The Story

In 1952, civic leaders cut a ski hill from the woods of Traverse City and named it “Hickory Hills.” The City built a basic lodge, installed rope tows and welcomed children to ski for free. Fast-forward more than 60 years later, the hill remains open with strong public support but with ailing infrastructure. The park realizes limited revenue from lift tickets, but not enough to cover the cost of operations. City leaders have threatened closure, viewing its annual contribution of roughly $80,000 as unsustainable. The well-loved winter park, once considered a municipal ‘asset,’ has been labeled a ‘liability.’

Competition for limited City resources has increased over time, even before the threatened closure of the park by the City in 2012. Responding to mounting concerns regarding the sustainability of park ski operations, volunteers established the nonprofit Preserve Hickory in 2010 for the purpose of preserving Hickory Hills as a public park for affordable recreation for youth.

To draw attention to the park, Preserve Hickory started by telling Hickory’s unique story to the wider public. In 2011, a pictorial history of Hickory Hills, Light the Night, was written by two local teens and published solely with donated funds. Through 1950s era photos, the book captured the spirit of the mid-century, municipally owned ski park. The authors, who grew up skiing at Hickory, received broad news coverage and support. This powerful story invoked nostalgia among readers, and those familiar with the park began to feel more protective of it. Others who knew little of the hidden gem became more intrigued. One well-told story sparked greater community interest in renewing the park.

In 2013, Preserve Hickory formed an ad hoc group and championed a collaborative process to assess the sustainability of ski operations. Responding to the City’s request for a long-range plan, the group’s private and public members including two non-profits and two municipalities, pooled funds to engage a planning consultant. The ad hoc group led the yearlong planning process.

The clear ‘take-away’ from the planning process: the park needed to generate revenue to support ski operations. To do so, improvements and new amenities were necessary to drive all season use and utilize the park to capacity. With continued efficient operations and additional revenues through infrastructure investment, the Plan predicted that the gap between revenues and expenses would decrease significantly.

The ad hoc group engaged the public in the planning process at every opportunity. The team conducted surveys and facilitated an interactive and televised, public open house and teen focus group. Over 92% of 1000 survey respondents indicated strong support for enhanced recreation, activities, events and park programs. 94.3% of the respondents believed the city should continue its financial support of the park, despite operating deficits. Clearly, the public wanted this park to remain open. The first draft of the Master Plan was posted on the City’s website and vetted by the public at yet another open house. Two redevelopment options were analyzed, one that called for refurbishment of the existing lodge and a more ambitious re-design with a new lodge and expanded terrain. Both options called for all-season use and park expansion. What started as an effort to save the ‘ski’ hill expanded – the public envisioned Hickory Hills as an all-season recreation area drawing users all year round.

The ad hoc group presented the alternate plans to the public via open house and to several user groups, clubs and local municipalities, including the municipal owner of an adjacent park. Overwhelmingly, consensus grew for support of the more ambitious option – a new lodge and significant upgrades at an approximate budget of $3.9 million. With a goal of maintaining the park’s natural surroundings, the plan identified a model for financial sustainability with infrastructure investment, park expansion and the development of revenue producing amenities.

With public momentum behind the plan and just two years after the first ad hoc group was formed, the City and local Township adopted by joint resolution the Hickory Hills Master Plan. The City then formally established the ‘Hickory Hills Advisory Committee’ to implement the Plan, a collaborative team of non-profits, municipal and city staff, and representatives from park user groups including alpine and Nordic, disc golf, and mountain bike enthusiasts. In early 2015, city voters approved by referendum a set-aside of oil royalties from an existing trust to be used exclusively for capital improvements for city parks. In response to a formal request from the advisory committee and with strong and vocal public support, the City pledged $1.5 million from its Brown Bridge Trust Parks Improvement Fund to partially fund the Hickory project. The City conditioned the grant on an equal match from outside sources, to be raised within 24 months.

After a year of planning, Nordic skiers and coaches serving on the Hickory Hills Advisory Committee saw a unique opportunity for new and improved Nordic trails – not only those trails identified in the Master Plan, but for a comprehensive trail system connecting and expanding trails between and within Hickory Hills and Hickory Meadows, an adjacent park of approximately 125 acres. A ‘trails’ subcommittee was formed. Soon after, Preserve Hickory engaged a professional trail designer who flagged a potential trail network, ideal for Nordic skiing, running, hiking and dog walking. Excitement grew for the potential of a comprehensive, wooded trail system that would accommodate recreational and competitive users and all season events. This effort in turn peeked local interested in connecting neighboring and regional trail systems.

The trail planning process required its own outreach and collaboration. The Hickory Meadows Advisory Committee, the Rec Authority, the Disc Golf Association and others were engaged in discussion. Input was translated into design options. Trail users became more enthusiastic about the project. And, the Hickory Hills Master Plan would now include a thoughtful site design and location of park infrastructure anticipating trail connections between the parks. The group agreed that an inclusive site design at the inception of the project should anticipate future trail expansion and connections.

Before initiating a capital campaign, Preserve Hickory conducted a fundraising feasibility study to determine a campaign’s likely success. Based on study conclusions, a campaign goal of $1.6 million was established. With the match, the City’s contribution and government grants, necessary park infrastructure could be funded in the first phase with a second phase to follow for all-season park amenities.

Like those with the vision to establish the ski hill, Preserve Hickory and its partners persisted and collaborated to benefit Hickory. The development of the Master Plan has been the most significant collaborative, public-private effort to support the park since it was first established. The vast majority of the work has been through volunteers, but the project engaged few, necessary, consultants: 1) SE Group for the Hickory Hills Master Plan; 2) Hopkins Consulting for Preserve Hickory’s Fundraising Feasibility Study; and 3) Morton Trails for the design of a comprehensive trail system for Hickory Hills and Hickory Meadows. A graphic designer, videographer/production company, volunteer campaign counsel and staff support were engaged to support the capital campaign.

The residents of the City were threatened with closure of the city ski park twice in several years by their City Commission, their elected representatives. Mere reaction to this very real threat would not save the park for future generations. The community had to act.

Established to address this very problem, Preserve Hickory initiated a multi-year effort to revitalize the park and nurtured lasting partnerships in the process. Together, local clubs, municipalities, key institutions, non-profits, civic leaders, schools, foundations, state organizations, athletes, naturalists, enthusiasts, volunteers and individuals became a cohesive team with one ultimate goal: to realize economic sustainability for what was once considered a drain on a municipal budget. City officials responded with generous support through a capital pledge. With that challenge, Preserve Hickory agreed to fundraise.

What started with a city and public at odds became a public/private partnership with a common goal. The influx of public capital earmarked for recreation spurred private fundraising to fund park infrastructure improvements necessary to realize revenue. With this upfront capital investment, the business plan anticipates narrowing the gap between park revenues and operations.