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The payback of our municipally owned ski-hill

November 13, 2012 12 comments

Thank you

Tuesday crank: Hickory Hills

Listening to the City Commission last night discuss Hickory Hills operation as if all it is a drain on the City budget was frustrating. Of course, there was the sentimental call to maintain the hill, someway, somehow, but focusing on the idea that the City must do so solely by making up $70,000+/- it spends on the Hill’s operation per year is short-sighted.

Left out of the discussion is any recognition of the economic impact the recreational program has on the City. It’s as if this service, and this service alone, needs to somehow break even or make a profit. Yet, no other city service does; directly, at least. Indirectly,  all of them contribute to the economic well-being of our community including the municipal owned and operated ski hill.

Using gross generalizations and an economic impact equation from famed parks and recreation expert John Crompton, we can get a rough guesstimation of the economic reasons the City Commission’s approach has been anything but business like–the truth of the matter is, they have spent little effort evaluating the economic impact of Hickory Hills.

Here’s the equation:

(Number of visitors) X (Avg. spending per visitor) X (multiplier) = ROI 

The first two numbers we have throughout the history of the hill. The multiplier represents the ripple effect of monetary exchanges (and, in advanced studies, saved) through the community and for our low-budget purposes is best used in a range. I’d say the multiplier is safely be between 3 and 10. This represents the fact that people who ski at Hickory Hills also purchase things directly related to the activity, go out to dinner as part of the activity, pay coaches and trainers, and pay higher real estate prices to live in a community with such a unique opportunity.  In addition, this equation could also include the hundreds of volunteer hours and thousands of dollars donated to the hill through the Grand Traverse Ski Club and other sources.

Using numbers from 2009, and erring on the conservative side because this math is taking place on only one cup of coffee, this equates to a return on investment in the community of  between a quarter and 3 quarters of a million dollars. That is real money, circulating in the community, and a chunk of it coming back to the Government Center on Boardman Ave., someway, somehow. I also think this is far too low and that the real number is much higher.

Real Numbers

Recently the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce and Traverse Bay Area Youth Soccer released a regional economic impact study of two soccer tournaments (PDF) held in the region. The direct spending that occurs from these tournaments in the region over two weekends totals $3.4 million dollars. For comparison, the total annual budget for parks and recreation in the entire region (including all townships, villages, the City, and Grand Traverse County) is $3.7 million. A small portion of that $3.7m investment is in soccer fields that generate almost an equal amount of economic activity in just two weekends.

The City Commission needs to change the discussion of Hickory Hills from how much it is costing us, to what are the gains we can achieve by operating a valued recreational opportunity. Or, what we will lose if the political will isn’t there to keep it open.

The money in recent years spent on a tubing run concept would have been better spent working with the Chamber on running some numbers on the true impact of the place.  In the end, it still might not be worth $70,000, but is it worth $50,000? $40,000? We don’t know until someone seriously looks at the numbers.

The ‘solution’ may still include a third-party taking over the operations, but we should do so realizing that it is still a valuable, both socially and economically, asset to the community.

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NOTE: As of yesterday I served as chairperson of the City’s Parks and Recreation Commission. Last night, the City Commission appointed me to Planning Commission where, albeit in a different role, I still plan on being an advocate for sensible investment in our public spaces.  

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How do you want your city to treat people on foot?

April 26, 2012 1 comment

…it is greatly appreciated._

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Construction-zone blues

Below is an email I sent to the City yesterday concerning the construction zone at Midtown along Cass St. I did receive a reply confirming that the situation would be addressed. Something to keep an eye on. 

UPDATE 3pm: It appears that the City went for the less desirable “detour” solution (TwitPic)–underperforming on north approach, but trying to meet the standard. Moving on. 

UPDATE II 3:30PM 04.27.1012: Upon further review, a diversion upgrade (TP). Thank you City! 

