FRANCONIA NOTCH — Gov. Chris Sununu and other state officials anticipate making a major financial and tourism-related decision in the next several months that would affect the state-owned and operated Cannon Mountain Ski Area in Franconia Notch State Park.
Longtime park and ski area general manager John “J.D.” DeVivo laid out the options being considered at the July 14 meeting of the governor and Executive Council hosted by District 1 Executive Councilor Joe Kenney of Wakefield at the ski area’s Peabody Lodge.
Many on hand at the meeting rode up the Aerial Tramway to enjoy a soup-and-sandwich lunch.
Three options are already being discussed: 1) refurbishing and upgrading the existing 80-passenger Tram II; 2) replacing this aging tram with a brand-new one designed to carry 100 passengers; and 3) scrapping the tram entirely and replacing it with a multi-gondola lift system, similar to one recently installed at the Bretton Woods Ski Area, off Route 302.
“Franconia Notch State Park is widely regarded as one of the finest in the nation and serves as a flagship park and subregion within our system,” DeVivo pointed out. “Note that while our ski area operates from late November through mid to late April, the Aerial Tramway actually serves our guests during both of our operating seasons, running daily from late May through late October and four days a week (for skiers and snowboarders).
“During the summer months, we typically host between 100,000 to 120,000 guests, and during the winter months 45,000 to 55,000 guests,” he said.
DeVivo traced the state-funded tramway’s history from its conception in 1933 to its dedication in June 1938; the first in North America. When retired in 1980, it had transported over 6 million passengers.
Tram II was conceived in 1965, authorized by the Legislature in 1977 and licensed in February 1980. It has transported nearly 10 million passengers.
“The tram’s an iconic ski lift at Cannon Mountain, but its true value lies not in its winter role, where it’s one of 11 lifts, but in its status as a primary source of revenue — and wonder — during the spring, summer and fall …it isn’t just a ride but an experience,” DeVivo said.
As always, the cost is a significant factor that must be weighed when capital budget projects are being vetted. “The aerial tramway operation costs approximately $350,000 a year to operate, including labor and standard maintenance, and it generates approximately $2 million in direct summer revenue,” DeVivo said.
The Tram also drives other year-round revenue-boosting visits to the park and ski area that they wouldn’t otherwise see, he said, including Flume Gorge visits, hiker visits and Echo Lake boat rentals.
The aerial tramway’s COVID-19-caused shutdown, which lasted from March 14, 2020, to May 28, 2021, not only created a $1.5 million loss in tram ticket sales but also cost at least another $1 million in lost revenues within the park, estimated DeVito.
The original tramway was built for about $250,000 and ran for 40 years, thanks to a cutting-edge maintenance program. The second one was built for about $5 million and has operated for 40 years, thanks to a highly technical maintenance program.
“We typically spend $100,000 to $500,000 annually on maintenance and upgrades, depending on the component system,” the general manager said. “We’ve been engaged for some time in thoughtful discussion regarding our future options with Doppelmayr of Austria (with two offices in Europe and two in the U.S.).”
“The most immediate need is to replace the tram’s current primary systems, such as the two cars themselves, the hanger arms, the carriage trolleys, the electromechanical componentry, and the motor and braking systems, at a cost of approximately $10 million. Each of these systems has a remaining lifespan of three to five years,” DeVivo said. Doppelmayr recommends that the concrete at the tower bases be thoroughly inspected and that the steel superstructure be repainted, potentially representing another $1 – $2 million.
“The second option is to replace the entire tram system at a cost of approximately $20 million,” DeVivo said, emphasizing that this figure is an estimate based on enlarging each car’s size to 100 passengers. “This option would give us a totally new system and a great start on a new 40- to 50-year legacy but at twice the cost.”
The first option would provide new primary systems and an estimated 20 years of solid operation, DeVivo stated, thanks to ever-improving maintenance programs.
“The first option would likely also cost us revenue in both a summer and a winter season, while at a full rebuild would likely take the better part of two calendar years,” DeVito pointed out.
The tramway structures at both the base and summit could possibly be reused, but the lodge facilities are showing their age and need refurbishment and modernizing. The Design, Development and Maintenance office of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources has started looking at options and costs.
DeVivo has concerns about replacing the tramway with a gondola system designed to increase overall passenger capacity. “We and our partners at Doppelmayr believe that our ability to operate a system with such small individual cabins would be severely hampered by our weather systems at between 3,000 and 4,000 feet,” he said. Rime ice, DeVivo explained, is generated during most months of the year, requiring the weight of the tram cars and sets of brass wheels to break the ice off the track cables.
“Additionally, we here at Cannon simply don’t believe that a gondola offers nearly the same level of family and group experience that makes the tram such a beloved feature and fixture within the park,” said the park manager who’s held that post for 14 years.
In a brief one-on-one interview, Gov. Sununu said that he expected that a decision would likely be made in the relatively near future. Federal dollars for infrastructure and other capital projects are now flowing into New Hampshire. There will be a number of people who are involved in making capital budget decisions whose advice will be sought, the governor said, including Department of Administrative Services Commissioner Charlie Arlinghaus and staff.