Spirit Mountain news

In November, Spirit Mountain hosted the Snocross snowmobile racing event, as they do every year. Until recently, Spirit Mountain split both the expenses and the ticket sales for the event with Visit Duluth, the city’s tourism bureau. Two years ago, however, Visit Duluth decided to pull out of the arrangement, leaving Spirit Mountain the sole host. So far, it has worked out well. This year, despite losing one of three Snocross days to fog, Spirit Mountain sold almost $190,000 in tickets—a 13 percent increase over last year. Had the third day materialized, they could have made $30- to $40,000 more.

As the fog demonstrated, there is certainly no guarantee, especially in recent years, that the weather at the end of November will always be good for snowmobile racing. Therein lies a risk for Spirit Mountain. The ski hill pays a $50,000 fee to the International Series of Champions (ISOC) to host Snocross. If the event fails to materialize, Spirit Mountain loses the fee. At the December 15 board meeting, Spirit Mountain executive director Brandy Ream told the board that she intended to renegotiate the agreement with ISOC to remove this risky stipulation.

Spirit Mountain’s general manager, Jody Ream, spoke highly of the ski hill’s new water pipeline and snow guns, without which, he said, Snocross would not have happened.

The event wasn’t without its glitches. Brandy Ream, who has overseen Snocross for three years, noted the drunken, raucous vibe that characterizes the event. “I don’t know if anybody’s been here for Saturday of Snocross, but it’s an intense day, and by about 2:00 in the afternoon, in my opinion, it’s not a place for kids. And it’s not a place for families. And we really noticed a lot of little kids here on Saturday. So we’re going to come up with a family package on Sunday, because Sunday still has pro races with a cash purse, so the excitement is there without all of the...drama, I guess we’ll say.”

This year’s example of the drama featured a drunk woman who refused to leave a bathroom stall, while heaping abuse on all who approached. “She had some words for us and her middle finger was extended a lot,” said Ream.

All in all, just another day at Snocross. No one was hurt, so all’s well that ends well. “People had a good time and we’re glad they showed up,” said Jody Ream.

Spirit Mountain’s overall sales at the end of November were $2.286 million, up about $250,000 from last year. Their expenses were up by about the same amount. One big expense that is included in Spirit Mountain’s November financial statement is a $50,000 lease for ten new snow guns.

On the revenue side, Brandy Ream’s skiing packages and season pass promotions seem to be popular. Season pass revenue at the end of November was $756,000, a $170,000 increase over last year. Spirit Mountain also seems to be doing well with banquets and weddings—having more of them, with higher price tags, than before Brandy Ream was hired.

Spirit Mountain receives $250,000 per year in tourism tax from the city for operational support. At the end of November, Spirit Mountain still had $225,000 left from their 2016 allocation. Without this cash in the bank (and without the city paying for the alpine coaster, Grand Avenue Chalet and water line), the ski hill would be in a much more precarious position financially.  In addition to the cash assistance, Spirit Mountain also benefits from the many staff hours that city administrators and planners devote to Spirit Mountain-related projects. These hours will undoubtedly increase in the coming year, as construction of new Nordic ski trails on Grand Avenue gets underway and plans for a private development at the bottom of the hill gain momentum.

Spirit Mountain is waiting for an updated master plan to be completed by Ecosign, the company that did the original master plan ten years ago. The city hired Ecosign last June for $66,000 (the money, from the tourism tax fund, is in addition to Spirit Mountain’s operational support). The plan was supposed to have been completed by the end of September, but the process is still underway. Board chair Dave Kohlhaas said, “They’re trying, with all these trail systems coming in, [to see] how that traffic from the trail systems is handled, where the parking is, and how you integrate private development. And then you’ve got the complexity of...the potential private development [across Grand Avenue], maybe parking over there, and how that all comes together, so it’s pretty complicated. A lot of pieces.”

Brandy Ream hopes to have city officials at the January board meeting, as well as somebody from Ecosign participating via phone, for an update on the planning process.

Spirit Mountain’s $1.2 million line of credit with the city is still maxed out, as it has been for several years. The city is not charging interest on the debt, and I would not be surprised to see the city forgive the entire amount at some point.

