A plan to open Mount Spokane on weekends only this ski season has state parks officials and some skiers steamed.
The Mt. Spokane Ski Corp. told the Washington state Parks and Recreation Commission this month it will run the popular ski hill on weekends and holidays only instead of the Wednesday through Sunday schedule which included night skiing.
Ski company president Gregg Sowder says he believes skiers would welcome five days of piled-up powder each Saturday morning. He said he got the idea after a particularly heavy snow on a Monday and Tuesday last year brought throngs of skiers to his mountain on a Wednesday morning.
The plan would cut his operating costs nearly in half, and it gives Sowder new leverage in complicated negotiations over control of the ski area.
But the state isn’t amused, according to Wayne McLaughlin, state contracts manager in Olympia. “You can skim the cream from the top of the milk,” he said. “But it’s sure not in the best interests of the skiing public.”
In July, the parks commission awarded the concession to run Mount Spokane to the Mount Spokane 2000 Study Group, made up of Spokane civic and business leaders. That group has wanted Sowder and the ski company off the mountain since 1990.
Sowder sued the study group and the state in Thurston County Superior Court. He argued his company had met the contract conditions set by the study group. The company had the right of first refusal of any concession contract, and Sowder’s lawyers believe he had met the terms.
The study group wants to plow profits back into the ski area. In agreeing to the study group’s contract terms, Sowder amended the agreement to pay investors and taxes before using what’s left for improvements.
As for the schedule, all McLaughlin can do is send a letter to Sowder and try to negotiate. The state wants the same schedule as last year: open five days a week with night skiing.
“Even if we compromise from our position to his, that means there’s less access,” McLaughlin said. “I think his argument is pretty weak.”
The study group wants to open Mount Spokane seven days a week with night skiing, said Ted Stiles, spokesman for the group.
“I wonder what this would mean to his season ski-pass sales,” Stiles said. “I would want to have the ability to go up during the week as well.”
Mount Spokane ski passes will go on sale at the ski swap at the Spokane Interstate Fairgrounds late next month, but prices haven’t been set.
Racing groups who use the mountain during the week have called to complain about the proposed plan, McLaughlin said.
The study group continues to talk with Sowder about buying him out and taking control. Stiles said his group, acting as the Mount Spokane Public Development Authority, could take control of the mountain - even in midseason - by hiring a ski manager to run the hill.
Trouble is, the next court ruling likely will start a new chapter in the legal tug of war over Mount Spokane.
Sowder’s lawyers want the process that awarded the bid to the study group thrown out. On the other hand, Stiles wants the judge to enforce the commission’s ruling that gave his group the concession.
Both sides would appeal if they lose, pushing any resolution at least a year away, if not longer.
In fact, a strange scenario could arise in which the study group gets control and buys out the ski company but then loses the lawsuit on appeal a year or so later. That could give the concession back to Sowder.
“That’s a scenario we don’t even want to think about,” McLaughlin said. “But it could happen.”
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WHAT’S NEXT The Mount Spokane 2000 Study Group continues talking with ski company president Gregg Sowder about buying him out and taking control of the ski hill. But Sowder is suing the study group and the state to keep the concession. A final decision on who should operate the ski hill may not be made for a year or more.