The list of new lifts built in the Midwest since I started this website in 2015 is short. In Minnesota, a total of three – two quads at Giants Ridge and an $8 million gondola at Lutsen Mountains. Unlike both of its state-owned regional neighbors, Lutsen is a family business that also happens to be the largest ski resort for 2,000 miles between the Rockies and the Adirondacks. I’ve never been to this corner of Minnesota but it looks totally beautiful, surrounded by National Forest on three sides and Lake Superior on the fourth.
The popular new Doppelmayr gondola is like nothing else in the region and it came just two years after Lutsen owners Charles Skinner and Tom Rider launched a Leitner-Poma six place chairlift on Moose Mountain. With two key lifts upgraded, the brothers-in-law are looking to the future and more lifts servicing the types of terrain discerning skiers seek. Lutsen Mountains is a true destination resort and its competitors aren’t as much Afton Alps and Spirit Mountain as Breckenridge and Steamboat. For many, the Lutsen case is compelling – a couple hour drive, alluring scenery and plentiful natural snow at a reasonable price. “We’re a Midwest destination for families; not everybody can afford the airfare and the travel to go out west,” Mr. Skinner told the Cook County Board of Commissioners in a presentation last week. “We just need to be strong enough and appealing enough with enough terrain to go forward with the next generation.”
The co-owners are on a public outreach tour as they embark on a rigorous approval process with the United States Forest Service. If granted a special use permit for new ski terrain in the Superior National Forest, it would be the first brand new permit for a U.S. ski resort in decades. “The only available land for us to have more runs is federal land,” Skinner pointed out along with the fact that 90 percent of Cook County is publicly-owned. The expansion plan would first add 100 acres of much-needed beginner terrain with skier services on Eagle Mountain serviced by a new chairlift. Depending on the cost of a new lift, Lutsen may use one of a few retired lifts it has in storage. The next phases would add 400 acres of intermediate and advanced terrain on two sides of Moose Mountain including glades and up to six new lifts. “As the ski industry moves forward, we need to be larger in order to survive,” said Skinner, noting the eventual goal of doubling skier visits.
Mr. Skinner gave commissioners some insight into the changing ski industry landscape using the V word and related E word along with the new A word. “Now we have these two behemoths that are going to change the ski industry dramatically,” he cautioned, pointing out Afton Alps’ recent ownership change. “It would be much easier to sit back and do nothing, not put in any new lifts. We could probably make it for 10-20 years,” he said pointing out that hundreds of American ski areas have closed in the past few decades. “We would be the walking dead like some other ski areas. We are trying to look ahead and chart our course for the future.”
The overwhelmingly positive presentation highlighted Lutsen’s vital role in the local economy which is otherwise summer-focused. Charles joked that his father, who installed numerous recycled lifts from other mountains at Lutsen, would be “scared to death of the debt” required for projects like the new gondola and probably wouldn’t have accepted the risks. “The gondola has been a good move for us. It’s increased our summer business and strengthened our weddings,” the younger Skinner emphasized before saying loans for further expansion would be personally guaranteed.
There is a long road ahead before any new lifts start spinning. The Forest Service just accepted the master development plan for consideration and it will take two years or more for review. “There’s been nothing like this in this region.” said the other co-owner, Tom Rider, in a radio interview, noting the Superior National Forest is struggling a bit to find the expertise for studying a ski plan without any experience. Many lift projects in other forests these days undergo an Environmental Assessment (EA) or Decision Memo (DM) but this will be a full blown Environmental Impact Statement (EIS.) Lutsen and its owners are committed to the thorough process and environmental stewardship but will need the public’s support. You can keep up to date on this exciting project via the Lutsen Mountains and Forest Service websites.