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Becker County eyes ski property

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. - Becker County may be getting close to making an offer for the Detroit Mountain property - but only if it lands a big state grant to help pay for it.

The economic impact of a ski-snowboarding operation on Detroit Mountain would be substantial - anywhere from $661,000 a year for a smaller operation like Sea Gull Resort in Brainerd, to $6.8 million for one the size of Andes Tower Hills in Alexandria.

A smaller operation like Sea Gull would generate 13-14 jobs. A larger one like Andes Tower Hills would create 138-139 jobs, according to an analysis by County Economic Development Coordinator Guy Fischer.

There are two pools of state grant money that could be tapped to pay for a large percentage of the purchase price.

The owners are asking $1.6 million for 200 scenic acres of the former Detroit Mountain Ski Area. The county has the land assessed at about $500,000, according to County Auditor-Treasurer Ryan Tangen.

3-2 vote to move ahead

After hearing Fischer's economic impact report, Becker County Commissioner Barry Nelson made a motion directing Fischer to "put together some packages for possible purchase of the land," to create a regional park and recreation area.

The park land would be owned by the county, but the ski-snowboarding resort would be leased and operated privately.

The motion is contingent on the county landing one of several large state grants.

In November, the county held a tax-forfeited land sale that netted about $500,000. Some $200,000 of that could be available to help purchase the Detroit Mountain land, Nelson said.

The board approved the motion on a 3-2 vote, with Commissioners Larry Knutson and Gerry Schram voting in dissent.

After the vote, Nelson asked why the two didn't support the motion, considering it depended on receiving state grant funding, and that money from the county's tax-forfeited land sale could be used.

"If it only costs the county $200,000 and we just sold land for $500,000, and the county won't operate it," Nelson said, "why not vote for it? We're not talking new tax dollars."

"We're not talking a lot of things," Knutson responded heatedly. "But when you go down a slippery slope, you slide."

Economic impact study

Detroit Mountain is a well-known landmark less than 2 miles east of Detroit Lakes, rising 1,614 feet above sea level.

The ski resort operated for 50 years, serving downhill skiers and snowboarders, before closing in 2004.

Fischer pointed to a tourism study that showed that visitors would like to see more skiing opportunities in the Becker County area.

He believes Detroit Lakes is losing a lot of Fargo-Moorhead skiers and snowboarders to Alexandria. The ski resort there received 40,000 visitors this winter.

Tourism is big business in Becker County, Fischer noted, with gross sales topping $62 million in 2008, and generating 1,290 private-sector jobs.

The leisure and hospitality industry grew 38 percent between 2000 and 2008, with spending distributed throughout the economy.

"Clearly, the (year-round) regional park concept in conjunction with Detroit Mountain could provide a unique blend of nature-based and recreational opportunity," Fischer wrote.

The plan for the regional park and recreation area is for the county to own the land but not operate or manage the facilities or programs, he said.

Like the Detroit Lakes Community & Cultural Center, the mountain site could be operated through a nonprofit lease agreement.

For the impact study, Fischer looked at revenues, expenses and the number of visitors to ski resorts in Brainerd, Duluth and Alexandria.

He looked at direct economic benefits (to the resorts themselves, restaurants, motels and retailers) and secondary effects, which include additional sales, jobs and income generated in the communities.

"It is estimated that for every dollar of skier spending, another 60 cents is generated in secondary sales," he wrote.

His totals don't include summer operations, which he said could add another 7.6 percent to the total economic impact.