Elimination of Free Senior Skiing Comes Under Fire at Cannon Forum
Three dozen people attended a Franconia forum in opposition to state management's proposal.
Friday, April 15, 2016, NewEnglandSkiIndustry.com
A contentious forum was held in Franconia on Thursday night, as Parks and Recreation Director Phillip Bryce and Cannon Mountain General Manager John DeVivo promoted legislation to end free senior skiing. About three dozen people attended the two hour meeting with many interruptions and heated words.
2015-16 Season and 2016 Off Season
The meeting started with a review of preliminary 2015-16 season results, with DeVivo stating, "[w]e're projected to finish the year in the red, no secret, I'm not going to lie to you there."
According to DeVivo, due to a "once in a generation type El Nino winter" in which snowfall was 40% below average, Cannon's revenue and visitation were down 33%, while operational expenses were down 1% from last year. Current projections call for a loss of well over a million dollars.
DeVivo also disclosed plans for additional General Fund spending, previously allocated from 2010, to improve Mittersill parking and add changing and rest rooms. According to Devivo, the Franconia Ski Club needs to raise $344,000 by June in order to install a new T-Bar at Mittersill. In addition, DeVivo will be requesting about $350,000 in new debt spending for roofing, septic and tram repairs.
New Hampshire Park System
After DeVivo's review of 2015-16, Bryce discussed the current state of the parks system. According to Bryce, while the parks are not required to be self-funded, "[e]very time we go to the budget, we don't get any General Funds, other than the capital funds, which are critical and they're extraordinarily supportive."
According to Bryce, there are 92 state parks, 37 of which have paid day use, and 25 of which have positive revenue. North Country parks are reportedly losing $488,000 per year.
Senate Bill 441
The Franconia meeting was prompted by Senate Bill 441, which has been passed by the Senate and is currently being reviewed by the House.
If signed into law, Senate Bill 441 would trigger RSA 216-A:3-g, which states, "[f]ees for the use of campgrounds and ski lifts shall be comparable with the fees for use of similar privately owned facilities."
The law would, based upon 2015-16 rates, allow Cannon's management to charge resident seniors up to $25 for midweek lift tickets and up to $50 for weekend lift tickets. Bryce and DeVivo both spoke in support of the SB 441 at the meeting.
According to Bryce, "The idea behind this bill is to have seniors pay something. That is what this is about." He went on to say the legislation gives management more flexibility and control, as "[t]he primary purpose of this bill is to move the setting of these fees into the fee package." DeVivo added, "I just honestly believe every user group should pay something."
Bryce, DeVivo, and legislators immediately came under fire for the stealth nature of their legislation.
"The only reason we're here is we saw it in the paper four days ago, that's when I first heard about it," said one member of the audience.
Another added, "[i]f you had had this meeting that you're having here tonight, two months ago, or a month ago, before the legislation had been introduced, we probably wouldn't even be standing here."
A visibly upset season pass holder asked, "[e]very senior should have been contacted by Cannon Mountain and told in an e-mail, you've got our e-mail addresses, God knows you've got a lot of information on us. Why didn't this get sent to every person who has a senior pass at Cannon Mountain?"
Representative Suzanne Smith (D-Hebron) testified that, "I contacted people in my area who I know ski Cannon and told them that this happening, they should come down and testify. Nobody came down. Not one person came down to that public hearing to testify against the bill. Not one."
A member of the audience then repeatedly shouted, "You're a loony!"
Representative Smith, who opposes the bill went on to say, "[a]s one of 20 people on the committee, not one person complained. I didn't get one letter, I didn't get one note, even after the bill, so that's why it came out of the Resources Committee with no opposition."
Representative Brad Bailey (R-Monroe) then spoke up, stating "I will apologize for not seeing it until Wednesday. But I worked my darndest to try to get this done and defeated on the floor, with all due respect to what it is you're trying to do."
DeVivo later attempted to redirect the discussion by asking, "How many folks in the room are as frustrated as I am that Cannon is frequently used as a political football?"
DeVivo then reaffirmed his support of SB 441 as "another step toward curbing the consistent, and some would say constant discussion about leasing the ski operations of Cannon Mountain." DeVivo added, "It's not Cannon's job or Cannon's place, now I've been here 9 years and I've heard this several dozen times from legislators and whatnot, we don't set policy, we don't decide what the state's philosophy is regarding whether or not we're in the ski business, we're just damn happy we are in the ski business."
Representative Leon Rideout (R - Lancaster) responded by voicing his opposition to the bill, stating, "[s]ince this bill come to the House floor, I've had about ten representatives come to me and say, 'Why is the state in the ski business?' This has opened Pandora's Box again. You've submitted a bill and you've opened yourself up."
State Senate Sponsor Under Fire
North Country State Senator Jeff Woodburn (D-Dalton), one of the sponsors of SB 441, was not in attendance, which resulted in many angry comments.
"Our State Senator was one of the sponsors of the bill. There's a very big disconnect between the sentiment of the community, the people he represents, and the bill he's put forward."
"I'm really upset at Mr. Woodburn. I voted for him, and anyone else who voted for this bill, I'm going to be very upset for, they may not get my vote next time."
