Lamest Master Plan Update... Ever

In July of 2016, the Duluth city council approved a $66,000 contract with Ecosign, a Vancouver-based mountain resort planning company, to produce a Spirit Mountain master plan update. Ecosign was the company that produced Spirit Mountain’s original master plan in 2008, which led to a number of new developments on the ski hill, including the Grand Avenue Chalet and the Adventure Park. 

Originally slated to be completed last December, the update was repeatedly delayed, with little explanation. A few graphs and tables and the occasional map with lines drawn on it trickled out from Ecosign over the months, but nothing resembling a real report appeared. The Spirit Mountain board and leadership grew increasingly frustrated as the months went by and nothing happened.

Now the report is done. Sort of. At the Spirit Mountain board meeting of September 21, 2017, city planner John Kelley presented a draft version of the report to the board. He told the board that he had received it from Ecosign one day earlier, and that Ecosign was now officially done with it, and that the city would make any further changes to the plan, if any further changes were required. Board Chair Dave Kohlhaas spent a few moments saying that he hoped the board could “feel comfortable” enough with the plan to approve it, so it could go to the Planning Commission on October 10, the Parks Commission on October 11 and the city council at some point thereafter. Clearly, word had come down from above to get the plan approved.

But the board was not comfortable. Not at all. Sadly, the report is little more than a mishmash of old information, scarcely-relevant statistics and vague suggestions, padded with large photographs and mixed in with a few concrete ideas. It certainly doesn’t look like something that should have taken 14 months to complete. As a matter of fact, it very much resembles a last-minute term paper slapped together by a high-school student. Questions peppered Mr. Kelley from all sides as board members sought to extract some value from it.

At one point the report recommends that Spirit Mountain “Review the opportunities for signage on Interstate 35 and the approach ensure that all opportunities to provide signage that reflects the offerings at SMRA are identified and capitalized on.” This might be a good idea, but you’d think that for $66,000 the consultant would have done that already. The report follows up this cop-out with a giant photograph of a highway sign in Nevada advertising Valley of Fire State Park. At the bottom of the sign are symbols for camping, picnicking, and so forth—things that everybody’s seen a million times. The caption reads: “Example of recreation area signage identifying activities available.” Wow! Thanks!

One of Spirit Mountain’s most pressing concerns, which has been known for years, is the need to catch up on deferred maintenance for its aging buildings. Unfortunately, the master plan update doesn’t talk about that. “A review of the buildings was not included in the scope of this project.” The report recommends only that “the SMRA Board and management team must develop a phased plan for repair and renewal and apply for federal and state grants to facilitate these works.” This type of generic advice could apply to anything. Ecosign probably cut-and-pasted it from another report.

The cop-outs continue. “The two largest sources of summer revenue are the Adventure Park and the Wedding/Banquet business. SMRA must [find] the right mix of summer activities that match the site’s features and image, and generate revenues capable of covering investment and operating costs.” This empty statement is followed by another dose of generic advice: “Each new element needs to be assessed for its compatibility with the existing operation, appeal to the target users groups and likelihood of financial success.”

Last year, when Spirit Mountain installed a jumping pillow at the Adventure Park, they had to choose the smallest size jumping pillow available because there wasn’t enough level space for anything bigger. If we’re going to talk about adding new attractions, the first thing that needs to be considered (after how to pay for it) is the shortage of space. Ecosign doesn’t mention anything about this. Instead, they fill up the rest of the page with pictures.

I could spend my whole column citing passages from the report, but I’ll just share one more and let it stand in for the rest. At one point, the report delivers this amazing fact: “The Regional market (within approximately a 5-hour drive) encompasses a large area.”
It’s not a complete travesty. Ecosign does spend time calculating how much square footage Spirit Mountain should devote to its various activities, which I suppose could be useful to someone. The report also suggests that Spirit Mountain may have too many ski lifts for its level of business, and discusses where a new maintenance facility might be located to better serve the ski hill. There are some other ideas that sound reasonable, such as “Use snow from lot clearing to create a small snow hill for free snow play.”

