City, Spirit Mountain lay groundwork for Legacy grant

As the city and Spirit Mountain continue to search for ways to help the struggling ski hill right itself financially, they’re doing a lot of work in hopes of getting a state Legacy grant. 

The Legacy Amendment was passed by Minnesota voters in 2008. It established a 3/8 percent state sales tax and earmarked the proceeds for natural resource and cultural heritage projects. In eight years, the Legacy Amendment has raised almost $2.6 billion, or an average of $325 million per year. Duluth has seen a fair amount of this money flow its way, particularly for multimillion-dollar St. Louis River clean-up and restoration projects conducted by the DNR and other natural resource agencies.

In 2011, the city received $288,000 to pay for a segment of the Cross-City Trail, which will eventually link the Munger Trail and the Lakewalk, and the nonprofit group Cyclists of Gitchee Gumee Shores received $250,000 to build mountain bike trails in the city.  A myriad of smaller grants have been awarded to projects throughout Duluth and St. Louis County.

Before a park or trail qualifies for a Legacy grant, it must go through a two-tiered application process.  First, the park or trail must be designated “regionally significant” by a state evaluation team. This step involves a fair amount of work. In addition to submitting a formal application to the evaluation team, applicants must have a master plan in place that “clearly describe[s] the regional-level purpose and compelling features of the park or trail” and lays out “implementation strategies and development priorities” to enhance that regional significance. Currently, Duluth has one park (Hartley) and one trail (the Duluth Traverse) designated as regionally significant.

In 2016, the city paid resort-planning company Ecosign $66,000 to update Spirit Mountain’s 2008 master plan. As I reported last October, Ecosign did a terrible job. They took more than a year to complete the report, and when they finally turned it in, it was a hodge-podge of old information, generic advice and barely-relevant statistics that ignored many of the ski hill’s most pressing needs (for example, Spirit Mountain’s long-overdue capital maintenance schedule for the upper chalet was hardly mentioned). But the Spirit Mountain board of directors (Oct. 3, 2017), and then the city Planning Commission (Oct. 10, 2017), and then the Parks Commission (Dec. 13, 2017), and then the City Council (Jan. 8, 2018), held their tongues (and noses) and accepted the report. Then the mayor signed it. Spirit Mountain needed a master plan, and that box had to be checked off the to-do list.

With that task complete, the city assigned a professional grant-writer the task of preparing Spirit Mountain’s initial Legacy application (merely one more small service among the suite of services the city provides). On May 23, 2018, Spirit Mountain Executive Director Brandy Ream, Spirit Mountain General Manager Jody Ream, and three members of the Spirit Mountain board met to discuss priorities for the ski hill.

In contrast to Ecosign’s muddled report, I found this meeting to be refreshingly to the point. Spirit Mountain knew what they needed: chair lift upgrades, refurbishments to the upper chalet, a new maintenance building in a new location, better parking lots, all of their rental gear replaced. They also needed more pumps, because, although their now-three-year-old water line was built to draw 6,000 gallons per minute from the St. Louis River, the pumps they had could only pump 4,000 gallons per minute. 

“To get to the final build-out, we [will need] two pumps that would go in our main pumphouse and one low-flow pump down in the river pumphouse,” said Jody Ream. “To me, that’s a Priority One … We’re not pushing as much water through the system as we can … We’re not making as much snow as we could.” The build-out is estimated to cost $225,000. (I should note that the cost estimates presented at this meeting were extremely preliminary, and may not always be reflective of reality.)

Ream explained that if you pushed more water through the system, you would also need more snowmaking equipment to handle the water. The next item on his list was ten new snow guns, which would cost $250,000. He identified that request as a personal Priority One as well.

When the discussion turned to the upper chalet, Jody and Brandy got a little misty-eyed as they spoke of their dream of demolishing the chalet altogether and building a new one higher on the hill. When they came floating back down to reality, Board Member Dave Cizmas, who had previous experience with Legacy grants, said he thought refurbishments to the existing chalet would have a better chance of getting Legacy money. He advised the group to include every possible thing that needed to be fixed at the chalet on their wish list. “I’d put it all in, and just see what they say.”

This led to a small party as everyone started talking about kitchen upgrades and HVAC systems. However, Brandy Ream said that the two main priorities for the upper chalet were fixing one of the entrance vestibules and replacing a defunct deck that led off the Moosehead dining room. The estimated price tag for those two projects was $650,000.

Both Reams agreed that the absolute, top, number-one thing that needed to be taken care of as soon as possible was a “distance control upgrade” for the alpine coaster, in the Adventure Park. This upgrade is a $400,000 safety system that slows down speeding carts when they get too close to one another. When Spirit Mountain first installed the alpine coaster in 2010, this safety feature did not exist. Now it does. “We absolutely have to [have it],” said Brandy.

