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Duluth mayor presents plan to save Spirit Mountain

The ski and recreation area has struggled financially, requiring financial bailouts and intervention.

DULUTH, Minn. — Editors note: The video above originally aired in Dec. of 2019. 

On the surface, it would seem like Duluth's Spirit Mountain would be a can't-miss proposition. 

Overlooking Lake Superior and the popular port city, the ski and recreation area is a gateway of sorts to North Shore recreation. And yet in recent years, the now city-owned business has been a financial burden, underperforming and requiring regular financial infusions. 

KARE 11 news partner Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) says over the past several years, Spirit Mountain has relied on more than $1 million annually from the city of Duluth's tourism tax just to pay the bills, and cover debt on past investments. 

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson wants Spirit Mountain to stand on its own, and on Thursday forwarded a plan to help it generate income similar to like-sized ski areas around the country. After looking at recommendations from a special task force assembled to study the financially troubled ski area, Larson is proposing a $24 million capital reinvestment plan that would renew the facility, add new attractions, and connect it with Duluth's popular tourist infrastructure. 

Credit: City of Duluth
Among other things, the city's $24 million capital improvement plan involves linking Spirit Mountain to other activities and infrastructure.

“Now is the time to do this with Spirit Mountain,” Mayor Larson said. “No more Band-Aids. It's ready for a good fix. There is a saying, 'If you can’t get out of it, get into it.' So, let’s get into it.”

The reinvestment plan calls for $12 million from state bonding, $6 million from city tourism taxes, and the remainder from Spirit Mountain revenue. City administration has also sent a resolution to the city council to forgive $900,000 of Spirit’s line of credit. The financial package would fund the following improvements:

  • Renew winter skiing and riding infrastructure to provide a better experience, at lower cost, for skiers and snowboarders. This would generate sufficient profits to enable Spirit to lower or remove financial barriers for those who would otherwise be unable to participate in snow sports. 
  • Complete the Nordic skiing and mountain biking trail systems to solidify their status as regional destinations, and continue to broaden "the number and variety of Spirit users."
  • Refurbish and modestly expand summer Adventure Park offerings, add a high ropes course, replace the existing mini-golf course, and renew the Alpine Coaster, the deteriorated Skyline Chalet and campground infrastructure.
  • Connect Spirit Mountain recreational facilities to the larger city and state recreational facilities, including the zoo, the Munger Trail, the DWP Trail, and the National Water Trail.

Mayor Larson says the improvements have the potential of increasing Spirit Mountain's economic impact in the community from $22 million annually to an estimated $39.9 million, and would add more than 200 jobs. The plan predicts an increase in visitors from 50,000 per year to 300,000. 

"The most important reason to do this is that another recommendation from the Task Force includes the potential to enter into a long-term operational lease for facility management," Larson said. "No reasonable operator would demonstrate even passing interest to take on the financial debt for an asset they simply do not own.”

Larson will work with area legislators to underline the need for these improvements, and support for the request for state bonding. If funded, the goal would be for work to begin on the capital projects in 2023.