Artificial snow: Who would use it?

  • Article by: LAURIE BLAKE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 14, 2011 - 7:44 AM

Three Rivers Park District wants to discuss year-round snowboarding and skiing.

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A snowboarder gets some air off a jump on the freshly groomed slopes of Hyland Ski and Snowboard Area on the final day of 2009.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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Before it's considered as a year-round amenity for a popular Bloomington ski hill, synthetic snow will be scrutinized by focus groups of skiers and snowboarders who will be asked the key question:

Would you use it?

Three Rivers Park District wants answers before thinking seriously about spending $4 million to install Snowflex synthetic snow at the Hyland Ski and Snowboard Area.

Hyland, with its signature ski jump jutting into the air south of Interstate 494, attracts 160,000 skiers and snowboarders annually. About 70 percent are kids under age 17 who come for fun, lessons and team meets and practices.

To offer year-round recreation for the teenage ski and boarding set, the west suburban park district is considering $29 million worth of improvements at the park that also includes a bigger winter chalet and new attractions such as zip lines, an Alpine coaster, climbing and biking courses and a "Fun Zone" for younger kids.

Park Board members, making it clear that they have no intention of pursuing the whole package, started narrowing down choices this month by booting the Fun Zone as too much like an amusement park attraction.

They said they want to know more about how Minnesotans would react to the other attractions before making further decisions and are expected to discuss next month how to get that information.

Getting input from focus groups could take weeks or months, which means the original end-of-year deadline for deciding on the proposals may be pushed back, said Associate Superintendent Tom McDowell.

"We are going to have to take some time and find the feedback and marketing studies that the board wants. They recognize that it's a big decision and it's a big investment and you can't ignore the current [economic] climate.''

The discussion about adding multi-season attractions began because winter revenues alone would not pay for a needed expansion and upgrade of the ski hill chalet, estimated at $15 million, McDowell said. Hyland is required to pay for itself with no support from tax revenue.

SE Group, resort planning consultants from Burlington, Vt., believes "that the array of summer activities will generate a revenue stream that would pay off their own capital costs within a matter of years and generate money to pay for chalet improvements," McDowell said.

How the Park Board would finance construction of summer improvements is another issue yet to be addressed.

But Board Chairman Larry Blackstad said he questions the rosy projections from the consultants, saying they did not contact local user groups to gauge their reaction to the ideas.

Snowflex, the skiers' version of AstroTurf, is used at several places in Europe, but has been installed at just one U.S. location, Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. The white carpet of plastic bristles is continually sprayed with mist to keep it slippery; the manufacturer claims that performance is close to real snow.

But with long sleeves and long pants required to prevent rug burns from a fall, a key question is whether it would be appealing during a hot Minnesota summer.

The Park District will decide whether its next move will be doing its own focus groups or having an outside consultant present data, McDowell said. It would useful to solicit reaction from Hyland's winter users -- coaches, team members, kids who take lessons and parents -- along with enthusiasts for summer sports like skateboarding, he said.

Board Member John Gibbs of Bloomington, who represents the area around the park, suggested four questions for choosing among the options:

Would the activity be unique?

Would it compete with anything in the private sector?

Would it provide exercise?

Would it combine with other activities to draw people to the park for at least half a day?

"Personally I think we should stay away from things that don't get peoples' heart rate up," Gibbs said. And, he said, "it would be a serious mistake to compete with anything already out there."

Board Member Joan Peters has expressed little enthusiasm for the proposal, noting last week's 634-point one-day drop in the Dow. "The whole thing makes me queasy at the moment," she said.

Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711

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