Snow ski in summer? Unreal

  • Article by: LAURIE BLAKE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 19, 2011 - 11:20 PM

Bloomington's Hyland park is pondering attracting teens with fake snow, a zip-line and alpine coaster.

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A Snowflex ski and snowboard slope was installed in Lynchburg, Va., in 2009. If one is installed at Hyland, Bloomington could have year-round skiing.

Photo: Kim Raff, Associated Press

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On a 100-degree day, this might sound like a pretty cool idea.

Hyland Ski and Snowboard Area in Bloomington is considering laying synthetic snow on its slopes that would allow for year-round skiing, no matter how high the temperature.

Hyland, where 70 percent of users are under age 17, would become just the nation's second ski area to use the fake snow. Some local ski area operators scoff at the idea, but it has made year-round skiing a reality in Virginia and several locations in Europe.

Officials at the west suburban Three Rivers Park District, which operates Hyland, also are considering other new features for Hyland, including sailing through the air via zip-line and riding an alpine-style coaster down the hill. Other attractions could include climbing and swinging through a challenge course and trick-bouncing on trampolines with harnesses.

Three Rivers wants to "engage youth in the outdoors, and this is one way we think can do it," said Cris Gears, park district superintendent.

The new attractions would come at a cost of about $29 million, including structures, improvements and parking.

"This is potentially a massive project -- very exciting," Gears recently told board members.

Hyland, with its signature ski jump towering south of Interstate 494, attracts 160,000 skiers and snowboarders annually. Relatively small in size by Three Rivers standards, it draws most of its crowds in the winter, including meets and practices associated with about 30 high school ski teams.

Next month the park board will begin weighing options associated with expanding its popularity year-round, working toward a decision by year end.

New attractions self-funded

The ski carpet might be the most head-turning addition, but consultants predict the coaster would be the most popular. Each new activity would be expected to pay for itself with user fees, just as Hyland does now. No tax dollars would be used, said assistant superintendent Tom McDowell.

Of 21 parks run by Three Rivers, Hyland has been the most successful at attracting teens, he said. "Providing meaningful outdoor recreation for teenagers is one of the hardest things to accomplish today with all of the distractions and competing recreation options," McDowell said.

The mountain coaster, which would cost $1.5 million, would generate $1.2 million a year in revenue, based on an estimated 106,000 visitors paying $12 a ticket, according to S E Group, resort planning consultants from Burlington, Vt.

Other coasters have paid for themselves within two years, said Claire Humber, director of resort planning for S E Group. The closest coaster is 150 miles away at Spirit Mountain in Duluth. Its website says a zip-line is coming soon.

The ''Snowflex'' slope would attract an estimated 52,000 visitors a year paying $30 a ticket, Humber told Three Rivers board members in a recent presentation. She expects annual revenue of about $1.5 million and an initial capital cost of about $4 million.

Snowflex was installed in 2009 at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. The skiers' version of AstroTurf was invented by British engineer Brian Thomas and is used at several locations in Europe. The white sheet of plastic bristles is continually sprayed with mist to keep it slippery.

If they lay it, will you ski it?

Hyland's metro area location, loyal youth users and location just 8 miles from Mall of America vacationers would make Snowflex a "home run," Humber said.

A key question is whether the park would appeal to Minnesotans in summer. Two attempts at summer skiing bombed at Burnsville's Buck Hill, said general manager Don McClure.

"Most people want to ski in the winter," he said. "Out of season, they aren't interested."

Aimee Junget, a senior-to-be at Chaska High School, has skied at Hyland for three years with her school's Nordic ski team. She said ski teams would jump at the chance to begin practice in the fall and extend the season into the spring. But she questioned the synthetic slope's summertime teen appeal. "If it's a hot Minnesota day, they are going to go to the beach," she said.

Of the proposed attractions, she said, "I went zip-lining over spring break and I would love to be able to do that here.''

'99-percent the same' as snow

Mark Conway, coach of the Minneapolis Alpine Ski Team, which practices at Hyland, said, "It's too hot here in the summer" for skiing.

Skiers would need long pants and long sleeves to protect against rug burns. And, he said, "ski boots are hot. It might be fun on a 60-degree day, but we don't have many of those between June and August."

Conway said the surface would have to offer an "exact simulation of snow skiing," and allow "exactly the same technique" as snow skiing for his teams to practice on it.

Liberty University, a Christian college led by the Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr., paid about $4.5 million to install Snowflex as an amenity to attract students, said Lee Beaumont, the university's director of auxiliary services.

"It's a huge success for Liberty," Beaumont said. "A lot of people are skeptical until they come up and ride it and then they are 'Wow!'"

Drew Sherwood, general manager of the Liberty Snowflex Center and the product's U.S. marketing rep, described the feel of Snowflex as "99 percent the same" as snow.

Synthetic snow has a bumpy track record. Earlier attempts had unforgiving surfaces that caused injuries, Sherwood said. Snowflex has a 2.5-inch pad under its surface that minimizes injury but users have to cover their arms and legs, since falls can otherwise take off exposed skin and leave a bad rug burn, he said.

Park board member John Gibbs of Bloomington, who skis Hyland in the winter, said he is excited about adding to the park's year-round appeal. He called the ideas "a start of an exciting methodical process to ensure the continuing vitality of Hyland Hills."

The park offers disc golf, a driving range and food service during the summer. If it's converted to multi-season use, noise control would be a top priority for the nearby Normandale Lake neighborhood, said park board chairman Larry Blackstad.

Bloomington City Council members have not been given a presentation on the proposals and the city has not taken a position, said parks and recreation director Randy Quale.

Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711

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