Eaglecrest is the only ski resort in Southeast Alaska, a region seeing explosive growth in summer visitation thanks to the cruise ship industry. While some consider cruises a threat to the ski business, a recent study concluded they could actually help publicly-owned Eaglecrest become profitable. Over just five months, 1.3 million passengers will disembark in Juneau this year, a 17 percent increase from 2018. Many existing attractions such as the Mt. Roberts Tramway are bursting at the seams and the city sees an opportunity for its ski area to become part of the solution.
The City and Borough of Juneau owns and operates four double chairlifts which date back as far as 1975. Eaglecrest is the only ski area in the country located on an island and, while the ocean views are amazing, low elevation sometimes limits winter operating days. A private concessionaire operates a small scale zip tour at Eaglecrest but no lifts currently spin in the summer as the ski area ramps down to just a dozen employees.
Alaska’s capital city is considering a cash infusion to create a year-round adventure park with skiing, mountain biking, a gondola, zip lines, mountain coaster and more. While the initial outlay is high, projections show the current $950,000 annual subsidy provided by taxpayers could be eliminated while expanding recreational opportunities for residents and visitors alike. The ski area could also be able to pay its employees more competitive wages and operate seven days a week in winter with the money gleaned from summer.
The most expensive component of the $34.9 million plan is a ten passenger base-to-summit gondola which would reach even higher than the current Black Bear and Ptarmigan chairlifts. The gondola would become the primary summit access lift year-round, spanning almost 7,000 feet with 1,680 feet of vertical rise and 20 towers. Capacity would start at 1,500 guests per hour with the ability to go to 2,400. Both Leitner-Poma and Doppelmayr have provided bids in the $11.2 million range for the flagship lift with up to 59 cabins. Power would be trenched up the mountain, allowing the gondola to be top-driven and providing grid power to the Black Bear double for the first time.
A mountain bike park would mostly cater to locals and include replacement of the Hooter chair at a cost of $2.1 million. Both Doppelmayr and Skytrac have provided bids for this component and an optional loading carpet would add $225,000 to the cost. This lift could also reach 2,400 people per hour and would be 3,168 feet long by 628′ vertical. Gravity Logic would design the mountain bike trails.
Total project costs include the two lifts plus $5 million for a summit lodge, $4 million for long span zip lines, $3.25 million for a mountain coaster and $3.75 million for utilities and road construction. Financial projections assume a capture rate of 4 percent of cruise traffic, yielding around $5 million in revenue every summer. Factoring in independent travelers and residents, revenue could reach $8.2 million on the high end, around five times a winter’s haul. Even with significantly increased costs and debt service, the ski area could potentially turn a six figure profit.
Eaglecrest is considering a variety of funding mechanisms, including municipal bonds, commercial loans, public-private partnerships and grants. “With tourism being one of Alaska’s few growing economic sectors, there are many indications that now is the right time to move forward and make Eaglecrest a financially sustainable, year-round recreation destination,” the study concludes. Community engagement will be key and two public meetings are scheduled this month. While the project would certainly introduce traffic and environmental impacts, the ski area has significant existing infrastructure sitting unused all summer. Juneau residents have a long history of supporting their ski hill, including paying for portions of the Black Bear and Porcupine chairlift projects in 2009 and 2010.
I had the privilege of checking out the lifts at Eaglecrest a few summers ago and it is difficult to describe the natural beauty there. A gondola with 360 degree views of the mountains and sea would be an incredible addition to Juneau, a region which has become popular with adventurers for good reason.