Juneau’s city-owned ski area has struggled with low snowfall and rising costs for years. Some people think tapping into the growing tourism sector could be a path to financial stability.
Last month, staff unveiled a plan to expand summer operations and turn the beloved local ski mountain into a self-sustaining, year-round recreation destination.
Between the chairlifts at Eaglecrest Ski Area, a steep gravel path swoops through the grass and fireweed, ending with a row of small jumps and a sharp turn.
General Manager Dave Scanlan was one of the first riders down the trail on Sunday. The dreadlocks tucked under his helmet make him easy to spot.
“This is kind of the first real kickoff event and getting a bunch of people up to ride the trail, and it is riding really good,” Scanlan said.
The ski area has recently improved this mountain biking trail. The reopening also serves as a sneak peek into Scanlan’s vision for the mountain’s future.
“We’re kind of getting the recipe formulated of what we could do going forward,” he said.
Since it opened in the 1970s, the ski area has operated at a deficit, depending on the city’s budget to make up the difference. Warmer winter weather over the last five years isn’t helping.
One of Scanlan’s first priorities when he took over in 2017 was improving snowmaking on the mountain, which he said helped business this past season. Now he’s getting serious about generating more income for the ski area in the offseason — something Eaglecrest has been trying to do for decades.
Last month, Scanlan and Eaglecrest’s board of directors announced a $35 million development plan. It has a slew of new summer attractions, topped by an $11 million gondola to bring tourists to the top of the mountain.
“The gondola is sort of the keystone attraction,” said Charlie Herrington, Eaglecrest’s marketing manager. “It helps you get up to the ridge so you can access those panoramic views that go into Stephens Passage and Admiralty Island (and) Seymour Canal.”
The gondola would also be ADA-accessible and eventually serve as a permanent replacement for the Ptarmigan Chair, which is more than 40 years old.
Other features in the plan include a new summit lodge, a mountain coaster, a ropes course and a new long-distance zip line.
Visitors would buy day passes to enjoy all of the activities. Locals could get summer passes, just like in the winter.
Bruce Garrison is president of the Eaglecrest board. He was also a member of the first ski patrol. He’s been around long enough to remember a plan to turn Eaglecrest into a tourist destination back in the 1980s — the short-lived bubble chairs. They were bright blue plastic covers on top of regular lift chairs.
“It just never was an economically viable alternative,” Garrison said at a recent public meeting.
Garrison said the idea was similar to the gondola: Bring summer tourists to the top of the mountain to enjoy the views.
“One of the things with the gondola chair, compared to the bubble chairs, is your feet were hanging out of the bubble chair. So on a nice rainy day, your pant legs and feet got soaking wet,” he said.
He’s quick to point out that cruise ship tourism numbers then were nowhere near what they are today. These days, Juneau sees more than a million tourists each summer. Part of Eaglecrest’s pitch is to help lower the burden on visitor-strained attractions like the Mendenhall Glacier.
The construction price tag is big, but Scanlan said they’ve done analysis that shows that the profits would quickly outweigh the costs. He hopes the extra revenue could help improve winter operations by allowing them to hire and retain more staff, improve infrastructure and, potentially, stay open seven days a week.
It’s worked in other places. Like Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area, a nonprofit ski resort outside of Boise, Idaho.
“Last summer was their first summer with their Adventure Park activities all up for operations. Same sort of suite of activities we’re talking about,” Scanlan said.
According to Bogus Basin, they made more than $1 million in gross revenue last summer. Low estimates for Eaglecrest’s new plan show 500 daily visitors spending nearly $7 million total over the course of the summer.
Scanlan has been holding community meetings and talking with groups that use the mountain in all seasons. He wants locals to know that free access to the mountain they love will still be a priority.
“You know, we’re talking about a lot of big changes, and people are always a little apprehensive of change. And rightfully so,” Scanlan said.
So far, he said the overall response has been “cautiously supportive.”
Briana Swanson is president of the Juneau Mountain Bike Alliance and runs Cycle Alaska, which has bike tours that leave from Eaglecrest. She’s excited about the plans, but she understands why some locals might worry about accessing their favorite trails.
“You know, there’s always a few concerns here and there, especially with some die-hard skiers and stuff,” Swanson said. “So I understand that they want to make sure that the mountain stays for skiing and snowboarding.”
Scanlan thinks everyone will feel more comfortable when they find a way to pay for the expansion that allows the ski area to remain city-owned, without burdening taxpayers.
“If we could do that, I think would be the ultimate long-term win, because then as the facility grows, we would have control of shaping the user participation numbers and having future profits roll back into more community trails, be it hiking trails, or mountain biking trails,” he said.
But they’ll explore all options — that includes private-public partnerships and privatization.
Eaglecrest will put out a request for proposals soon.
Once they figure out exactly how to pay for it, Scanlan hopes work could begin as soon as next summer.