All in all, it seems that Spirit Mountain’s precarious financial position of three years ago has become more stable, albeit with plenty of help from the city. But they’re still operating on a shoestring, and one can never get complacent with a weather-dependent operation: Two weeks of bad weather at the wrong time of year could kill the year. While the many improvements being planned will help increase opportunities for revenue, they will also increase labor and maintenance costs. Will these costs prevent the plus side of the ledger from surpassing the negative? Only time will tell.  Until then, let’s cross our fingers, wish the team at Spirit Mountain the best, and hope that everything works out.

Spelling bee blues

In November, when my sixth-grade son Walter came home with a list of words and informed me that he had qualified for the school-wide spelling bee, I was thrilled. My own spelling bee career was cut tragically short in Mrs. Anderson’s fifth-grade class, in Mohawk, Michigan, in 1979. As the best reader in the class, I knew I would win the spelling bee, and in my overconfidence I failed to study the words. I finished second, a great shock. But now, 37 years later, Walter was in a position to restore the family honor.

The 450-word study list was compiled by the Scripps media company, which has administered the national spelling bee for 74 years. Some of the words were easy, many were difficult. I was not about to repeat the mistakes of my youth. Interspersing flash card drills with small sermons about the dangers of overconfidence, I helped Walter train almost every day. Our diligence paid off. On November 18, Walter won the school spelling bee.

Next stop was the district. Walter was given another list, containing more than 1,000 words, with the following instructions: “All students should continue to study the lists given in preparation for the school-wide spelling bee, as well as the list attached to this letter.”

Many of the new words were seriously messed up—”nenuphar,” “philately,” “mihrab.” But we had a month to study, and we determined to learn as many words as we could. We drilled almost every day. By the end of the month, Walter had completely mastered the first list and learned almost 500 words from the advanced list. We felt this gave him a good chance to place in the top three and move on to the regional competition.

The district spelling bee was held on December 15 at Lincoln Park Middle School. My sense of anticipation was crushed when it became apparent that the moderator was asking words that were not from the list. They were all brand-new. Nine of 12 competitors, including Walter, spelled their first word wrong and were eliminated in Round One. In Round Two, all three remaining contestants spelled their words wrong. They continued to misspell words, as well as occasionally get them right, in subsequent rounds. By Round 6, the bee was over, one battle-scarred contestant staggering over the finish line with three words spelled wrong and four words spelled right to prevail.

In a field of 12 contestants, a winner was decided with only 26 words being asked. Eighteen words were spelled wrong and 8 spelled right. I did not feel like I was watching a fun, competitive contest so much as a bloody ambush that mowed down everybody. Walter was very disappointed, not only for misspelling a word he had never seen before (“regnal”), but also because he realized that all the work he had put in was wasted effort. The instructions said to study the word lists, and he had done that, for weeks. To be asked completely new words was betrayal.

When I communicated these thoughts with the school, I was told by Katie Oliver, reading specialist, that the instructions would be modified to say that the words on the list might not necessarily be the same words that were asked in the bee. She also told me that the school was provided words to ask at the bee by the Scripps company.

The Duluth school district pays $145 per school to enroll schools in the Scripps spelling bee. Duluth often has students who make it to the state spelling bee. Last year, Lincoln Park Middle School eighth-grader Logan Griggs made it all the way to the nationals.

When I looked up the spelling bee website, I saw that Scripps, too, advised students to study the word lists. I couldn’t understand why everybody was promoting such a colossal waste of time. Learning to spell difficult words, in and of itself, is not particularly useful—when will you need to know how to spell “charpoy” or “jnana” in your life? It’s only worthwhile if there’s a chance that the words will be in the contest.

The Scripps website also said that “Local spelling bee officials are responsible for selecting the word lists for use at each local spelling bee.” So Duluth spelling bee officials weren’t required to follow Scripps’ suggestions for words to ask at the bee—they had chosen to do so. If they had wanted to ask words from the list, they could have. Indeed, for the classroom and school-level competitions, that is what they did. It was only at the district level that things went haywire.

If I were running the spelling bee, I would make it a policy to only ask contestants new words if they exhausted the words on the list. I would not pummel fifth- and sixth-graders with unfamiliar college-level words just because I wanted to wrap things up in time for my mid-morning coffee break.

One member of ISD 709 did encourage me to look at the bright side. Upon hearing my concerns, school board member Nora Sandstad emailed me:  “How great that your son learned so many new words and that you spent that quality time with him!”

Well, yes. But it’s even better when the quality time isn’t pointless.