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After three disappointing winters, Spirit Mountain seeks snowy ski season

By Peter Passi / Duluth News tribune

After three disappointing ski seasons in a row, Renee Mattson is praying for the kind of cold snowy winter Duluth consistently delivered in years past.

“This is a crucial year for us,” said Mattson, Spirit Mountain’s executive director. “We need to put a good season under our belt for a change. Eventually, we’ve got to have the sort of winter we used to consider normal.”

Spirit Mountain briefly opened Saturday to whet skiers’ and snowboarders’ appetite. But today will mark the true beginning of its ski season, with the first run open from noon to 8 p.m. From here on out, the hill will continue daily operations for as long as weather conditions permit, Mattson said.

She predicts the timely start bodes well for the season. Its first run opened to alpine enthusiasts on Nov. 30 last year, and even later the year before that, when skiers had to wait until Dec. 2.

“We bought season passes at Spirit Mountain both last year and this year. But I don’t think I even skied before January last year,” said Candace McAvaney of Duluth, recalling the virtually snowless winter.

Reduced traffic caused the ski area to finish its last fiscal year about $100,000 in the red, Mattson said. She’s not happy about the loss but is quick to put it in perspective, noting that the annual budget is about $5 million.

While the ski hill got off to a slow start last winter, it benefited from an equally slow-to-arrive spring that extended its season.

“Our March was fabulous. If it hadn’t been for that month, it would have been a really tough year. At least we ended the season on a good note,” Mattson said, adding that early-season skiing is key to putting together a solid financial performance.

Early bird …

“The early season is when the most people want to be on the snow,” Mattson said, describing the excitement that builds as people gear up to ski or snowboard.

Krista Lande, a freshman at UMD, was among its first skiers this year. She has a season pass there and aims to be on the slopes again today.

“I just got some brand new skis as an early Christmas present, and I’m excited to get out and use them,” she said while being fitted for ski boots at Ski Hut on Wednesday evening.

Scott Neustel, owner of Duluth’s Ski Hut stores, said the start of the local downhill season has spurred a flurry of activity at his shop.

“The chatter is out there that Spirit Mountain is open,” he said. “Their having an early start this year is probably the best advertising for our business we could have.”

Neustel isn’t the only one benefiting.

“We see people coming in earlier this year, because they know Spirit is going to be open and they want to get their gear ready,” said Andre Watt, manager of Continental Ski & Bike.

If a ski hill isn’t in full swing until mid-December, Mattson said it’s almost impossible to make up for lost ground.

“The front end of the season is more important than the back end,” agreed Dave Montgomery, Duluth’s chief administrative officer.

“We’ve had a nice classic Duluth fall. With chilly nights and the ground cooling, they’ve been able to make a lot of snow already,” Montgomery said.

Some needed help

To help Spirit Mountain cover its start-up costs this year, the city has extended a $900,000 line of credit to the operation. That’s $300,000 more credit than the city usually provides.

Mattson said the city is filling a critical financial void.

“Like any small business, we occasionally need a line of credit to maintain our cash flow, and the city’s willingness to step in is really important for us, because as an authority, we can’t very well turn to a conventional bank for help,” she said.

Montgomery expressed confidence the $900,000 line of credit will be used wisely. He noted that the authority has a good track record of meeting its financial obligations. The credit agreement calls for it to be paid off by the end of 2014.

Mattson said Spirit Mountain has capitalized on recent low temperatures to make as much snow as it can and decided to open for a limited period last Saturday to get alpine enthusiasts primed for the season. She said crews usually try to get the first run prepped from edge to edge before the ski hill’s first customers arrive. Not so this year.

“We wanted to give people an early taste this year, and I think it garnered a lot of good will,” she said, observing that season ticket sales are off to a strong start.

Mattson said Spirit Mountain relies on man-made snow for the bulk of its operations, and as long as temperatures are conducive, crews will continue their relentless efforts to bring additional ski runs online. Even if there is little appreciable snow, Mattson said Spirit Mountain’s snow makers should have all its runs operating within a matter of weeks.

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