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Ski Pacific: Northern Fights

Ski Pacific: Northern Fights

Features
By Jeff Halstead
posted: 11/19/1998

Few ski areas have more civic spirit than Mt. Spokane. In the Twenties, a group of Spokane citizens, smitten by the recreational potential of Mt. Spokane, actively worked for the creation of a park on this snowy dome on the city's northern horizon. Their aggressive efforts would evolve into Mt. Spokane State Park. Alpine skiing started on Mt. Spokane in the Thirties and instantly thrived. Local ski clubs built cabins and rope-tows. In the late Forties, Mt. Spokane laid claim to the world's first double chairlift. By the early Seventies, the ski area was at its peak, with five lifts and two ski lodges. Ski schools courted first-time skiers to try the resort's slopes. Mt. Spokane had become a high-quality local ski resort.

Then, in the mid-Seventies, the area's prominent position in the ski community began to decline. While competing ski resorts continued to expand and improve skier services, Mt. Spokane Skiing Corporation¿the ski-area concessionaire since 1975¿seemed content to invest little in capital improvements, expansion or snow grooming. The resort took an even sharper turn for the worse when it slashed lift ticket prices. "Cheap Tickets R Us," the resort boasted. Day lift tickets cost $22 for adults; season passes were $199 for adults and $99 for kids. While the lower prices lured hordes of teenagers to the resort, the lack of skier services, upkeep and professionalism drove skiing families¿many of whom had cut their teeth on Mt. Spokane's slopes¿to more polished resorts such as Schweitzer Mountain Resort, Silver Mountain and 49 Degrees North.

By 1990, a group of 65 prominent Spokane business and civic leaders had seen enough of the bargain-basement approach to operating Mt. Spokane. This group, named MS 2000, approached the Washington State Park and Recreation Commission and called for resort improvements. results were to be realized through joint efforts among skiers, the state parks system and the concessionaire. Mt. Spokane Skiing Corp., however, felt under attack, and war broke out.

MS 2000 contended that concessionaires operating on public property have a duty to provide good quality services for citizens, the owners of that land. "If Mt. Spokane ski area were on a private mountain, its performance would not be an issue," said Ted Stiles, a Spokane attorney and former director of MS 2000. "We organized to enhance the alpine skiing experience in a state park."

MS 2000 conceded that Mt. Spokane's decline could be partially explained by the rise of competing resorts, but it also pointed the finger squarely at the corporation for failing to provide a quality skiing experience to the public. While the criticism was harsh, an independent, state-funded study later corroborated that claim.

Almost immediately, Gregg Sowder, who ran Mt. Spokane Skiing Corp., returned fire, calling members of MS 2000 "elitists." Since MS 2000 is comprised of some of Spokane's wealthier citizens, Sowder's comments struck a chord. For all the condemnation of Mt. Spokane, Sowder had endeared himself to the locals by offering a reasonably priced alternative to more upscale, destination-oriented Schweitzer and Silver Mountain. Sowder drummed up support for his concession by predicting that MS 2000 would raise lift tickets and force the average skier off the mountain.

Originally, MS 2000 hoped to attract a variety of competitors to vie for control when the old concession agreement expired in 1995. A number of factors, however, stacked the bid process heavily in Mt. Spokane Skiing Corp.'s favor. When no group stepped forward to bid against the incumbent, MS 2000 threw its hat into the ring and made its proposal extremely attractive.

First, the civic group agreed to turn over all assets and capital improvements to the state when the new 20-year concession expired. Secondly, Mt. Spokane would be publicly run by a Public Development Authority (like the entity that operates Seattle's Pike Place Market). AAs a result, all profits would be rolled back into the mountain to improve its slopes and facilities. While not the norm, publicly operated ski areas¿like Bogus Basin near Boise, Idaho, and Winter Park, Colo.¿have proven successful in the West.

In 1996, Spokane County approved the creation of the Mt. Spokane Public Development Authority, and the state parks agreed to accept MS 2000's concession proposal. Rather than exercise the first right of refusal and match MS 2000's offer, Sowder took the battle to court.

Last ski season, with MS 2000 favored but the new concession agreement not yet finalized, Mt. Spokane Skiing Corp. continued to operate the ski area under the old contract. Rather than operate the resort in a way that would buoy confidence, Sowder burnt bridges.

First, he announced that Mt. Spokane would only be open on weekends¿until Washington State Parks intervened and demanded more hours of operation. Sowder extended operation but did so during off-peak hours.

In response, "Powder Not Sowder" bumper stickers sprang up in the resort parking lots. Next, the Spokane Ski Racing Association moved from Mt. Spokane for the duration of the season after a dispute over the quality of grooming on its training hill. Then, in what may have been the region's deepest snow year in 25 seasons, Sowder abruptly closed the resort in March.

Finally, last August, an arbitration panel established the fair market value of Mt. Spokane Skiing Corp.'s assets at $1.375 million, clearing the way for MS 2000 and the Mt. Spokane PDA to assume operations at the resort this season. At presstime, prices for tickets and passes had not been set.

"Our vision for Mt. Spokane is for it to be a high quality family-oriented day-skiing area," said Ted Stiles, who is now the president of the Mt. Spokane PDA. "We want Spokanites to come back to their mountain."

Mt. Spokane, Wash.
Twenty-two miles from downtown Spokane, Mt. Spokane's 280 acres of skiing include an excellent variety of groomed, mogul, tree and glade skiing. The resort has 1,800 vertical feet of skiing, five chairlifts and two ski lodges. On clear days Chair One, which accesses Mt. Spokane's finest terrain, has spectacular panoramic views of Spokane and the surrounding mountains and lakes.

For more information on skiing at Mt. Spokane, call the snow line: (509) 238-6223.

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