Eaglecrest rebounds in short season

City's priorities collide as seniors seek to retain tax exemption

Posted: Friday, April 21, 2006

Despite a late snow year that carved weeks off the season, Eaglecrest Ski Area drew enough revenues to keep its deficit from growing, officials said.

The ski area was open 58 days this season, or 20 fewer than last year, Eaglecrest General Manager Kirk Duncan said. Earlier this year Duncan presented the city Finance Committee with a fiscal outline of the area, which hadn't opened at that point. He anticipated a $350,000 shortfall beyond the city's subsidy, but the ensuing season roughly closed that gap, he said.

"We had better-than-expected revenue and will not ask for an increase in funding from the Assembly in May," Duncan said.

The ski area is slated to receive the $500,000 subsidy in fiscal year 2007, Duncan said. Preliminary estimates indicate that total revenues were about $1.4 million, he said.

During recent debate over eliminating Juneau's senior sales-tax exemption, some have questioned the luxury of a ski subsidy.

The city allocated $500,000 to the Douglas Island ski area this year; it was $363,000 in fiscal year 2005. In contrast, city officials estimate the senior sales-tax exemption led to $1.3 million of uncollected revenue in 2005.

"The needs of seniors should come before playtime," said Gary Miller, chairman of the Retired Public Employees of Alaska's Southeast Chapter. "Senior health should come before skiing."

Miller said his group had not taken a stand on the issue. His opinion is that kids should enjoy activities, but not at the potential cost to subsidized senior programs. The retiree group passed a resolution opposing the removal of the sales-tax exemption.

Assembly member Jonathan Anderson said Eaglecrest is managed effectively and is planning to boost revenues to overcome a continuing deficit now at $700,000. The mountain has a budget of about $1.9 million.

"Eaglecrest managers appear to have made the most out of a half ski season," Anderson said. "They are really looking for ways to create income in the non-ski season and get more people involved."

While future winters cannot be predicted, the ski area plans to generate more revenue during the off-season by collecting a percentage on profits brought in by tourism and recreation companies operating on the property, Duncan said.

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A tree-top zip-line is set to open this summer and talks are in progress for a mountain bike trail and a dog sled tour. Other proposals include an extra lift higher on the mountain, which could then open earlier in the season; selective price increases and decreases, including reduced season pass prices and other marketing incentives; and a hut system on top for trekkers.

"I would be the first to buy a mountain bike pass, where you take the lift up and bomb down, just like they have in Breckenridge and Vail ski resorts," Anderson said.

Eaglecrest seems always the first subsidized program that seniors believe should be taken away, Assembly member Randy Wanamaker said. Wanamaker is chairman of a task force charged by the Juneau Finance Committee with developing an option to eliminate the senior sales tax exemption.

The task force has asked the public to comment on five possible options, which are: grandfather in eligible Juneau seniors; offer a rebate for eligible Juneau seniors; give an exemption for low income Juneau seniors; offer a rebate for low income seniors; or replace the exemption with payments to Juneau seniors.

"The folks say cut out Eaglecrest first, then the ice rink and swimming," Wanamaker said. "The seniors for the most part identify things they are not using anymore."

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The seniors most often suggest turning over Eaglecrest to a private company, Wanamaker said. The concern over the budget deficit and continuing funding is a valid one that the Assembly will have to answer in the future, he said.

"We have agreed to fund Eaglecrest $500,000 this coming year and nothing more was requested," City Manager Rod Swope said. "Every week they are not open because of weather (during the season) it costs about $80,000, so you can see the budgeting challenges faced."

Eaglecrest is one of the things that makes Juneau a special place to live, Swope said.

The budget deficit needs to be controlled, though, as it is projected to reach nearly $1 million in fiscal year 2008, he cautioned.

"There are many proposals by Kirk on how to make more money because going deeper in the hole would concern me," Swope said. "I don't know at what point we would have to pull the plug."

Recreation opportunities such the pool, the ice rink and Zach Gordon Youth Center are included in the recreation budget so they are not scrutinized as closely as Eaglecrest, budget analyst Bonnie Chaney said.

"They are just up there alone," Chaney said. "You can point at one thing individually and say we need this, or we need that, but we should ask what value would we put on our recreation in town."

Juneau is a healthy community and Eaglecrest reflects that, Douglas resident Brady Deal said.

"The kids get so much out of it," Deal said. "It is really about having a good quality of life here."

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