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To City Engineering and Planning,

I’m trying not to complain, so let me attempt to frame this email as simply a description of how I’d like to see my city treat people who happen to choose to move around on foot. Using, of course, a current issue as an example.

Sidewalk closed, you're on your own

The construction at Midtown necessitates a closing of the sidewalk along Cass St. for safety purposes. I understand that. However, I fail to see where basic consideration for pedestrian traffic through this construction zone has taken place. There is a sign, at the closure, that simply says, “side-walk closed.” No detour. No alternate route. The allowance of parking along this edge compounds the problem by obscuring the view of someone attempting to navigate around.

When I attempted to walk in the street around the construction, I was almost clipped as I stepped out and around an SUV that was blocking my view. I can only imagine what it would be like if I was in a wheelchair or otherwise less agile than I am.

Is this the worst place in the world? No. Can this construction zone be improved? Most definitely.

Preferred diversion

I scribbled a simple solution that I’ve seen countless times in other cities. It attempts to maintain the original path as much as possible (which is something I’d like to see in my City) and can be made wheelchair accessible with a few sheets of plywood or other solution. The orange barriers are exactly that, orange barriers. You can charge the developer to bag the meters (4 spaces*), so there is no loss of revenue.

The result, uninterrupted walkability that encourages, rather than discourages the most basic form of transportation known to humans.

I continue to believe that as a City we can do better and the hopeful thing is that to achieve better, all we really need to do is follow the basic guidelines in the Federal and Michigan MUTCD.

Thank you for continued hard-work on behalf of the City.

Sincerely,

Gary

* The parking meters are already bagged and are reserved for the work-crew on site. 

The two standard options, neither of which were followed:

Related: 

A new generation of citizens represents for Hickory Hills

April 24, 2012 1 comment

Give, you’re designed to, and it is greatly appreciated._

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New citizens, out in force

Concerned citizens listening to the City Manager present his proposed budget. 

The operation of the ski program at Hickory Hills appears to be saved, for now. Each member of the City Commission expressed a strong interest in maintaining the investment for the coming fiscal year at last night’s study session.

It became clear during the discussion that the final budget to be approved by June 4th will not look exactly like the City Manager’s proposed budget (MW), but given the time-crunch for alternatives it will largely remain intact. An idea resurfaced to restructure the fire department (RE), but it isn’t clear that there is enough time this year for that to solve the gap to pass a balanced budget. Those discussions will continue over the next month.

Building off of the expressed commitment by the City Commissioners to Hickory Hills, interested parties like the Grand Traverse Ski Club will continue to be very active in finding agreeable solutions long-term. There has long been a desire to form a regional authority to manage the program for the City, but in order for that to happen there needs to be a commitment by the City to support the energy, time, and investment needed to begin giving shape to the idea. Last night might have been a catalyst for that. As well, some unsure but fairly easy suggestions were made last night to better spread the cost across the regional townships–about 50% of the users are not City residents, and there is interest among some for more regional contribution.

What is needed from the current City Commissioner is a number. What is the annual investment they are willing to put towards the recreational program? If $80-$90 thousand is too high, then what about $60,000? $50,000? If the public knew what level was acceptable to this commission, realistic alternatives to assist the City would be, if not easier, at least be tangible.

There is work to be done. From the crowd last night, those that are interested are certainly engaged and mobilized. If you’d like to join them, you can contact the Preserve Hickory Hills group through Facebook or contact the Grand Traverse Ski Club. You are also encouraged to continue to contact your City Commissioners and let them know what you are willing to contribute to the maintaining Hickory Hills.

As frequent user of the hill, Enrico Schaefer, said at the podium last night:

“It’s about keeping it open. We will help you, but that has to be the mandate. Let us help you keep Hickory Hills open.”

They’ve expressed an interest in preserving it, let’s show them how.

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How important is Hickory Hills to you?

