In this Jan. 6, 2017 photo, Juneau residents participate in the World’s Largest Lesson at Eaglecrest Ski Area. On Monday, CBJ Assembly conditionally approved acquisition of a new gondola for the ski area. Before it can come to town, the lift system will need to be inspected and a further report will be given to city officials. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)

In this Jan. 6, 2017 photo, Juneau residents participate in the World’s Largest Lesson at Eaglecrest Ski Area. On Monday, CBJ Assembly conditionally approved acquisition of a new gondola for the ski area. Before it can come to town, the lift system will need to be inspected and a further report will be given to city officials. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)

City takes big step toward acquiring $2M gondola

A split vote breaks in favor of buying the lift system.

The City and Borough of Juneau is poised to acquire a new-to-Juneau aerial gondola system for the city-owned Eaglecrest Ski Area.

The CBJ Assembly on Monday OK’d a $2 million purchase of a gondola from an Austrian ski area. The approval came via a 5-4 vote and followed an amendment that requires that no money be spent on shipping the gondola to Juneau until the Eaglecrest board or general manager Dave Scanlan provides an update following an evaluation of the gondola and receives a go-ahead to proceed.

”Overall, we’re very excited about the opportunity and very positive,” Scanlan said during a Monday morning phone call.

The gondola is pitched as a step toward increased revenue for the ski area and could be part of a move toward year-round operations. Scanlan said the gondola available is especially well-suited to Eaglecrest’s needs as it is a fixed-grip pulse gondola, a type of lift that Scanlan said has “fewer moving parts” than other models with enclosed cabins capable of arriving at a midway loading and unloading station.

Some CBJ Assembly members also spoke to the purchase as an opportunity to invest in a city asset.

“I believe this is an opportunity,” said Assembly member Greg Smith. “I have faith in Mr. Scanlan. I believe we could come to regret passing up this opportunity.”

Smith was among the five assembly members to vote for the conditional purchase of the gondola. Assembly members Wade Bryson, Michelle Bonnet Hale,

Maria Gladziszewski and Mayor Beth Weldon also voted for the motion. The approval came after well over an hour of discussion and public testimony.

Weldon said she was voting to give the Eaglecrest Board of Directors and the Eaglecrest Summer Operations Task Force time to strengthen its case for the gondola. She said her yes vote came after putting the board and Scanlan “through the wringer.”

Hale said her support was further solidified when she learned the gondola could be a bottom-drive system. Scanlan said that means the gondola, which will have a terminal located somewhere along the west bowl ridge, would be able to plug into Alaska Electric Light & Power’s power supply.

[Eaglecrest seeks $2M gondola for ski area]

Scanlan, speaking to the Assembly, said there will be multiple opportunities for the city to potentially change course on the project.

“We do have some options, and there’s a couple of different forks in the road,” Scanlan said.

An initial deposit of $450,000 reserves the gondola for the city, and further payment would be due in April. That would allow for an inspection — ideally the week of April 12, Scanlan said — before a several-week dismantling process. By late May or early June, the gondola could either be shipped to town or stored in Croatia for a year for $200,000, Scanlan said. The gondola cannot be installed until the ski area secures $6.2 more in funding.

Scanlan said a central treasury loan from the city, sales tax, revenue bonds and public-private partnership are all pathways that could be explored to provide the additional money.

If the city did not wish to move forward with the project after acquiring the lift, Scanlan said he would anticipate the city would be able to find a buyer for it.

“We’d be in good position to sell,” Scanlan said in response to a question from Assembly member Christine Woll.

Woll joined Assembly members Waahlaal Giidaak Barbara Blake, Carole Triem and Alicia Hughes-Skandijs in voting against purchasing the gondola.

Concerns raised

Assembly members who voted against the ordinance generally cited unease with the speed at which a decision was being made and the prioritization of a purchase over other wants or needs within the community.

“When it’s public money, it really needs public process,” Hughes-Skandijs said. She also said if she had $2 million to personally direct toward the project, she would.

Blake said while the gondola project had pluses, it’s also an upgrade that not everyone in Juneau will be able to afford to enjoy.

Other no votes were similarly supportive of Eaglecrest in general while offering reservations about the specific proposal.

“I really support working on this going forward, but I’m not a yes tonight,” Triem said.

Triem, who chaired the city’s Visitor Industry Task Force, noted that voting to acquire the gondola will impact summer tourism operations at Eaglecrest, which is something still being explored by a CBJ task force.

Weldon predicted that task force chair Greg Smith will be extremely busy in the coming weeks.

Scanlan said Eaglecrest has a board meeting on Thursday, and he anticipated other board and task force meetings in the near future.

“Obviously, we’ve got our work cut out for us as we provide follow-up information,” Scanlan said.

Public weighs in

Assembly members said multiple times that the gondola proposal had sparked public comments that were atypical in both volume and thoughtfulness.

They said calls and emails had made it clear that there is generally strong public support for Eaglecrest.

Monday’s meeting also included over a dozen comments on the proposal. Comments favoring the proposal outnumbered those against it by about a 2-1 ratio.

Those who spoke in favor of it praised business models shared by Eaglecrest that show the gondola helping to increase revenue for the ski area.

“I think what we have before us is an opportunity we don’t want to miss,” said resident Bruce Denton.

Greater Juneau Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Craig Dahl spoke favorably of the project and shared positive comments about the plan from Max Mertz, a certified public accountant and adviser, who characterized it as promising but not yet fully complete.

Others, such as resident Kathy Coghill said the proposal was too new to be thoroughly considered and could contain errors. Additionally, she said the discussion included a false dichotomy between either purchasing the proposed gondola or doing nothing.

“There are other affordable options that can and should be considered,” she said.

• Contact Ben Hohenstatt at (907)308-4895 or bhohenstatt@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.

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