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Planning and activity continue to grow in the vicinity of Spirit Mountain’s lower chalet. New and refurbished trails are coming in from all directions, a residential development and new road are being planned on the other side of Grand Avenue, a kayak launching center is proposed for the nearby St. Louis River, and routes for a new Nordic ski trail system are already flagged out along Spirit Mountain’s lower flanks, ready for cutting in the spring. In the midst of all the activity, one problem that has grown apparent is the problem of parking.
There is a very limited amount of land available for development at the base of Spirit Mountain, a rough rectangle of real estate hemmed in by Knowlton Creek, Bessemer Street and Grand Avenue. The Grand Avenue Chalet and water line pump house take up some of the land today; the new Nordic ski trails will take up more. Peak times and events already fill the existing parking lots. When the Nordic Center is up and running, hundreds of additional people will show up for events—and if retail shops and a hotel come in, as many hope, customers of those businesses would require even more parking. In short, there just doesn’t seem to be enough parking for all the plans.
At the Spirit Mountain board meeting of January 26, 2017, city planners Adam Fulton and John Kelley discussed the future of the ski hill with the board. Fulton told board members that, from the city’s perspective, it was not a certainty that commercial development would come in at the bottom. “We have not identified if development on and near the lower base is appropriate. It might not be.” They had looked at different scenarios for development, including locating a hotel farther up the hill, but nothing seemed ideal. Any hotel on the site, Fulton said, “would have to have underground parking.”
“Unfeasible in Duluth,” board member Todd Torvinen said immediately. Torvinen, an executive vice president with ZMC Hotels, explained that it cost $150,000 a room to build a hotel in Duluth and that underground parking added another $20,000 per room to the cost. The up-front capital expense was too large. “Designed with underground parking, it just will never get built. Or it will be the third time it goes into bankruptcy, and then the fourth guy will be the guy that makes it successful.”
City planners and Spirit Mountain (not to mention the developers across Grand) are waiting for a master plan update to be completed by Ecosign, a Canadian resort planning company. In 2008, Ecosign developed the original master plan that led to all the new developments at Spirit Mountain—the Grand Avenue Chalet, the alpine coaster, the mountain bike trails and so on. In their latest proposal, Ecosign promised to assess the situation at Spirit Mountain nine years on and refine the master plan to best meet Spirit Mountain’s needs for the future.
It’s taken a while. When Ecosign was hired back in July of 2016, they thought that they would be done by the end of October. That deadline has been pushed back several times. Ecosign has sporadically sent various documents and maps to city planning staff and the Spirit Mountain board, but they’re part of no cohesive whole. The latest word now is that the official report will be finished by April.
In a follow-up call that I had with Adam Fulton on March 6, his comments suggested that whatever the report turns out to be, development at Spirit Mountain will be limited by parking. “[Ecosign has] pretty much made their conclusion for parking at the lower chalet...[In] order to have anything else happen [down there] besides what’s already there, you would have to first make sure that all the parking was built [while also] making sure [that] you can accommodate this as a trailhead use, as an alpine ski parking lot, as a Nordic parking lot, as a mountain bike parking lot...That’s got to come first, because it’s core to their mission.”
Whether or not commercial development does manage to squeeze in somewhere, Spirit Mountain will continue to face parking challenges. Overflow parking has no place to go but onto the shoulders of busy Grand Avenue, which presents safety issues. For many events, Spirit Mountain will undoubtedly have to provide parking elsewhere and shuttle people in—an expense and inconvenience that all wish could be avoided. One person at the meeting even speculated that space for parking might have to be taken from the Nordic trails—and the Nordic trails haven’t even been built yet. Talk about planning ahead.
In my last column, I wrote of Berwick Court, a quiet cul-de-sac near UMD whose angry residents turned out in force to oppose a vacation rental permit being issued to one of their neighbors. The planning commission, which rarely denies a permit, gave in to the public pressure and denied the permit on very flimsy grounds. Two commissioners later regretted their votes, which I reported. As a result of my story, the city council returned the vacation rental permit to the planning commission for reconsideration.
Given the over-the-top pleas of neighbors to stop the vacation rental that we heard last time around—crime would skyrocket, children would get run over and so forth—
I can only imagine how happy everybody will be to have to do it all over again. The soonest the issue could reappear on the planning commission’s agenda is March 14.