"I suggest that each of you e-mail Jeff Woodburn, be very nice about it, ask him what's he's doing in the next term of office, let him know your dissatisfaction, and let him know that we're upset that he failed to communicate with us, so we could attend hearings, or at least make our voice heard earlier in this process."
"I'm disappointed with Senator Woodburn for the bill and with his inability to reach out to his constituents. He didn't show up. I think that tells us a lot."
Opposition to Proposed Senior Prices
"I believe as a business manager, and as a guy who is hell bent on maintaining state ownership and operation of Cannon Mountain in Franconia Notch State Park, that every user group should pay something," stated DeVivo.
Presently, New Hampshire residents may receive a free lift ticket Monday thru Friday, or pay a $39 processing fee for a free midweek season pass. The weekend senior lift ticket was $53. According to state management, the value of the New Hampshire resident senior free and discounted lift tickets is $160,500 per year. The law would, based upon 2015-16 rates, allow Cannon's management to charge resident seniors up to $25 for midweek lift tickets and up to $50 for weekend lift tickets.
"Simply put, if you don't want to pay $25 a day, pay $39 for the season, as a New Hampshire senior midweek pass," stated DeVivo.
With discussion erupting in the audience, DeVivo added, "[n]ext year, at this time, what we've talked about would be like $139, if you consider $100 plus a $39 processing fee. It's a year's notice."
When asked by an audience member if any other group receives free passes, DeVivo responded, "not a one." DeVivo added, "[t]he Tram and the Flume will remain free midweek for New Hampshire seniors," to which an audience member shot back, "[t]hat's not what the wording says."
Another audience member added, "[y]ou do give out a lot of free things." A recent audit revealed that Cannon was unable to provide auditors with the list of recipients of over half a million dollars of free or discounted season passes in 2014.
Another audience member voiced his displeasure over other groups receiving special privileges, stating, "[i]n terms of people getting special treatment, I was told by a coach of the Holderness team that these kids who go to Holderness for like forty to fifty thousand dollars a year, they're well to do wealthy families from out of state, they get the same price for a season ticket as a local kid from Profile. That's what I was told. That doesn't seem right to me. These are wealthy kids from prep schools."
DeVivo responded, "I'll look into the Holderness issue. It is based purely on residence, so I'll check into that."
Charge Others Instead
Multiple attendees suggested the parks department look elsewhere to generate funds instead of charging seniors.
"I just feel that if the state really needs money, maybe you should be charging people from the southern part of the state more and keep the local Grafton, Coos County free."
"You know as well as I do that there are 600 parking spaces there in Franconia Notch State Park that are free, absolutely free. If the Division of Parks needs money, it should how they can get some revenue from those free parking spaces."
"If you put up Iron Rangers and you could build yourself some decent parking areas and actually manage that, you could make enough money to do some of those things."
Representative Smith warned the crowd, "[w]hen I go down and I have conversations about skiing for free at 65 at Cannon down in the southern part of the state, down in Sunapee, down in areas like that, I get beat up. You need to know that they see that as a perk for living in Franconia."
Others did not agree.
"We made the sacrifice in moving up here, knowing we wouldn't be earning the income that we would in the southern part of the state, and so now, that was part of my package for thinking about retiring, is thinking I'll be able to ski free, because I don't need any other entertainment."
"I know people in this community who have come close to losing their housing, but they go up there and they ski, and it's a great emotional thing for people to be able to do, to be able to go outside and do that, some of them can't even walk very well, but they go up there and they ski darned good."
Others pointed to free skiing as a life goal.
"Since I was 30, my goal in life was to ski for free at Cannon."
"That light at the end of the tunnel is being devalued. This bill is nothing but a slippery slope."
"It's not so much the money, it's what people look forward to."
"I think this is ill advised and I think you're moving the goal posts on retirees."
Others suggested it was discrimination.
"Seniors are getting screwed!"
"If you're going to target seniors, then you're going to target everyone, or you're being very discriminatory."
"There's been a bond between the resident and the state park system, and I think that economic development is destroying that bond when we have to talk about balancing a budget or gaining revenue at the expense of senior citizens."
"The state is saying, 'Oh, let's get exercise, but you're gonna be penalized because you're living longer."
Others blamed the legislature.
"The bottom line is was have fiscal cowards in Concord that do not fund a parks system."
"I think it's lunacy and the Legislature should be ashamed of themselves."
"I just don't think there's any need to take this perk away from the seniors of this state that we've had since the 1970s. I think it's dead wrong."
Others pointed at Cannon.
"You're shooting your brand in the foot."
"I respectfully suggest that you need to rethink this, JD."
"This all turns me off from wanting to spend any extra money at Cannon."
Others started talking about skiing elsewhere.
"Bretton Woods is looking better and better."
"If I have to buy a season pass, I'll probably buy it at Loon. My goal every year is to ski before Christmas. This year I finally got in before New Year's. I took one run and I was done. As hard as you work, and the great job you've done, it's not Loon. The conditions at Loon are perfect. They've been perfect right up to the day they closed. If I had to buy a season pass, I wouldn't buy it here."
"A lot of people who used to ski Cannon are now skiing Bretton Woods. I know, I'm over there, I see them, they're my neighbors, and there are going to be more people over at Bretton Woods if you do this."
The next House committee hearing for SB 441 is scheduled for April 21.