Master plan update update

Six months past Ecosign’s deadline, Spirit Mountain is still waiting for the report

Spirit Mountain’s master plan update is still not done. Ecosign, the consultant hired to do the update, was supposed to have finished it last December. A resort planning company based in British Columbia, Ecosign is the same company that developed Spirit Mountain’s original master plan in 2008. For the update, they were paid $66,000 to look at what had been done at the ski hill since then and “modify the plan to enhance the financial resiliency of Spirit Mountain.” They were also supposed to look at the feasibility of connecting the top and bottom of the hill with a new road.

Today, six months past Ecosign’s deadline (which was itself an extended deadline), Spirit Mountain is still waiting for the report. A few colorful maps and at least one PowerPoint presentation generated by Ecosign have been passed along to Spirit Mountain by city staff, but no report with specific recommendations has appeared. 

At recent board meetings, board members have voiced frustration. But, because Ecosign’s contract is with the city and not Spirit Mountain, the ski hill has little power to force the issue. “Still potentially a pending site visit from Ecosign, but we’ve not heard anything further,” Spirit Mountain executive director Brandy Ream told the board on June 29. “We’re just kind of at a standstill.” 

City Planner Adam Fulton is the city’s liaison with Spirit Mountain on the Ecosign contract. When I contacted Fulton on July 3, he said that one reason the plan was taking so long was because its scope had continued to change due to “ongoing plan additions” and “some changes from the [Spirit Mountain] board, including whether development was a priority at the lower base or not. That has gone back and forth.”

According to Fulton, Ecosign was still working diligently on the update. He told me that Ecosign had subcontracted with Northland Consulting to produce cost estimates for various development scenarios at Spirit Mountain, and that that work was wrapping up now. Ecosign would incorporate the estimates into their report, which Fulton thought could be finished soon.

“It’s kind of contingent on [Ecosign],” he said. “We’re hoping that [they’ll have] everything wrapped up here probably in two to three weeks.”

In two to three weeks? Really? If that is true, a lot of people will be pleasantly surprised.

Nordic Center construction pushed back

In 2015, when the city announced plans to build a new network of Nordic ski trails at the base of Spirit Mountain, enthusiasm in certain parts of the community ran high. The Duluth Cross Country Ski Club (DXC) launched an ambitious fundraising campaign. Many people believed they would be skiing the new trails by 2016. As 2016 came and went without construction beginning, it became clear that this was overly optimistic, but the sense that the Nordic Center was just around the corner remained. As recently as six months ago, some project boosters were predicting that trail-clearing would begin in the spring.

Now, it appears that construction may not begin until 2018. According to Gary Larson, a member of DXC and a consultant for the city on ski trails, the delay is not due to weaknesses in the project. “Everything’s been positive. The delay has nothing to do with it not being a good project or not going to happen. It’s just you need [to have] everything lined up....It’s just the complexity of all the permitting and all the bidding and the fact that there’s three parties [involved].”

As far as funding goes, it seems to be on track. The city and DXC have been using a rough estimate of $1.5 million for the project’s price tag, and more than that amount has been raised. The city has committed $1 million of half-and-half tourism tax, a $150,000 federal grant has recently been secured, and DXC has nearly reached a fundraising goal of $500,000. The $150,000 grant has partially contributed to the delay. The money can only be used for trail-building, so the city hadn’t wanted to bid out trail-building until they knew they had the grant. 

Whether the price tag itself is accurate remains to be seen. The different components of the project—lighting, electrical, snow-making infrastructure—will be bid out separately in March, according to Larson. When the bids come in, the city and DXC will have a better idea of the project’s true cost. If past projects are any indication, the true price tag may end up quite a bit higher than the estimate, which could lead to changes in the project.

“We’ll have to look at what we have for funding and [whether we’ll] be able to do everything,” Larson said. “Then if we need to raise additional money, we know and we can get started on that.”

Feral children caught on camera under the Lincoln Park willow. Photo credit: John Ramos
Feral children caught on camera under the Lincoln Park willow. Photo credit: John Ramos

Lincoln Park willow tried, spared 

Some trees get more attention than others, and a black willow tree in Lincoln Park has been getting a lot of attention from the city lately. It’s a scaly 150-year-old beast with a nearly 5-foot diameter, located near the pavilion on the west side of Miller Creek. This is also the location where the city plans to build a new playground. Because the willow is twice the average age for black willows, city staff asked two professional arborists to evaluate the tree and do risk assessments of the danger it might pose.

One report was compiled by Craig Berryhill of Rick’s Tree Service. Noting signs of decay on the trunk and some dead branches in the crown, and observing that “willow trees in general are relatively weak-wooded trees,” Berryhill rated the risk of a limb falling and landing on a person or property as “moderate.” He recommended pruning the dead branches or removing the tree altogether.

A second report was written by Louise Levy of Levy Tree Care. She agreed with the observations made by Berryhill, but offered a more optimistic analysis. “Given its protected location and lack of competition for water and sunlight, this willow could live somewhat to much longer than a forest-grown black willow tree....This willow exhibits physiological vigor, demonstrated by the fullness of its live leaf-supporting wood...and the live interior branches distributed throughout the canopy. Its position in the immediate landscape affords it wind protection from all directions, evidenced by the absence of branch failure during high wind speed events of the past 18 months.”

On June 21, when the black willow appeared on the agenda of the Urban Forest Commission as an informational item, city Building and Grounds Supervisor Dale Sellner told commissioners, “My cut the tree down. It’s a hazard, it’s at the end of its life, and it would be more important to have a new and universally designed playground for the neighborhood kids than to have that tree.”

At last check, the city has tilted in favor of preservation. When I exchanged email with Rob Hurd, the city’s construction project coordinator, on June 27, he wrote: “After reviewing the assessments the tree will be included in the final park improvement design.”

Tie a green ribbon ‘round the infested ash tree

Very soon, residents of Woodland will notice green tape appearing on trees along their boulevards. The city plans to wrap all the boulevard ash trees in Woodland with the tape to alert people of upcoming actions related to the invasive emerald ash borer beetle (EAB). As part of the city’s EAB Management Plan, ash trees in Woodland that are 12 inches in diameter or larger will be treated with a pesticide injection. The rest will be cut down in the fall.

The green EAB tape is about twice the width of regular yellow caution tape. It contains a silhouette of the beetle and contact information for people who want to know more. It also points people to, an educational resource on the city’s website devoted to the emerald ash borer.

Good question

At the agenda session of May 4, 2017, the city council took up the matter of  the lease of the Crabby Ol’ Bill’s concession stand. Purveyor of cheese curds and other fried delights, Crabby Ol’ Bill’s is located in a retired fishing boat beached near the Maritime Museum in Canal Park, on property owned by the city. Councilors asked Chief Administrative Officer Dave Montgomery questions about lease arrangements, permits, and parking—and about one more thing as well. When it came time for Councilor Barb Russ to ask a question, she pressed her button and said, “Is there a provision in the agreement that they have to make mini-doughnuts?”

Four seconds of silence followed. Then Council President Joel “Stick in the Mud” Sipress said, “Mr. Montgomery, you don’t have to answer that if you don’t want to.”