Traverse City Record-Eagle

February 17, 2014

Keeping Hickory Hills alive

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Shoehorned into a valley near the end of Randolph Street sits a place very close to Annie Hill’s heart.

“My dad is 83 years old, will be 84 this spring, and he learned to ski up there,” Hill said of the Hickory Hills Ski Area. “It means the world to local skiers.”

Hill skied there when she was young and her son spends many afternoons on the municipal park’s short slopes and tow ropes. It’s not Aspen or Whistler, yet its eight runs remain dotted with skiers and snowboarders every night.

And Hill is one of hundreds of people who’ve joined an effort to keep Hickory Hills open.

The hill, owned and operated by the City of Traverse City, struggles to make budgetary sense and has dodged the budget guillotine a few times in the past decade. The operation lost an average of $100,000 per year for the past several years, according to numbers cited by city officials during discussions about its fate last summer.

“Two years ago, I went to give input,” Hills said of previous discussions about closing the slopes. “My whole family was there, including my mom and my dad and my son.”

On Thursday evening a recreation consulting firm, the SE Group, will host another input session as part of its effort to construct a master plan proposal for Hickory Hills’ future. The company was hired last summer on a contract worth $32,000 to come up with prospective plans.

Half the money for the study came from the city while the other half was split between Garfield Township, the Grand Traverse Ski Club and an advocacy group called Preserve Hickory Hills.

The company’s report, including community input, is due this spring.

Meanwhile, Hickory Hills Manager Barry Smith continues to watch the ski area boom through one of its best seasons in his 14 years as its supervisor. Skiers who live in the city can buy steeply discounted day and season passes.

Smith said between 130 and 230 people hit the hills each night during the week. And 14,000 people have skied so far this year. Both Traverse City high schools use the runs as a practice facility for their ski teams.

The ski area opened all its trails before Christmas and saved significant amounts of money by not having to make much snow to keep its runs in shape.

Hill added that the 125 acres where the parkland sits may be prime real estate, but its quality of life value to Traverse City far outweighs the cost.

Anyone interested in talking to planners and seeing their latest presentation should go to the Governmental Center’s second floor training room Thursday evening. An open house begins at 5:30 p.m. with a presentation at 6:30 p.m. followed by discussion from 7-8 p.m.