Spirit Mountain development hopes grow; scope of project remains unclear

John Ramos

On November 19, 2015, Scott Neustel, the owner of the Ski Hut retail store and an investor with the Spirit Valley Land Company (SVLC), passed out a map to the Spirit Mountain board of directors. It appeared to be a much more detailed version of a map Neustel had shown the board in October. While the October presentation had been a discussion of broad possibilities for the SVLC’s holdings, this map was focused very specifically on the area between the Grand Avenue Chalet and Grand Avenue. It showed a new gravel parking lot near the yet-to-be-built new Nordic Center, and it showed a hotel, 253 paved parking spaces and two additional buildings labeled “RETAIL” and “APTS/RETAIL” across Warwick Street from the Nordic Center.

Neustel was brimming with enthusiasm. “It’s our fourth plan, and we feel it’s our best plan. This is what we’re going to try to move forward with.”
The hotel and retail buildings and new parking lots would be situated on land that is currently owned by the city of Duluth. Currently, no development agreement exists between the city of Duluth and the SVLC. Because the city is using significant portions of SVLC land for Spirit-Mountain-related purposes—the new pipeline to the St. Louis River crosses SVLC land and the new cross-country ski trails will cross SVLC land in a number of places—Neustel was optimistic that a development agreement would be reached with the city.

One big obstacle to building new buildings, according to Neustel, was that no sewer service currently existed for that section of the hill—a new sewer line would have to be laid “all the way down [to] near the Waterfront Trail” to service the development. The SVLC, he said, was willing to pay for the entire cost of the new sewer line.
“We’re gonna build it. I would think we’re putting it in,” said Neustel. “Because it’s gotta go through our land on the south side [of Grand].”
After the board meeting, I asked Neustel when he thought a development agreement with the city might be in place. He said, “Early December.”

That sounded impossible to me. Any big plans regarding Spirit Mountain—especially big plans involving development agreements—would require more than a few weeks’ time to be approved by the city. Planning staff would have to look at it, the Planning Commission would have to weigh in, probably the Parks Commission as well, and there would be all sorts of legal things to work out, and the city council would have to deliberate—early December was only two council meetings away. There was no way all of that would happen in that time, not even if there were a mad push.

On December 1, 2015, I spoke with city planners Heidi Timm Bijold and Keith Hamre, who were working on the project. They confirmed that a December agreement was not a possibility.

“Scott might be a little bit enthusiastic,” said Hamre. “We’ve just kind of started the discussions with them, after the Small Area Plan, to kind of start to talk about what is a project out there, in the implementation of the Small Area Plan….We’re looking for some commercial activities to be there, that would complement the ski operations and also the mountain biking operations. We just don’t know, in particular, what the project is going to be yet.”

Ms. Timm-Bijold added, “There is, though, interest by the administration that their staff work on this as a very concerted effort to see if we can make something happen.”

Hamre estimated that it would be “February or March at the earliest” before anything resembling a development agreement might come before the city council.
So. Things to think about, as the swirling plans continue to shift and re-form: A new Nordic Center with ski trails and snowmaking and a large gravel parking lot overlooking Grand Avenue; and a hotel, retail stores, possibly apartments, and large paved parking lots on the north side of Warwick Street—the current area of dirt parking lots below the Grand Avenue Chalet . A new sewer line running from there, under Grand Avenue, down to the Western Waterfront Trail.
Big changes. All subject to change.

A few slices of tourism tax pie

Also on November 19, 2015, halfway across town, the Duluth city council reviewed Resolution 791, which allocated next year’s estimated tourism taxes. The taxes were estimated to be almost $10.9 million—an increase of 4 percent over 2015.

Much of the pie is already spoken for. The DECC gets a certain percentage of tourism taxes, as does Visit Duluth, the nonprofit tourism bureau that promotes the city (but which isn’t a part of city government itself); much of the tourism tax goes to pay off construction bonds; and much of it goes toward providing operational subsidies for various entities: the aquarium, the zoo, the Depot, and others.

Notable for 2016 is that Spirit Mountain has been added to the list of entities receiving permanent operational support from the tourism tax. Although the city has given Spirit Mountain millions of dollars of tourism tax support in the last few years, it has always been delivered via one-time allocations and emergency bailouts. Now, in addition to $500,000 for Grand Chalet bond payments and $145,000 for Adventure Park bond payments that Spirit Mountain currently receives, the ski hill is to receive an additional $250,000 in operational support. Spirit Mountain’s cost to the city is being mainstreamed—it’s become a line item.

Another, more encouraging, line of the tourism tax sheet shows the city taking $895,000 for “General Fund Tourism Activities Support” and $200,000 for “General Fund Tourist-Related Park Maintenance.” The first number is a small increase in the amount the city normally reserves for itself. The second number is totally new. The city is thinking more carefully about the true costs of tourism, and is taking a larger cut of the pie as recompense. As well they should.

How to file a Data Practices request: a practical example

Question: How much money does the city pay the Duluth News Tribune each year?

Would you like to know the answer to that question? I don’t blame you. When I first thought of it, I wanted to know the answer, too. So I filed a Data Practices request with the city to find the answer. Data Practices requests are simple, and any citizen can file one. You can even do it over the Internet!
When I do Data Practices requests, I send the city a letter via email, the same letter every time, that cites the state statutes governing freedom of information and so forth. Each time, I change only the relevant information that I am seeking. (I got the text of this letter from a workshop, and I will be happy to share it with anyone who is interested.) To answer my question above, I emailed chief administrative officer Dave Montgomery and asked for records of all expenditures made by the city to the News Tribune, or to any other subsidiary of Forum Communications, in the years 2010 to 2014.

The city publishes legal notices and advertising and other items in the newspaper. The city also maintains subscriptions to the paper for city departments. I thought that fear of disrupting a revenue stream might explain why the News Tribune’s journalistic stance toward the city was always so soft and accommodating. I hypothesized that the number would be huge.

So what do you think—was it huge? Would you like to know?

Before I reveal the actual number, I would just like to take a moment to thank everyone who reads my columns—especially those who read columns that extenuating circumstances have caused to be tossed together at the last minute, like a salad.
The cost of all services provided to the city of Duluth by Forum Communications in the five-year period 2010 to 2014 was:
(drum roll, please) (thank you)
…was $74,639.38.
An average of $15,000 a year.
Tell everyone you know.