“Why is it so expensive?” asked Board Member Eric Viken. “It just seems a lot of money for that.”

“It’s basically done through magnets that are on the track and these chips or sensors that are in the carts [which can activate the brakes],” said Jody. 

“Reducing our risk and exposure,” said Brandy.

“This is the only [alpine coaster] around,” said Jody. “So if we’re going to run it, we should be running it with the latest, greatest technology … Every business that has had our system and has upgraded has nothing but rave reviews … It is a big deal. I mean, the numbers of incidents, whether big or small, they basically just go [away]. I mean, drastically.”

That meeting was seven weeks ago. Any potential Legacy money is still a long way down the road. When I contacted Parks Director Will Roche shortly before going to print, he told me that the city had submitted its application for regional designation, but that no determination had been made on that yet. Nor is regional designation a sure thing. According to the state’s guidelines, “Some parks and trails that would legitimately add value to the regional system will not be included … due to limited funding.”

As such, the grant itself will have to wait. “There will not be a Legacy grant request for Spirit Mountain in 2018,” Roche said. 

Mud Lake Concept Plan

How time flies. It’s already been more than a year since Mayor Emily Larson unveiled her controversial plan to get rid of the Mud Lake causeway. This decision was hailed by natural resource professionals as something that would enhance the ecological health of the St. Louis River, but deplored by members of the Lake Superior and Mississippi excursion train. They considered the causeway the most scenic and historic feature of their tour. Many feared that eliminating the causeway would doom the train. 

Following the mayor’s announcement, the city assembled a panel of natural resource professionals and asked them “to develop a science-based plan to restore Mud Lake.” Though this panel was supposed to be objective and “follow the science wherever it led,” in reality (as I reported in March) one panelist was on the city’s payroll and several others had been plotting against the causeway, behind the scenes, for months. The city paid a consultant, Fred Rozumalski of Barr Engineering, $21,600 to moderate a four-hour meeting of the panel, take notes, hold a second meeting for comments, and produce a report on the findings. 

This report, the Mud Lake Concept Plan, is a three-page pamphlet. When Rozumalski presented it to the Parks Commission on Oct. 11, 2017, he called it “the results of a study by a group of scientists.” In reality, it was a summary of two meetings of a group of scientists. There is no hard evidence behind the Plan; the scientists relied on nothing more than their personal experience to determine their recommendation. That’s not science-based—it’s scienTIST-based—and scientists, in the absence of any real data, are just as prone to subjectivity and bias as anybody else.

“The goal is to reverse the human impacts on Mud Lake that inhibit the critical river flow and sediment transport processes that created and maintain habitat,” states the Plan. “This could involve removing the majority of the causeway, excavating legacy wood waste and accumulated contaminated materials, and controlling invasive plants.”

The end goal, ecologically, is to re-establish Mud Lake as a “shallow sheltered bay” along the river, to improve fish habitat. The assumption underlying this goal is that Mud Lake actually was a shallow sheltered bay to begin with, before the causeway cut it off from the river. But not everyone agrees with that. 

On Aug. 29, 2017, Fish and Wildlife biologist Dave Warburton emailed DNR manager John Lindgren, commenting on the panel discussion. “I think our long-standing emphasis on restoring and enhancing sheltered embayments along the River has unduly biased our management thinking. I now see Mud Lake more as a semi-isolated floodplain lake … We can engineer the conversion of Mud Lake into a sheltered embayment with more stable open water and a channelized connection to the River; but we shouldn’t be surprised if the River doesn’t naturally sustain that scenario … We should also recognize that with such human engineering, we’re placing greater ecological value on this type of habitat (for fisheries) than what the system naturally provided. Again, we have that capability, but the River may get the final say.”

Lindgren responded, acknowledging that Warburton had some good points, but, “I still think the resource professionals should subjectively decide what they would want to restore to.”

This exchange is interesting for several reasons. First, natural resource experts can’t agree on what Mud Lake is—a shallow sheltered bay or a semi-isolated floodplain lake. Answering that question would result in different management expectations and strategies. Second, for all their talk of “restoring” natural systems, the DNR has no problem manipulating natural systems to meet specific management goals—in this case, fish production. Third, the DNR states that the supposedly “science-based” Concept Plan is subjective. 

The truth is that no hard data exists about the hydrologic flows of the St. Louis River around Mud Lake. Other restoration projects in the St. Louis River estuary have been undertaken after years of study and measurements. The Mud Lake project seems to be hurtling ahead without much of anything in the way of a rationale other than selected individuals’ opinions. Wouldn’t it be a kick in the pants if we went to all the trouble of removing the causeway to create better fish habitat, only to see Mud Lake silt in and become even shallower in a few years, because we misjudged what the river would do?