millions adding shiny new features you hope will bring new customers, but they don’t come. You lose money year after year. You find yourself having to beg, borrow, and steal to keep the place running. What should you do?
In a couple of weeks, a few lucky Duluthians will be chosen to make that decision as members of the Spirit Mountain Task Force. (Apply to be part of the Task Force by July 8th)
Spirit Mountain Recreational Area might be Duluth’s own “If you build it they will come”, the only problem is – it’s never seen enough of “they”. Typically, when you think of a money pit you picture a hole in the ground, but with Spirit Mountain, it’s a towering reminder in the western part of Duluth.
While the ski hill did report $482,000 in earnings between the last two years it’s still less than what the city gave to Spirit Mountain in subsidies – $500,000 in tourism tax dollars in the same timeframe, not including an emergency snocross bailout and most likely additional money this fall to offset COVID losses and allow the hill to open for winter. The meager “profits” are going back into the capital maintenance that has been deferred for years while new bells and whistles were added to the hill. But perhaps the biggest issue Spirit Mountain faces is a city council that just simply refuses to call a turd a “turd”. Gary Anderson thinks Spirit Mountain is a “major, major icon in our community. It’s a major part of our identity”. Joel Sipress and Arik Forsman think it’s an “asset worth investing in”. And newcomer, Janet Kennedy, was raring to approve Spirit Mountain’s 4+ million dollar budget because of “what [Spirit Mountain] has done economically for our community.” Huh.
If Duluth wants to save Spirit Mountain, they will need to shimmy off the slippery slope they’ve been on while watching tourism dollars disappear into the snowy fluff.
Here’s what they need to do:
It all starts with complete transparency despite how uncomfortable that might make everyone feel. Spirit Mountain needs an in-depth audit of all of its costs, contracts, offerings by experts. That means an event person needs to review their wedding business, a restaurant expert should review their food and bar business, a lodging professional should examine their villas, summer recreation specialist should look at their summer offerings, and a ski hill management expert should review their ski business. We’re past the point of self-diagnosing on SkiHill-MD.com – it’s time to see the professionals.
Only once we know the facts of about Spirit Mountain will a task force be able to come up with solutions, some they might be able to consider include:
Leasing to Private Management
The City of Duluth seems to think they have the know-how to manage and promote a ski hill, the numbers show otherwise. Perhaps it’s time to look at leasing the entire operation to a private company. Take the whole thing off the city’s plate and out of the taxpayer’s wallets.
It seems fundamentally wrong that businesses in Duluth are paying to support an entity that directly competes with them. Why should Adventure Zone tourism dollars go to support the Spirit Mountain Adventure Park? The same is true for local lodging companies, restaurants and bars, and event centers. Their tax dollars are keeping their competition afloat during COVID-19 while they are either not allowed or can barely keep their doors open.
The city could also lease parts of the business, like the restaurant, event venues, or lodging to private management scratching some of the line items out of their budget.
Consider a Co-op
Ski hills out West that have been seeing a decline in visitors for years have turned to a co-op model, allowing community members to trade work for perks and passes reducing the labor and insurance costs for their ski resorts while keeping the ski hills open for tourism. This seems like a no brainer, except for one question – would AFSCME get in the way again?
Affordable Seasonal Rentals
When it comes to Spirit Mountain’s Villas – what is their occupancy? Could some of them rented long term – maybe seasonally in the spring and fall to create consistent income during the slower seasons?
Add an Educational Component
The Great Lakes Aquarium and Lake Superior Zoo seem to have an in with the schools – anyone who has an elementary-age kid has probably paid a few bucks for a field trip to one of these destinations. Spirit Mountain offers a winter ski field trip – why not create an educational component for school field trips in the spring and fall? The ski hill might be a great place to learn about the weather, snow, nature, the history of Duluth, or maybe gravity or finances?
The soon-to-be picked task force will have a mountain of problems to tackle. It’s up to the city to give the task force its best chance at saving Spirit Mountain by appointing people that have real-world experience in managing the types of products Spirit Mountain offers and know how to prioritize and balance budgets, as well as make tough decisions.
There is still time to apply to be chosen for the Spirit Mountain Task Force: Apply here.