February 15, 2012CONCORD — From state officials to Franconia-area residents, opposition to Senate Bill 217 had a strong showing last week in Concord, at least 5 to 1.
A state Senate committee heard testimony on a bill proposed by Sen. Jeb Bradley (R-Wolfeboro), which proposes a name change and veterans' memorial for Franconia Notch State Park, in addition to opening the door to the leasing of Cannon Mountain. It also tackles erosion on the Mittersill Mountain side of Cannon Mountain, cleanup from construction of a chair lift a year and a half ago, and it seeks to create two hiking corridors on ski trails.
The bill was proposed in early January and amended in the beginning of February to require that the Department of Resources and Economic Development (DRED) solicit requests for information (RFIs) from any private entity interested in Cannon Mountain. At first, SB217 required DRED to develop a lease agreement and solicit RFIs from potential lessors every two years until a lease agreement was executed.
During his presentation, Bradley acknowledged the interest that his bill has stirred up — especially among opponents.
"I understand there's a lot of passion in this room," he said. "I think we all love Cannon Mountain … It is the jewel of our state park system."
While everyone at Thursday's hearing couldn't seem to agree more with that statement, there were very different views on how to show that love.
The most contentious portion of the bill calls for what some people say is an invitation to lease Cannon to a private entity.
Bradley defended the clause as a two-step process that doesn't authorize leasing, but explores the state's options. Sunapee Mountain's apparent success as a state-owned property that leased to a private entity was given as an example of why the option should be looked into for Cannon.
"To not incorporate that kind of information into any discussion about whether it's in the public interest or whether it's not in the public interest to go forward doesn't make sense," said Bradley. "By creating this process, the goal here is transparency for full public input."
The first step has DRED seeking RFIs from potential lessors, and the second step allows the general court to authorize a Cannon lease agreement request for proposals.
This isn't the first time that leasing Cannon Mountain has been discussed. A few other bills have been proposed in the past four or five years, and it's an issue that hangs over the ski area's employees.
"I almost feel that when they have a veterans' rate at Cannon, that they ought to have a special rate for the veterans of the Cannon Mountain leasing issue," said Rep. Judith Spang, who opposes the bill. "It's getting old. I do think that it's a tremendous amount of time and energy out of the department to have to keep addressing this issue over and over."
John DeVivo, general manager of Cannon Mountain and the surrounding park, said he can't point to a specific time or project that has been affected by the leasing issue, because "our entire operation has always been directly affected."
"There's a perception of instability that's been created and/or perpetuated out there, when in fact there's no instability whatsoever in how we operate," he said after the hearing. "There have been instances in which we've had project requests or pricing matrices stalled … and the team has been asking and answering questions about this issue for as long as anyone can remember."
"Meanwhile, our job is to run a great ski area and New Hampshire's flagship state park, and we do it well, despite having this issue remain so prevalent," he continued. Many of the staff members are involved in park operations year-round and aren't ski area specific.
DRED Commissioner George Bald said that before the current general manager was hired and the mountain was doing poorly, he met with Franconia and Littleton businesses owners. They told him they didn't need someone else to run the ski area, but they needed the ski area to be run well. That, opponents of the bill argue, is exactly what DeVivo has been doing.
The mountain has had to act like it's in the private sector, while still being under government constraints. Sen. John Gallus, who is on the committee looking at the bill, questioned whether the state was hampering the mountain's success too much, but Bald said he felt that whenever something really needed to be done, it got done.
DeVivo said that he and his management team have created a blueprint for how to rebuild a midsize ski area and have once again made the mountain a "major factor in New Hampshire skiing and snowboarding."
Changes in management, a close eye on the budget, an improved marketing push, better grooming and snowmaking, additional programs and activities, and renovations and expansions have added much more to skiers' experience.