April 23, 2012 5 comments

Give, you’re designed to, and it is greatly appreciated._

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NOTE: Tonight’s City Commission Study Session isn’t expected to reveal any results. But, the discussion around the budget will likely dominate the time. However, I’d like to point out that also on the agenda is an update on costs and recommendations for addressing Division St. Review of that later this week, but a break down is at the Complete Streets Coalition (GV) website and tonight’s packet is online here (City) 

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Hickory Hills on the chopping block?

If you make it to the bottom, there’s a poll. 

In my prime, I was a capable athlete. With a little more focus (and perhaps more height), I might have excelled, but as it was I held my own in basketball, mountain biking, football, track, and volleyball. In the winter, I also followed my friends to the ski hills, clicked into a pair of skis, looked up the “mountain”, and then prayed all the way up the chairlift that I wouldn’t die that day.

More than skiing

I never quite felt comfortable on skis. At one time my eldest brother was vice-mayor of Jackson Hole. He gave up the Great Lakes for the Grand Tetons; the mountains were in his blood. He would spend his weekends acting out his own Warren Miller film down Corbet’s Couloir or some other god-awful black diamond run.

You’d think some of that would have rubbed off on me, even if I was living back here in Traverse City. It didn’t. Luckily, there was Hickory Hills

The humble little hill overlooking Traverse City from its western perch was accessible. The black diamond is named Pete, like some friendly neighbor who dressed up on Halloween–a little scary, but the end was in sight. Hickory had toe ropes instead of swinging chairs; rough on gloves but no act of bravery was needed. More importantly, there were dozens of school mates on every visit. Most of them much more accomplished skiers than me and so always way ahead of me. I’d meet them at the lodge when it was all over and that is where the hill’s real value was on display. Despite the apparent lack of adult supervision, it was a safe place for kids to…well, be kids. (I’m now fully aware that there was adult supervision, but a good sign perhaps is that as a kid I didn’t typically notice it.)

Subsidies/Investments

You tell them it's closing.

When I was appointed to the City’s Parks and Recreation Commission 2 and half years ago, I quickly discovered that there was a faction of City leaders among City staff, City Commissioners, and other luminaries in the community who were seriously considering not only shutting down the operation of Hickory Hills, but selling off the property.

It was an idea originating out of the now aging COFAC (city) recommendations. Apparently to some, the $70-$80 thousand annual subsidy is the quintessential drain on the City’s budget–roughly $6 per resident per year to provide for inexpensive, close, and safe recreation for thousands of kids every year. Or, $6 a year per resident to help maintain a program that contributes to stabilizing, if not increasing, property values.

Tonight the City Commission begins to discuss the annual budget. As we mentioned last week, the City Manager is suggesting that the operation of Hickory Hills be eliminated. To be fair, the City may have good reason to address the subsidy of the hill’s operations. There have been discussions over the last two-three years addressing it: the City has raised ticket prices; the City has partnered with the Grand Traverse Area Ski Club to help with the snow making and grooming; the City has explored a tubing run; there have even been discussions about setting up a recreational authority or non-profit that would manage the operations for the City. There are likely other solutions. But, the City needs to set the long-term goal of keeping the ski hill in operation for those solutions to happen. I have yet seen that commitment from the City Commission or the City Manager.

Needless to say, I like almost anyone who grew up in Traverse City have a memory of Hickory Hills. It is an important aspect of being from Traverse City. Those memories serve us well. They are not the primary reason to keep the hill operating. Instead, it is for the future why we need to keep it operating. The City Commission’s decision, to be made sometime before June 4th, and how they handle that decision is a sure test of what kind of City they envision.

Between now and then, our role is to politely let them know what kind of City we envision.

My question for the City Commission, the City Manager and you is this:

Proposed Traverse City budget eliminates municipal ski hill operation

April 19, 2012 12 comments

Your $5 contribution makes me smile

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Engage and Represent


Contact your Commissioners

It’s budget time for the City of Traverse City. Exciting stuff! Well, sort-of. From the vantage point of an engaged citizen, it can be rather deflating watching departments fight for budgets, the City Manager try to give “just enough” information (or, perhaps signaling that he as well only has “enough” information), and City Commissioners pull their hair out to decipher the needs and actual status of the City coffers, all the while promoting their own agendas.

