Porkies ski hill to be run by MDNR once again
By Bruce Johanson
Just over 25 years ago, in August of 1996, this reporter’s first assignment for the Ontonagon Herald was to do a story on the privatization of the ski hill at the Porkies. MDNR had operated the ski hill starting in about 1950, building on the old Weatherhorn Peak Ski Hill that was created by local ski enthusiasts in 1940. The fact that the Michigan Department of Natural Resources was operating an enterprise that was in direct competition with private businesses such as Black Jack and Big Powderhorn in Bessemer, and also Indianhead in Wakefield was being criticized. In 1996, the MDNR signed a contract with private vendors to run the Porkies Winter Recreational Area.
For a good part of the past 25 years, the Porkies hill was operated by several private vendors and since 2012, the Gogebic Community College has operated the facility as an extension of their accredited Ski Hill Management Program. This reporter had recently learned that the arrangement was going to end and that the MDNR was taking charge of the ski hill complex once again. We have to wonder what has changed in the philosophy about the State competing with private enterprise. To get some answers, we took a drive up to the Porcupine Mountains Wildnerness State Park.
First, we visited with Mike Knack, the park superintendent, who graciously made time to visit with us. He explained that the Gogebic Community College had been anxious for some time to end its managership of the Porkies and to concentrate on Mount Zion, located closer to the college campus. The college contract will expire at the end of this winter season and by mutual agreement, will not be renewed. MDNR will take over management of the ski hill once again, a project they were anxious to relieve themselves of 25 years ago.
MDNR put out requests for proposals and received no successful bidders to manage and operate the full ski hill facility. When asked if there was no one who was willing to take on the full ski hill operation he mentioned that a local group had a proposal but that they did not meet the criteria or have the expertise to take on the operation.
The operation was divided up, and, according to Superintendent Knack, a contract was entered into with a firm from southeast Michigan, Simple Adventures to operate the indoor concessions, rental of ski equipment, the Outpost, food, etc. Simple Adventures of Michigan operates bicycle rentals, kayaks, canoe rentals, etc. at Ft. Custer, Lake St. Clair Metropark, and other parks located in the Detroit area. Knack added that Simple Adventures plans to hire 8 indoor staff to work at the Porkies in various roles. In checking out the website of Simple Adventures, it doesn’t appear that they have experience with ski equipment and there is no mention of them handling food service.
The park staff will be in charge of all outdoor operations such as mowing, grooming, chair lift operation, maintaining the buildings, and keeping the trails clear. The park will take on 8 or more part-time “winter rangers.” One lead ranger will be dedicated year-round to the ski hill and its various activities. The park will also be hiring a maintenance mechanic, full-time.
The Porcupine Mountains State Park is a big park, the largest in area of all of the state parks in Michigan, and there is no question that additional staff will be required in order to run the ski hill.
We asked if there are plans for improvements in equipment and other areas. Knack explained that the triple chair lift is only certified for full uphill operation. They are only allowed to run a limited load going downhill. Presumably, when the lift was built, it was expected that persons using the lift to go to the top of the hill would be descending the hill on skis or snowboards. Parts have been ordered to upgrade the triple chair lift for full downhill operation which will make year-round operation possible for scenic purposes.
There are plans to construct a second lift to replace the old double chair lift that has been out of operation for several years, but this is contingent on possible funding from the American Recovery Act.
A new PistenBully groomer is on order and should be delivered within weeks to be used for cross-country trail grooming.
We received assurance that the MDNR park management has its bases covered and will be prepared to assume the running of the ski hill and recreation area starting this spring.
We wanted to visit the ski hill itself and chat with current GCC Staff Manager Bill Perron. We had no difficulty locating Perron and we received additional information from him. Perron explained that the MDNR had approached Gogebic Community College several years ago when a former private operator had chosen to not renew his contract to operate the ski hill. The college seemed to be a logical choice in view of their ski hill management curriculum. GCC has used the Porkies as a teaching tool and it has been partially staffed with college students. GCC has also operated the food concession, also with students, as well as the rentals and the ski shop with some new merchandise as well. The rental equipment is owned by the MDNR.
Perron explained that the college never intended to run the hill forever. The intention was to bring the hill back to a fully operational “turnkey” operation and then relinquish it to another private operator. The current 3-year contract between GCC and the MDNR expires this year. The manager mentioned that for the last two years, the hill has “made money.” We immediately asked him how this money was used and was told that because GCC is a state-subsidized school the funds had to be put right back into improvements and maintenance of the ski hill itself.
This reporter was curious and asked Perron if he knew anything of the proposal from a local group to run the ski hill that Park Superintendent Knack had alluded to earlier. Perron did not answer this directly except to say that the other group that had submitted a proposal would have kept the operation basically the same with the food service being provided by a local restaurant owner who has previously provided this service to the ski hill and has over 30 years of experience in the business.
As our visit to the ski hill was drawing to a close, we met and talked to two of the individuals who had worked with a local non-profit corporation Mt Silent Sports, Inc. who had organized under 501(c)3 designation specifically to submit a proposal to the MDNR to operate the ski hill and its related activities. We had an informal discussion with these folks and they felt that their proposal was quite viable but was not given fair consideration. They pointed out that among the incorporators were business people, experienced skiing enthusiasts, and even engineering experience. Basically, their proposal was the retain the present manager and utilize a local restaurant operator for the food services. Additional staff would be local people.
We left the Porkies with our initial question unanswered. What has changed in the MDNR’s philosophy to allow competition between a state-run enterprise with private businesses in the region?
In all, we are grateful for the gracious cooperation and frank open comments of those we talked to.