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Joyce Endee

Cannon Mountain privatization on table again

Bill before Senate Finance Committee

May 05, 2011
CONCORD—The seeming perennial question whether or not the operation of Cannon Mountain should be privatized has arisen again, with the proposed modification of a bill originally by a staunch opponent of privatization.

Last Thursday the Senate Finance Committee met to get public input about a proposal to modify HB 74, sponsored by Kathy Taylor, a Democrat from Franconia. The original bill was written to set the rates for skiing fees and passes on Cannon Mountain. The proposed modification would allow a private company to manage the ski area and pay a lease to the state, similar to the current arrangement at Mount Sunapee. That lease brings in between $400,000 to $500,000 annually.

The proposal by committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Morse is far from a done deal and was only brought forward early last week. Most people—even Taylor—did not know the committee was discussing the bill until Wednesday, just the day before.

Taylor, long an opponent of privatization, said the irony of using her bill to put the idea forward was not lost on her, though she noted it was not directed at her personally. The bill was used because it was germane to the issue and already dealt with Cannon Mountain, though in a far different way.

Around 30 people attended Thursday's hearing and about eight testified. None spoke in favor of privatization.

Cannon Mountain General Manager John Devivo said that from a purely numbers, business based perspective it makes no sense to privatize management of the ski area. This year Cannon Mountain made a profit of over $1 million after paying off the remainder of its debt.

Though the mountain was losing money before Devivo took it over in 2007, it has since made money every year, with more than $1 million profit this year, twice that brought in by the Mount Sunapee lease.

"We are self-sustaining," Devivo said.

As far as having a private company manage the mountain, Devivo asked which company that would be, noting that 12 companies that own ski resorts in New England have changed hands in the four years since he took over. He said he didn't believe they would do a better job than is being done at Cannon Mountain right now. The discussion to privatize the mountain would only hurt Cannon, he said. It would take several years for any proposed privatization to go into effect and noted Gov. John Lynch opposes privatization. In the meanwhile all the fighting and publicity would affect trying to market the ski area to skiers.

He noted Cannon is part of the larger Franconia Notch State Park, with employees working for both. It would be hard to separate the ski area from the rest of the park.

Sen. John Gallus, a Republican from Berlin, is on the Finance Committee and is the District 1 senator, which includes Cannon Mountain. He said that in this tough budget year everything is on the table to try and save the state money. The budget recently passed by the House made some deep cuts into human services and if there is a way to lessen those cuts, he is all for that.

Gallus acknowledged that Devivo has done an excellent job of running Cannon but he is looking at the long term and it may not always be so profitable. Though he didn't have exact figures available, he wasn't sure if Devivo's figures are entirely accurate.

Gallus said right now he is still examining all the numbers concerning privatization but is open to the idea.

Rusty Bulis, a Republican from Littleton, said he is opposed to the idea of privatizing Cannon Mountain. If it wasn't making money there might be an argument for it but not now. It is currently self-sustaining, he said.

"In the past the marketing let the mountain down and didn't bring skiers," Bulis said. "It is a profitable park and we need to keep it to support the less profitable parks."

From a business standpoint Bulis thinks Cannon isn't ripe for privatization because it is surrounded by state park land. There is no nearby land ready for the development that would go with privatization and promoting the ski areas.

If Cannon ever starts losing money again he would be willing to revisit the idea of privatization but it doesn't make sense now, he said.

The Senate Finance Committee is expected to vote on the proposal within a week. It would then go to the entire Senate before being sent back to the House.

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