After receiving $5.7 million in funding from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board last year, Giants Ridge is adding two new ski lifts for the coming winter recreation season.
In a move that IRRRB Commissioner Mark Phillips hopes will turn around declining numbers of cold-season visitors, the board made the commitment to fund the project even when state bonding dollars did not materialize.
“We hope to see a reversal of the downward trend in skiing visits, and it’s already generating excitement with season pass sales going up,” Phillips said.
Phillips believes at least some of the decline was related to aging lifts that, while still safe to operate, were too slow. Breakdowns were lengthy affairs with the 30-year-old lifts’ manufacturers out of business.
Construction began this summer, but was slowed by wet conditions that impeded the ability to haul concrete up the hills. Instead, concrete for foundations had to be brought in by helicopter, moving a hoped-for operational date of mid-November out to early December. Lakehead Constructors, Inc. of Virginia and Superior and Lenci Enterprises of Virginia are on the job.
Fred Seymour, the new general manager at Giants Ridge, says that the new Calgary Express high speed “detachable” quad lift will cut uphill travel time in half.
“The high speed lift has four seats instead of three, and detachable means that it leaves the fast cable during loading and unloading and slows way down,” Seymour said.
A second replacement lift called a fixed grip quad will stay at one speed throughout its trajectory, but will increase seating to four from a two seater.
The new Leitner-Poma chairlifts were purchased from a manufacturer in Salt Lake City, Utah, and are being re-assembled on site.
“Greater speed and capacity, along with easier loading and unloading, is going to equate to more time to ski and have fun,” Seymour stated.
The 200-acre mountain resort is home to 35 ski runs with five chairlifts. In recent years, they have developed long waiting lines to ride to the top. However, with the new fixed-grip lift near the race runs, Seymour is looking forward to a smoother race season.
“With the nordic and alpine state championships here every year, those lines sometimes got long, This will really ease up congestion and make the experience a lot better,” he said.
Owner of Giants Ridge since 1984, the IRRRB Board has come under fire at times for ownership of an enterprise whose books show a bottom line in the red. However, Phillips said that’s a simplistic review of the economics at Giants Ridge, and called for a broader assessment.
“In the measurement we use, we do spend a couple million dollars a year subsidizing Giants Ridge, but that doesn’t measure the money that comes into our communities as a result,” he stated.
That $2 million annual loss, according to Phillips, is many years related to capital expenditures and does not realistically measure operational losses. He said that an economic study credits Giants Ridge with generating spin-off revenue around $44 million annually, in addition to direct property tax payments to local government entities.
Meanwhile, Phillips admits that the IRRRB is making decisions that they believe will result in bringing their Giants Ridge budget into balance.
“We are making a lot of moves to narrow that subsidy over time, and frankly Giants Ridge is probably one of the brightest spots in the East Range area,” Phillips said.
Adding a new chalet last summer with self-operated food service and liquor sales, and bringing in private management last year were both moves intended to increase revenue. Most recently leases were terminated for private businesses that ran rentals and gift shops on the site, switching those profit centers back under IRRRB control.
Increasing contact with private sector investments at Giants Ridge is also high on the IRRRB’s list, whose defined mission includes attracting private sector development. Tourist lodging facilities and housing developers are working with Phillips in what he hopes is a mutually beneficial collaboration.
“We are talking with the private sector investors about coordinating efforts and communicating better to increase revenues so we can all be more successful. We are working hard to be more efficient and a better property manager,” Phillips said.