Capital Beat: Cannon Mountain privatization talk surfaces anew

  • Cannon Mountain Ski Area gondola

Monitor staff
Published: 4/10/2016 12:26:51 AM

As the ski season comes to a close, talk about privatizing Cannon Mountain is beginning anew.

Past legislative efforts to lease the state-run ski area to a private operator have flopped.

But after a recent state audit found Cannon lost nearly $30,000 in sales after failing to fix issues with its credit card billing system, among other financial problems, some lawmakers say it’s time to revive the contentious question.

“We should look at it again,” said Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican who was behind an unsuccessful state effort to privatize the mountain in 2012. “It could be a benefit to skiers, and to taxpayers.”

If the debate does materialize next year, it’s bound to be a knock-out fight. Any discussion of altering state owned parks usually draws outspoken activists on either end.

A plan to expand Mount Sunapee ski resort drew years of impassioned debate, and just last week got final sign-off from the Executive Council. Unlike Sunapee – run by a private company that leases land from the state – Cannon ski area is located in Franconia Notch State Park and operated by the state.

The mountain has made headlines several times over the last year – for the state audit, which also found little oversight over the mountain’s distribution of free ski passes, and a mid-mountain rescue.

Crews helped 48 people down from two aerial tram cars at Cannon, after they became stuck 40 feet above the mountain in February.

Cannon managers dismiss privatization.

“I don’t think it’s right,” said general manager John DeVivo. “You have a team in place up here that’s been doing a kick-ass job.”

State officials say the mountain is making improvements, and taking the audit seriously. Several bills making their way through the State House seek to address issues at Cannon.

One follows up on the audit findings, by tweaking how free passes are distributed. Another would let Cannon start charging seniors for weekday skiing. Currently, midweek ski passes for residents over age 65 are free, which officials say cuts into the ski area’s revenue. That’s a big deal, officials say, because revenue from Cannon helps fund the entire state parks system.

But some say privatizing the mountain would solve a lot of problems. They point to Sunapee privatization, which took place in the 1990s, as a major boom for the ski resort.

“Cannon ski visits have been largely flat, whereas Sunapee’s have grown remarkably,” Bradley said.

And growth at Sunapee has proven beneficial for Cannon. That’s because the lease payments the state gets from Sunapee are used to fund capital improvements at Cannon.

Over the last few years, the state has invested roughly $8 million in Cannon upgrades, according Commissioner Jeffrey Rose of the Department of Resources and Economic Development.

“Success at Sunapee helps fuel success at Cannon, which helps fuel the success of the parks system,” Rose said.

Opponents say privatizing removes the state financial risk, and would generate more money for the parks.

Which model is the best? That will be put the test over the coming years.

Spirited debate

Less than a year after the state adopted a budget, the Senate Finance chairwoman is trying to repeal part of it.

Republican Sen. Jeanie Forrester is proposing to eliminate a budget provision that penalizes the Liquor Commission if it doesn’t sell enough product. The commission is expected to bring in $143.6 million in revenue this year. But a March report showed the agency is already $1.8 million short of the state plan.

If Liquor can’t deliver on expectations, the budget requires the agency cut its expenditures by the same amount it falls short.

Forrester’s amendment would repeal that mandate, eliminating it before it ever takes effect.

“They are running a great operation, their revenue is up,” said Senate President Chuck Morse, a Salem Republican. “We don’t want to do anything like having to reduce employees, or advertising.”

Another open race

The Executive Council installed Jerry Little as the state’s new banking commissioner last week, and simultaneously opened up the Weare Republican’s state senate seat. It’s one that could help determine who controls the 24-member chamber next year. And candidates are already interested.

Morse says he has gotten calls from two Republicans interested in replacing Little, who represents District 8. John Garvey of New London has already filed a political committee “Garvey for NH Senate.” He didn’t return a call for comment.

Where were you?

At a bill signing for Medicaid expansion last week, Speaker Shawn Jasper drew heaps of praise. But the Hudson Republican was no where to be found.

In fact, very few Republicans attended the governor’s signing ceremony, even though the party’s legislators played a critical role getting the health care bill through the Republican-led Legislature.

Jasper broke a tie vote that proved key to the bill’s passage. But his absence from the celebration was no accident.

Many lawmakers in Jasper’s own party have been critical of his support for expanded Medicaid. It could prove a contentious issue if Republicans keep control of the House this election cycle and Jasper seeks another term as the speaker.

Democrats at odds

Gubernatorial candidate Colin Van Ostern went head-to-head with sitting Gov. Maggie Hassan last week. The Concord executive councilor opposed Hassan’s pick to lead the state’s banking department, and was the lone dissenter of a plan to expand the Mount Sunapee ski resort.

But it’s unlikely the opposition will cost him Hassan’s support in the coming months. The two Democrats shared campaign signs in the 2014 election cycle, but Hassan said Friday she won’t endorse any candidate in the primary to replace her.

Men in skirts

What’s one thing that draws bipartisan support? Scottish heritage. The House celebrated Tartan Day last week, and at least seven state representatives showed up in kilts.

Republican Rep. Eric Eastman organized a group photo. He wore a sword and a utility version of a kilt, which snaps together and isn’t made of yards and yards of fabric. “It fastens right on, you put on a big belt, and voila, you suddenly look Scottish.”

Eastman of Nashua was drawn to Scottish culture after going to the annual games. He is a little Scottish, but mostly English. And it’s a feisty combo.

“Seeing as they didn’t get along hundreds of years ago, that may not be so good,” he said.

What to watch

Wednesday is a big day for Concord. The Senate will hold public hearings on two bills that affect the city. One would let the State House open to visitors on the weekends and the other would allow the city to keep its courthouse downtown.

The first is up at 9:15 a.m. before the Executive Departments and Administration Committee and the other comes before the Capital Budget Committee at 3 p.m.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at amorris@ cmonitor.com.)




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