Traverse City News and Events

Inside Look at New Hickory Hills Master Plan

June 9, 2014

A long-awaited, multi-season recreational master plan for Hickory Hills Ski Area will be unveiled tonight at a joint session of the Traverse City commission and Garfield Township board of trustees -- and The Ticker has a preview.

The plan – the result of a $32,000 study commissioned by the city of Traverse City, Garfield Township, Grand Traverse Ski Club and Preserve Hickory – synthesizes feedback from multiple community input sessions and surveys with operational benchmarks from ski resorts across the Midwest to provide detailed recommendations for improving the city-owned facility. The plan was created by consulting firm SE Group.

Chief among residents' priorities were seeing “that Hickory Hills maintain its natural character,” keeping “the facility affordable for public use” and enhancing the park's “facility and recreational resources.” Locals also expressed a desire for a “broader diversity in winter and summer offerings,” including expanded programming and events.

The report recommends two primary plans, entitled Winter Concept A and Winter Concept B. Concept A, which comes with an estimated $4.3 million price tag, proposes modifications to the existing park, including the “modest expansion of surface lifts and trails,” remodeling the site's ski lodge, expanding the ski terrain and snowshoe trails, and adding a snow tubing or sledding hill with a warming hut.

Concept B, estimated to cost $5.3 million, retains several of those recommendations along with more dramatic upgrades, including construction of a new two-story ski lodge with park views and an outdoor deck (preserving the former lodge for “historical architectural nostalgia”), installing new surface lifts, reconfiguring parking and drop-off areas and enhancing learning and recreational terrain.

“Concept B takes a fresh look at the park and establishes a new center or 'heart' for Hickory Hills,” the report details. “(It) also has the potential to build a stronger connection with Hickory Meadows due to the location of the facilities.” Included in both plans are “recommended opportunities for summer” including site enhancements like picnic facilities, restrooms and trail signage; new mountain biking trails; an aerial challenge course and/or climbing wall; and summer camps and sporting events.

Critical to both plans is making Hickory Hills – currently subsidized by the city at an annual $100,000 loss – financially self-sustaining. The report notes that at 2,310 square-feet, the park's ski lodge (measured against industry norms of 5,700-7,190 square-feet) limits usage and omits key revenue-making opportunities like equipment rentals, food/beverage service and retail sales.

Pursuing Concept A could increase average annual ski visits at the park from 12,500 to 15,120 and generate estimated annual revenue of $715,000, the report projects. Concept B could increase ski visits to 16,128 and generate $821,500, with full food and beverage options accounting for the additional income.

So how would either of the proposed plans be funded? SE Group notes “bonding is a logical opportunity,” but cautions that even with attractive terms, “the debt service would outpace the improved net operating income.” The consultants conclude instead that if the community were to invest an initial $1.1 million for Concept A or $1.8 million for Concept B, the remaining costs could be covered by bonding and “Hickory Hills as an overall enterprise could become self-sustaining.” (During a projected 15-year bond period, the park would operate at “essentially a breakeven,” then become cash-positive in year 16.)

The report also notes that “implementation of the Master Plan will be most effective if smaller projects requiring less capital are phased to work towards the overarching goal.”. A fall city ballot proposal to use Brown Bridge Trust Fund dollars to improve area parks could also provide funding opportunities for Hickory, according to Commissioner Gary Howe.

“It's certainly a big project that could also be open to outside money, which is a good combination to have,” says Howe, who says he could foresee the city possibly pursuing “a mix” of the two proposed park concepts. “The next step is to look at the details...and start putting some teeth to it. People really value [Hickory Hills], so if we can find some ways to invest in it, it'll be that much better of an asset to the city.”

To view the full Hickory Hills Master Plan, click here

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