Eaglecrest Ski Area struggles for survival

Assembly wants ski area to complete its long-term business plan

Posted: Thursday, June 17, 2004

Eaglecrest Ski Area has weathered some tough snow and financial years and now may have to convince city leaders it remains a community asset to keep from being buried.

In the past few years, Eaglecrest management has said that seasons with light snow and rainy weather during holidays are the major reasons why the ski area is running in the red. The board said the Assembly should keep giving Eaglecrest $1.5 million a year because it is a community recreational area, just like the Augustus Brown Swimming Pool.

But the ski facility has never been able to make a profit since its inception 28 years ago. According to Eaglecrest Business Manager Gary Mendivil, the city has being covering 30 percent of its operating expenses. As the Assembly battles with its own budget shortfall, it has demanded that Eaglecrest come up with a long-term business plan to address its deficit.

While many Eaglecrest managers and supporters reiterate that the ski area enhances the quality of life not only for Juneau residents but also visitors from all over Southeast, the Assembly hasn't made up its mind on how to define Eaglecrest.

"The Assembly as a whole hasn't had a fundamental discussion about whether Eaglecrest should be a community recreational facility or a profit-making venture," said Mayor Bruce Botelho. "The business plan will be the departure point for our discussion."

The Eaglecrest board is refining its business plan that it has been working on for a year. The board has come up with many innovative ideas, but most of the proposals will depend on whether the Assembly will continue supporting Eaglecrest as a community facility.

In a draft plan, the board aims at making Eaglecrest a year-around destination instead of just a winter ski spot. It proposes having the city release its land in the lower mountain area and construct some cabins there. The revenues generated from renting the cabins could fund maintenance of the ski area.

But it remains a question whether the Assembly will agree to release the land. Even if it does, it is unknown whether the rent will go back to Eaglecrest to the city's general fund.

The board also wants to build a treetop walkway so visitors will have a bird's-eye view of Juneau's rainforest. The initial construction of the trails and elevated walkways will cost approximately $425,000 and require the Juneau Planning Commission's approval.

One of the ski area's long-term goals is to get electrical power up to the mountaintop from the North Douglas Highway. Right now, Eaglecrest uses hydroelectric power in the summer and diesel fuel in the winter. Running power lines up the road and converting the lifts to electric drive will cost around $1.3 million.

During the past 28 years, positioning itself as a community facility has worked as a double-edged sword for Eaglecrest management. On one hand, its "community" status has helped the ski area secure funding from the city year after year. But the same status also limits its financial potentials.

For example, there have been discussions about selling alcohol at Eaglecrest's lodge. However, the Assembly has traditionally rejected the idea because the ski area is supposed to be a family-oriented place.

"Everybody recognizes the sale of alcohol will bring a significant amount of money," said Eaglecrest board member Douglas Boyce. "But most of our users are youths. This is not a message the city wants to send to the young people."

The board is aware of the dilemma. As Eaglecrest management said in its draft plan, "the challenge for Eaglecrest is to find a balance between running a business that serves the community and safeguarding the bottom line."

But anyone who was involved in the establishment of Eaglecrest will not hesitate to say that Eaglecrest always should be considered a community asset and deserve the city's financial commitment.

"Eaglecrest was developed by the community and sustained by the community," said Al Shaw, who spent 20 years developing and promoting Eaglecrest.

In the mid-1950s, Shaw and a group of local leaders got the U.S. Forest Service involved in searching for a ski area for Juneau, where people didn't have to hike to the mountaintops and worry about avalanches.

"We were surrounded by mountains but not any mountain would do," Shaw, 74, said. "You've got to find a place that stays out of the wind. The slope has to face north so the snow stays longer. And it is important that the road to the ski area doesn't have avalanche problems. You don't want people or cars to be buried."

In 1967, Craig Lindh, then a snow ranger for the Forest Service, and coworker Bob Janes were assigned the task. They hiked in the snow, waded through icy creeks and skied throughout mountains in Juneau. They finally concluded that the Eaglecrest site, then known as the Fish Creek Drainage, was the best spot.

"It didn't go through avalanche paths. The roads to the ski area wouldn't be too steep and it would offer a wide variety of skiing terrains for skiers of different levels," Lindh said.

Identifying an ideal ski area was only the first step. It took the efforts of many more people to lobby the state to appropriate $950,000 to build a road to the area in 1973. The next year, ski club members succeeded in selling Juneau voters the idea of building the area with money raised through a 1 percent sales tax increase.

When the 1976-77 season rolled around, Eaglecrest was up and running with a day lodge, one chairlift and a surface lift. A second lift was added, with money raised after passage of another sales tax initiative.

Community support didn't end with the establishment of the ski area. Members of local ski organizations such as Juneau Ski Patrol, Juneau Nordic Ski Club and Friends of Eaglecrest, have helped maintain Eaglecrest. Last year, 8,300 volunteer hours went into the area, according to Mendivil.

Eaglecrest is also on the giving end. Every year, it subsidizes a weekday school program that provides ski and snowboard lessons for more than 3,000 students. It also partners with many local nonprofit organizations, such as Miller Stone and Stepping Stone, to give youth at risk an opportunity to learn how to ski.

Although managers said customer retention is a challenge, the area has many loyal skiers.

Many of those who helped found Eaglecrest are still skiing at the facility. Lindh's wife, Barb, is a ski instructor. His daughter, Hilary Lindh, won a silver medal in the Albertville Winter Olympics in 1992 and a championship in the Sestriere World Cup in 1997. She sometimes comes back to teach children at ski clinics.

One of Eaglecrest's most faithful supporters is Sigurd Olson, 80. He skis every day when Eaglecrest opens in the winter and hikes there in the summer. He often goes to Assembly meetings to make sure Eaglecrest gets the funding it needs.

"Juneau is lucky to have Eaglecrest," Olson said. "This place is not just for good athletes. It is for everyone."

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