by Peter Graves, Winter Olympic Games Announcer and CXC Writer
For those of us who know and love Duluth and it’s long time love of cross-country skiing, there is big news brewing that we just had to share. You may have heard over the past year about all manner of plans coming forth. This week I had the opportunity to chat with Duluthian Chad Salmela to find out just what all the good news is about. What follows is a transcript of that interview.
PETER GRAVES: With Duluth XC Ski Club(DXC), what’s happening now Chad, we heard talk of many exciting things, please bring us up to date.
CHAD SALMELA: It’s a very exciting time for DXC, really a new era in the scope of what the club is trying to do. The club was founded over decade ago mostly by skiers, many of whom were parents of young skiers. They advocated for cross-country skiing in Duluth and developed some great training programs for kids and adults as well as hosting events. They succeeded in creating a lasting cross country ski club in Duluth that continues to do great things. We are currently engaging some transformative initiatives, which is bringing a lot of excitement to the community. We hope it will lead to greater engagement, increased membership, and a stronger community and club than ever.
I’m relatively new to the board and I’m really impressed with the board right now, so that’s a big part of “now” for the club. We have an excellent president in Molly Hoeg, a freelance writer with a great mind for pulling people together around complex issues and moving the board in a positive direction. We have an accomplished and talented board that is forward-thinking and dynamic, it’s exciting to be a part of it.
Over a year ago, the city looked to DXC for guidance on a master plan for the city trails. The club recommended and the city hired Gary Larson, who as you know has a lot of experience with skiing and trails, to create the master plan. A snowmaking lit loop existed as possibilities at several existing locations in that master plan, but none had evident, realistic funding possibilities. The need for a snowmaking system has been widely expressed in Duluth for decades, but it was really more of a dream that the club felt needed to be part of the master plan, not initially an expectation, at least not in the short term.
Duluth’s popular and effective mayor, Don Ness, has recognized the value of outdoor recreation to Duluth’s economy and has a record of backing outdoor initiatives. A tourism tax the city had been using for other areas of the city was basically being retooled to develop the St. Louis River basin in West Duluth into a recreational destination. It’s a great initiative! We caught wind that a man-made snowmaking ski trail at the base of Spirit Mountain alpine area, might be achievable in the administration’s vision for the project as that location fell within the corridor. The idea of a Nordic center developed from there with work from the club and the city. The project was added to the ski trails master plan, the overall development plan for the corridor as a concept has been approved by the city council, and we are now working rapidly to put together the pieces that will meet requirements for public input, and approval by the council of this specific project within the greater project. It’s aggressive and it’s the big piece to this long-winded answer to a simple question. But that’s not all we’ve been up to.
The club has continued to provide its ski lesson and training programs as well as doing a lot this winter to deliver basic improvements to the many existing trails and ski venues in town that have been highlighted in the ski trails master plan. The result is a noticeable increase in care for our ski trails and ski centers.
PG: What is your mission/plans? Give me an overview.
CS: The mission statement of the club is, “Health, fun, and fitness through cross county skiing.” That’s pretty much what drives the club and our work. Besides the Spirit Mountain project that we’re calling the “Grand Avenue Nordic Center,” the club continues to support the revitalization of the old Lester Amity Chalet in the far eastern side of town, adjacent the Lester Ski Trails. The club has taken on operation of the Spirit Mountain Nordic Center at the top of Spirit Mountain. Lester and Spirit are the two most loved trails in the city, but Spirit had essentially closed with the mountain’s decision to cut it from their operational plans a few years ago. Use of Spirit trails had essentially ceased in any practical sense, which many saw as a shame, particularly skiers on the west side of Duluth. DXC worked out an agreement with Spirit Mountain to re-open and operate it, which we now do on a donation basis. Siiri Morse and Andre Watt, both experienced racers and coaches, spend a lot of their time along with volunteers, buffing out that ski experience, while a board of many notable area ski personalities is overseeing the Lester Amity project under the auspices of DXC. The efforts at both sites are key to our mission, and will be ongoing even as we address the Grand Avenue Nordic Center needs. We hope long term to connect Grand Avenue to the Spirit Mountain trails at the top, but first things first.
PG: I’m guessing you will embark on a major gift campaign…how will you do that?
CS: The city is committing two-thirds of the infrastructure budget, then matching half of the final third with grants. The club’s commitment is the 1/6th of the project to be fundraised within the Nordic community, with Spirit Mountain operating it with the assistance of DXC. It’s a big commitment by the club’s past metrics for sure, but we think the community will rally behind it. The fundraising piece for the club is really an opportunity for the Duluth skiing community to come together, pull in the same direction en masse, and really secure the future of the sport that has such a long, rich, and storied history here. Our strategies are developing on how to make it happen, but just with the public announcement of the project and the city council’s approval, DXC’s fundraising committee for the project has secured commitments of over $100K in just a couple weeks. We still have a long way to go, but that initial outpouring just from private individuals tells you how welcome and needed skiers in this community see this project. From here, the approach will have to be multi-faceted, and we will need the skiing community to get and stay energized. It’s such an exciting prospect, that the buzz is already pretty big around it.
Every bit of support we can muster, big and small, is a boost for the sport, this project, and sends the message to the city that the Nordic community is committed to making it happen. Anyone who wants to check out more of the project and help us raise the money we need to meet our match with the city can do so on our website:
PG: Any timetable on all of this?
CS: The goal the city has put in place is to be in operation by November 2016. We are committed to being a partner in making it happen, particularly with the concept and design phase, which is already happening. That’s aggressive but achievable if we work hard and do it right.
PG: Thanks so much Chad, I’m totally thrilled to hear this wonderful news. Best of luck with the upcoming venture.
In compiling this story we also talked with a noted ski coach, former racer at UNH, and a current mountain bike coach, Sara Morse, who also lives in Duluth. Morse, who spent nearly a decade coaching at Loppet Nordic Racing, grew up in Stillwater, MN and is a landscape architect.
She said she was excited about what this project could mean for the sport in Duluth. “You know this is all very exciting, there is great energy here, and Nordic skiers and mountain bikers I look at as one user group. I’d love to see all weather trails for mountain biking. There is so much energy that kids would be drawn to, and we can get them fired up, and really make this system a hub, for multiple user groups.”
We couldn’t agree more.
Editor’s note: Peter Graves has spent over 40 years in Nordic skiing, first as a racer, then as a USST coach and a USSA Administrator. He has worked in public relations and broadcasting promoting the sport, and has announced at eight Olympic Games. He is a long time voice of the Birkie and handles creative writing projects for CXC.