What often gets lost is that the budget ought to reflect the values of the community, not drive them.  

In past experiences, the discussions that take place in meetings are almost impossible to follow for observers only privy to a public memo or two.  As the process unfolds each new step seems to have another layer of vagueness and hamstrung-ness to it (I think I just made up a word). I suspect that even the decision makers feel a bit of that. I believe last year’s final budget meeting went well past midnight.

Still, this is where the direction for the next fiscal year happens and the least we can do as engaged citizens, is to weigh-in with the values and priorities that we wish to see represented in the City’s budget. I’ve not wrapped my head around it yet to make strong comments either-way, but this week City Manager Ben Bifoss released his recommendations for the 2012-2013 fiscal year. The memo is readable and available under the “Government” drop-down heading on the City’s homepage (yes, not front page and not easily located). Or, download it here (PDF) or view it below–easy.

Key recommendations from the memo are: 

  • Reduction of staff beyond normal attrition in fire, police, and the streets/parks department.
  • A reduction in cemetery maintenance costs by, I assume, keeping it in-house.
  • Reduction in recreational costs by eliminating the operation of the ski program at Hickory Hills (this will be fun to watch)
  • A status quo, if not increases, for almost every other department. (Last year, then Mayor Chris Bzdok and Cmmn Mike Gillman made budget recommendations (Plan4TC) that may be informative to this year’s discussion.)

The meetings where the budget will be discussed aren’t solid yet, but a potential April 30th meeting is the earliest followed by a definite public hearing on May 7th, likely May 21st and at the latest a June 4th meeting, where the final version needs to be adopted. The memo is just a recommendation, the decision is solely up to the elected commissioners.

Certainly, more to come.

What are your first impressions?

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“Light the Night” A History of Hickory Hills Released

November 23, 2011 1 comment

Go Team!

After two years, two local high school students have finished their tribute history to Hickory Hills, Traverse City’s municipally operated ski hill. Molly Tompkins and Ryan Ness have collected stories from hundreds of people for the tribute to the hill where they learned to ski.

The result, titled “Light the Night“, will be on the bookshelves this December. The easiest way to purchase a copy is to order direct from their website at Preserve Hickory Hills. Proceeds from the sale of the book  will go to the Preserve Hickory organization to work with the City of Traverse City and the Ski Club to ensure that Hickory Hills is preserved for the coming generations.

We knew Hickory Hills contributed significantly to Traverse City’s heritage, but through the process of writing this book, we have come to realize its history is richer than we ever imagined, wrote the authors in the Record Eagle earlier this month.

Some fun facts they came up with:

  • Hickory Hills was the first Michigan ski area to have lights for night skiing.
  • Traverse City High School was the first school in the state with a varsity ski team.
  • Little known, but there are also 5-kilometers of cross-country ski trails.

As a reminder of what type of memories will happen in just a few weeks–how about a face-plant at the 48 second mark of the following video. Oh, the memories, you gotta have them.

Hickory Jumps by 

A big MyWHaT thank you to Molly and Ryan for the book and the continued support of a great community destination and service.

Have a memory of Hickory Hills?

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NOTE: Hickory Hills remains a topic of discussion at the City since it was tagged as an “unnecessary subsidy” by some in the COFAC report. Although there is no immediate threat that the City would even think about selling it, that was where some people started. Currently, the City is exploring options of how to raise revenue from the property. Two suggestions out there include designing and building for summer events (mainly an attractive lodge) and the addition of a tubing run. You can view the Tubing study at the City’s Hickory Hills web page. If you’d like to contribute to the discussion, the Parks and Recreation Commission meets every first Thursday of the month or you can send us an email

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