Overall, however, there is little in the report that a group of concerned stakeholders couldn’t have come up with on their own during a half-day brainstorming session. Did taxpayers really need to pay $66,000 and wait 14 months to be told that Spirit Mountain should “Create a capital replacement replace the three chairlifts that are nearing the end of their useful life span”? 

Following Kelley’s presentation, the board tabled the draft version. Kelley (or someone else from the city planning department) is scheduled to return to the board with a final version of the master plan update at a special meeting on October 3. At that time, the board will undoubtedly approve it—there wouldn’t be a need for a special meeting otherwise. City staff will then shepherd the report through the planning commission, the parks commission and the city council. The administration wants to get this off their plate, so it will probably pass. Why not? It won’t get any better or worse. We’re not getting our money back. What else are we going to do with it?

The saddest part is that Ecosign knew perfectly well their report was subpar when they gave it to us. Before submitting it to the city, they carefully removed their logo from every page.

Ramos in Scaia’s personal space. Photo credit: Richard Thomas
Ramos in Scaia’s personal space. Photo credit: Richard Thomas

Chisholm mayor threatens to call police on nosy reporter

A few weeks ago, I reported on the mysterious resignation of Katie Bobich. The 24-year-old Bobich was hired as the city administrator of Chisholm in February. In my column, I noted that the $75,000-a-year position should have been a dream job for someone so young, with the only downside being that she would have to put up with Mayor Todd Scaia (who has a history of bullying and publicly humiliating people) and his brother, City Councilor Kevin Scaia (who has a history of stalking women on Facebook). 

After only six months on the job, with no warning, Bobich quit. Her attorney sent a letter to Mayor Scaia and the Chisholm city council stating that “in the circumstance” a 90-day notice was not required. Since then, the rumor mill has been running overtime trying to figure out what the mysterious “circumstance” was, but on the record everyone, including Katie Bobich, has remained close-mouthed.

On September 6, I drove to Chisholm to attend a special meeting of the city council, where they were scheduled to talk about hiring a new city administrator. I arrived early and sat down in council chambers to wait. When Mayor Scaia walked in and began arranging papers at his seat, I approached him and started asking questions. He wasn’t too happy about it.

“So I’m curious,” I said. “What circumstances would result in somebody quitting a job without giving notice?”

“I’m not gonna answer any of your questions,” said the mayor. “You’re out of line right now. All right?”

“What do you mean I’m out of line?” 

“Are you harassing me?” said the mayor. 

“How am I out of line?”

“Are you harassing me?”

“Okay. Well, you seem to be harassing me since I walked through the door.”

“I’m a journalist. Yeah, I’ve asked you questions.”

“I’m not answering any of your questions. If you want to continue to harass me, we’ll get the police here.”

“So by asking another question I’m harassing you?”

“You’re in my face right now,” said the mayor. “You’re in my private space.” 

Mayor Scaia pretending to call the cops. Photo credit: John Ramos
Mayor Scaia pretending to call the cops. Photo credit: John Ramos

The mayor was sitting in his seat on the council dais, and I was standing in front of it. I took a step back. “So under what circumstances could somebody quit a job without giving notice?”

“I’m not playing games.” The mayor got up and stalked angrily out of the room, as if to carry out his threat.

As the mayor unlocked his office door, which was just outside council chambers, I said, “Hey, Todd!” He looked around. I snapped his picture, then sat down to await the police. I started mentally composing my “Letter from Chisholm Jail,” which would make me famous. And the mayor, too, come to think of it.

Sadly, nothing happened. The mayor’s threat turned out to be toothless. He hid in his office until the meeting started, and the cops never showed.
As for Katie Bobich, the rumor mill grinds on. We shall see what we shall see.