March 05, 2014FRANCONIA — Forty residents joined four members of the House of Representatives and state Parks and Recreation Commissioner Phil Bryce at the town hall last Wednesday evening. Cannon Mountain pricing for seniors was the topic under discussion.
Senate Bill 190, which did pass the Senate, would change pricing rules for admission to state parks. The legislation would end free weekday skiing for senior citizens at Cannon, the town's iconic state-run ski area. Residents at the two-hour meeting, including some who have skied at Cannon for decades, are concerned the bill could negatively affect the culture of the mountain.
Free weekday senior skiing at Cannon has existed under state law for 40 years. Seniors are charged a lift fee on weekends and holidays.
Franconia's two House members, Republican Brad Bailey and Democrat Rebecca Brown, were at last week's meeting. Sue Ford, an Easton Democrat was another attendee. She sits on the House Finance Committee.
Grafton-8 Representative Suzanne Smith also attended the meeting. The Hebron Democrat is Vice Chairman of the House Resources, Recreation, and Development Committee, which has jurisdiction over SB190.
In January, SB190 was tabled in the House. This means the bill will not be considered, at least for now. In their support of tabling SB190, Brown and Bailey were concerned that the House had not received input from area residents who would be affected by the pricing scheme.
Bryce provided an overview of the issue prior to questions from the audience. He suggested the senior skiing perk at Cannon does not align with pricing elsewhere.
Bryce's presentation provided fee data for several other state ski areas. Bretton Woods, Attitash, Waterville Vally, and Loon do not provide free weekday skiing to all seniors, Bryce noted. Waterville Valley and Loon do offer free skiing all week only for those who are 80 years of age and older.
"We need to behave like the marketplace," Bryce suggested. "Now is the time to do that."
Smith found virtue in Bryce's ideas. "Nobody gets the benefit that those over 65 get" at Cannon, she said.
Cannon's General Manager John DeVivo reminded meeting attendees of the mountain's need for revenue. DeVivo said Cannon must ensure sufficient funds to make operational improvements. With costs at about $5.8 million, DeVivo said, "This is not cheap."
Cannon has made millions of dollars in infrastructure investment in recent years, including major expansion of snowmaking.
Easton's Roy Stever said he has skied at Cannon since 1958. He suggested the state's ski areas draw different segments of the population, and asked how the state viewed the senior demographic. Steve Monsein from Sugar Hill said older skiers are "bringing business to the mountain." Another commenter added that seniors are part of "the spirit of the mountain."
Although SB190 would increase costs for senior skiers, Bryce said he did not want price to become a barrier for people. "We don't want to be discouraging people from coming to parks because of cost," he said. After that comment, Stever acknowledged that the decision on pricing entailed some "hard realities."
DeVivo recognized the importance of older skiers. He called the mountain's seniors "a core of our business." Bryce added that state parks view older people as "very, very important." However, he continued, Cannon needs to be "tied to the marketplace" to ensure the mountain was "behaving like other ski areas."
Bailey was one person who was concerned about the state's view of Cannon as a business. "Be very, very careful with that," Bailey requested. Too much of a focus on being like private ski areas raises the specter of Cannon's privatization, Bailey suggested.
Ford added that Cannon, and the entirety of Franconia Notch State Park, are "the crux of our community." She requested residents stay active in keeping track of potential legislative changes to Cannon's operations. "If you have issues, let us know," she said to the meeting attendees.
A vote at the end of the meeting let the present officials know the perspective of the residents in attendance. Brown asked for a show of hands from those who supported a House vote on SB190. Not a single attendee liked the idea of taking SB190 off the table. As long as the bill is stuck in its current legislative limbo, it won't go anywhere.
Another portion of SB190 would end a separate perk: free admission to state parks for elected officials and their staff. That part of the bill was not discussed at last week's meeting.