In a 5-4 vote, the Juneau Assembly agreed on Monday to commit up to $2 million for the purchase of a used gondola system for the city-owned ski area.
Eaglecrest Ski Area officials say an enclosed mountain lift is the cornerstone of concepts for expanding summer operations and ending the need for local taxpayers’ support.
Assembly members on both sides have reservations about it. There were concerns about making a rushed decision, a lack of public buy-in, and unfairly leapfrogging other established priorities.
The Assembly’s action does not mean that the gondola system is a done deal for Eaglecrest.
“I have switched to a yes vote,” said Mayor Beth Weldon, who’s been skeptical of the concept. “But my vote is yes because I want to give you more time. Doesn’t mean that I’m going to pay for anything further. After buying a gondola, I may … tell you to sell it after we bought it. But I’m trying to give you more time.”
Eaglecrest General Manager Dave Scanlan laid out the timeline he anticipates for next steps. It’s all subject to change, and hasn’t been written up in a purchasing agreement yet.
First, as a down payment Eaglecrest must pay a third of the cost of the gondola system, about $450,000. At that point, no other buyer will be able to scoop it up.
After Eaglecrest closes for the season, Scanlan said he and some engineering consultants would go to the ski resort in Austria where the gondola is finishing up its final season there. They’d inspect the system in person. If it checks out, they’d make a second payment before it is dismantled. Scanlan says this would be in mid-April.
Scanlan said the final payment will be due when the system is loaded and ready to transport. Assembly member Maria Gladziszewski convinced most of her colleagues to add another review around this point. Eaglecrest officials must update the Assembly before spending money to transport it out of Europe.
“It gives us an opportunity to say, ‘OK, if some disaster happens, and it turns out to be — doesn’t fit on mountain, the pro formas turn out to have an error in them — ’ I mean, we’ve just done this really quickly. It will give us the chance to say, ‘OK, leave it over there, and sell it from there,’” Gladziszewski said.
There’d still be transportation and storage costs within Europe. Scanlan said putting it in storage in Croatia for a year would cost about $200,000, and make reselling it easier. Bringing it to Juneau would cost about $450,000. He thinks that decision must be made at the end of May.
Assembly members Greg Smith, Wade Bryson and Michelle Hale enthusiastically voted yes. Weldon and Gladziszewski voted yes with reservations.
Gladziszewski said pre-pandemic conceptual plans for different tiers of summer operations at Eaglecrest called for $20 million to $50 million in upfront costs.
“The amount of money on the table was astonishing,” she said. “And I just thought, the City of Juneau is never going to come up with that kind of money, there’s no way citizens of Juneau are going to spend that kind of money on Eaglecrest.”
She said securing this used gondola means the initial investment in summer operations is relatively small, and eliminates the need to find a deep-pocketed partner to share costs — and control — with.
Assembly member Carole Triem voted no. She said she doesn’t oppose summer operations at Eaglecrest, but, “This is the Assembly saying yes to summer operations at Eaglecrest before we’ve had that conversation with the public. And I really hesitate about that.”
After chairing the city’s Visitor Industry Task Force, she said she knows people have very strong feelings about summer operations at Eaglecrest. In public testimony before the Assembly vote, 10 people spoke in favor of the purchase and four against it.
Eaglecrest staff produced a report in 2019 with ideas for cashing in on summer tourism, most of which hinged on installing a brand new gondola lift. But the pandemic largely stalled follow-up discussions with the Assembly. Until now, the Assembly has never adopted a plan, in whole or part.
Barbara Wáahlaal Gíidaak Blake voted no because it felt like a piecemeal decision. She also said locals’ access to Eaglecrest isn’t universal.
“Our mountain is not accessible by every single demographic in Juneau,” she said. “You have to be of a certain wealth class in order to be able to ski. In order to buy a season pass was a struggle as a single mom, for my son. Thank goodness for some of the programs that the city does offer to get up on that mountain, get our kids up on that mountain.”
Assembly members Christine Woll and Alicia Hughes-Skandijs also voted no.
Assembly member Greg Smith chairs a task force on summer operations. He voted yes and said he thinks the purchasing timeline will give Eaglecrest officials enough time to resolve unanswered questions and get the public on board.
“And I will do the work to try to get that sense from the community that this is the right way forward. And if we get the sense from the community that this is not the way forward? Well, Mr. (City Attorney Rob) Palmer will be going to Croatia and selling a gondola,” he said.
Smith said it’s a bit of a leap of faith, but he doesn’t want to regret passing on this deal.