While there were arguments for how Cannon Mountain is a drain on taxpayers — and one speaker pointed out that both sides of the leasing issue could come up with their own supporting numbers — DeVivo said that the ski area finished fiscal year 2011 with nearly $1.2 million in surplus. According to him, an operating deficit of $1.49 million was eliminated in four years and Cannon averages more than 35 percent of the Division of Parks and Recreation's total annual revenue.
Franconia Selectman Richard McLeod also let the senators know that the town is concerned with not having any input and the bill is in conflict with its master plan. Foremost, says a letter signed by all three selectman, is the fact that the plan recognizes that 71.55 percent of the land in Franconia is state or federally owned.
"The state and federal government should work closely with the town and vice versa on decisions about the area," states the master plan. However, that has not been done, said the selectmen.
Rep. Kathleen Taylor said that leasing the area to a private entity would place an "unfair burden on New Hampshire residents."
A Nod to Veterans?
Many speakers last Thursday said they felt that there were too many pieces to the bill — and some even went so far as to say that they felt it was especially wrong to combine the veterans proposal with the leasing issue.
SB217 calls for the park to be renamed Franconia Notch Veterans Memorial State Park and charges the commissioner of DRED to change all of the signage and markers needed throughout. Originally all of that was to be done on the state's dime, but the amendment changes that and New Hampshire would only be responsible for approving the designs, construction and installations.
Secondly, the proposal requires DRED to consult with veterans groups that "may draft a plan for construction" of a memorial "in the overflow parking area adjacent to and south of Cannon Mountain tramway base station." Other than approving a plan, DRED's responsibility would be landscaping around the memorial as "all other costs for construction and operation of the memorial shall be funded through private donations." It also would authorize volunteers to relocate the Kinsman Ridge trailhead around the site of the memorial.
"Given the prominence of this park, the accessibility of this park, and the sacrifice [that veterans have made] … it's appropriate to return Franconia Notch State Park to its original heritage and purpose by renaming it and … establishing a veterans' memorial," said Bradley.
However, the concept got a cool reception on Thursday, though many in the room were veterans themselves or had family members who served or are serving in the military. Those familiar with the state's history and the park system have pointed out that the entire park is already a living memorial to war veterans. In the 1920s it was dedicated and a plaque is in place along the shores of Profile Lake.
"I think even the veterans are feeling like this is excessive," said Spang.
Officials with DRED and the park said that while they were supportive of a memorial, renaming the park was taking the issue a step too far.
Bald pointed to the costs associated with changing not only all of the needed signage inside and outside the park, but also maps and other smaller items that will add up.
"I recognize that Sen. Bradley is looking to pay respects to our veterans and I am very appreciative … but I think we can do so not necessarily by renaming the park, but by establishing a very fitting memorial that has a lot more attention and is certainly in harmony with the aesthetics of the park," said Bald, who added that he served in the U.S. Navy from 1969 to 1972.
"Changing the name would be cumbersome, confusing and expensive," agreed Dick Hamilton, who is president of the Old Man of the Mountain Legacy Fund.
Erosion Control and Cleanup
Another portion of Bradley's bill calls on DRED to develop a plan to mitigate erosion he identified as having been caused by chair lift installation on the Mittersill Mountain side of Cannon Mountain. There also is a clause seeking to clean up debris left behind from the construction.
Bald and DeVivo said that those issues would be addressed as soon as practical. Special care will have to be given to not disturb Bicknell's thrushes, which nest in the area from mid-May until the end of July.
Hiking on Ski Trails
Bradley also wants to see DRED plan two hiking corridors on ski trails in order to give people more access to different areas of the mountain. The first would go over the Mittersill Mountain summit and include the Taft slalom ski trail; the second would connect the Cannon Mountain and Mittersill Mountain summits.
DeVivo said that the park is in support of a primary hiking corridor, however, he wouldn't support mixing skiers and hikers in the wintertime, and wildlife habitat issues would need to be considered. In addition to the Bricknell's thrushes, the bear population is fairly big in that area.
For more information on Cannon Mountain, visit http://www.cannonmt.com/.