The only place to snow ski in our immediate area, Snowstar, wants to become a year-round operation.
Crews at the winter-sports park in Andalusia aren't planning to make snow in July. They want to host events, such as weddings and receptions, and ultimately, add amenities, such as a zip line, a rope (obstacle) course, maybe a mountain biking trail. Our recently mild winters are kryptonite to ski resorts. Even though they make their own snow, temperatures must be able to sustain it.
Last season, Snowstar was open just 54 days. The ski/snowboard hills are permitted to operate from December to March, and Snowstar now is seeking a zoning change from Rock Island County that would extend their season.
"We want to take advantage of our lots, our space," said Dan McCanna, general manager. "We'd like to host weddings, receptions, class reunions, bridal showers. You have to walk before you can crawl, so we'd eventually like to add rope courses and a zip line."
But McCanna's words strike fear in the hearts of many Snowstar neighbors. Their concerns are predictable, which is not to say they are unfounded.
The ski park is, naturally, located atop a rural bluff. Access from two directions is via narrow, twisting roadways. You might instinctively conclude that winter driving must be far more dangerous than dry-road driving, but neighbors say there's more to it.
"Our biggest concern is the safety of that road," said Leslie Anthony, whose home is adjacent to Snowstar. "The warm weather is when people are out in the road, biking or walking. I have young kids, and they play out there."
Clarifying that her children don't actually, like, set up a board game in the road, Anthony said many area children ride their bikes or walk dogs on 126th Street West. And she said that 126th is the route "almost all the traffic" takes to Snowstar.
McCanna said that's not true. He said most people take 115th Street West off Andalusia Road to get up the hill to the resort.
That's the route I took last week, 115th. It makes the most sense, coming from the Quad-Cities, because it's the closer turn, and the Snowstar sign on Andalusia Road directs you up 115th.
As I drove the several miles up to Snowstar, I was expecting gravel roads. Some of the neighbors who are against the expansion said they were concerned that thousands of additional vehicles would create problems with dust. But I found a very short stretch of the roadway had gravel, and a clear preponderance is hard road. In fact, only two homes on the whole road are near gravel.
Unless the warm-weather customers take short cuts through corn and bean fields, it is hard to imagine that road dust will be an issue — at least on 115th Street.
Anthony freely acknowledges that Snowstar was there first. When her family moved to the area, "... we knew what we were getting into," she said.
But they didn't know they were getting into it 12 months out of the year. Besides worrying about the people who walk, bike or jog on the access roads, she is concerned for her neighbors who farm in the area.
"We don't hate Snowstar, and it's not that we don't want Snowstar to succeed," she said. "Farming is a business, too, though."
True. But everyone is supposed to share the road.
McCanna said the Snowstar folks have been taking the farmers into account as they make plans for warm-weather offerings.
"With a wedding reception, for instance, we would tell the neighbors the hours and how many cars can be expected," he said. "I don't know many farmers who move combines at 11 at night, but maybe they do. If equipment is being moved when we have people coming or going, we'll come out and help direct traffic."
Anthony said, "I don't see that working," regarding traffic control, but she appreciates that Snowstar representatives have made a point of letting neighbors know their plans.
"Snowstar has done a really good job of reaching out," she said. "But our issues have not been resolved."
Outside of expanding the access roads to the ski resort, which would be far too expensive, resolving neighbors' concerns seems unlikely.
One possibility that has been tossed out is to give year-round Snowstar a shot. Let them operate as a reception, reunion, private-party locale for a year, and see how everybody gets along on the roads. If it's bad, the zoning goes back to seasonal. If there are no problems, Snowstar is permitted to continue.
Rock Island County Zoning Board of Appeals already has approved the expansion and forwarded it to the county board. The board sent it back to a public works committee to figure out how additional road maintenance might be handled. The real numbers for vehicle increases are hard to come by, because the lodge hasn't yet been rated for occupancy.
On Oct. 4, the matter is scheduled to go back to the Zoning Board.
"Their (neighbors') chief complaint is traffic and interrupting their way of life as they know it," McCanna said. "I live on the road out here, too, and I don't want a head-banging concert every night, either. That's not our plan. And the slope lights will not be in use.
"Are the neighbors in favor of it? No. But they're aware of it. We're trying to be good neighbors, and we would expect the same."