Growing a Winter Sports Business on the Prairie
By Mike Corbett
We may be vertically challenged in Indiana but the dearth of mountains isn’t keeping some entrepreneurial types down. At Hamilton County’s Koteewi Park, in north Noblesville east of Cicero, a local businessman is offering a winter thrill to adventurous types in the form of a 750 foot tubing hill. Called Koteewi Run, the 50 ft high hill is man-made with dirt excavated from a nearby pond. No snow? No problem. When the weather gets cool enough they crank up the snow making machines and cover this hill with a solid 15 foot base that gives riders the opportunity for a thrill ride not normally found in the midwest.
It’s Brian Cooley’s second season on the slopes. Just getting the hill up and running was an adventure in itself. Hamilton County Parks, which owns Koteewi Park, approached Cooley in the fall of 2017 after a previous operator backed out. The hill and tow line were already in place but he had just 73 days to acquire the tubes, come up with a business plan and find talent to operate the slope. They launched on time on December 16 last year.
Snowmaking is a rare and exotic skill. Cooley’s original snowmaker was from Scotland; this year’s is from Australia. Once the ambient temperature is cold enough, high pressure pumps bring more than 300 gallons of water per minute from the adjacent lake and spray it in to the air in front of powerful fans that distribute it over the hill. It takes days to lay a proper base for tubing, which is then groomed with a snowcat.
This has been a challenging season so far with negligible snowfall and higher than average temperatures as winter began. Opening day was delayed several times because the temperature was too high for snow. They finally started falling in mid-January and tubing started January 12.
Though the tubing business is new to Cooley, he’s an old hand at adventure. He‘s been running White River Canoe since acquiring it from Noblesville’s Schwarts Bait and Tackle in 2009. His first season was in 2010. Over the past nine years he grew that business from a modest 60 canoes to 100 last year and kayaks from 30 to 110. He started the tubing business from scratch and has grown the fleet to around 500.
Of course, the canoe business slows to a stop in winter so the tubing hill was a natural business extension. And in case you’re wondering, floating tubes can’t double as snow tubes as they aren’t strong enough for snow and ice. Winter tubes are their own breed.
Cooley appreciates the county’s willingness to work with private businesses to grow this exciting winter entertainment opportunity in Hamilton County. Though this winter season was cut a bit short on the front end by the weather, he’s hoping to extend it into March before rising temperatures turn the hill back into pile of dirt and he starts eying the river again for summer fun.
Koteewi Run is the most recent of several new attractions at the 800 acre Strawtown Koteewi Park.
From Robin Hood to Katniss Everdeen, archery has always held a certain fascination. The ancient art is celebrated and practiced at Koteewi Range, billed as the largest public archery range in the nation. Owner Tony Girt started operating here in 2014 after many years in Anderson. The building opened a year later.
Koteewi Aerial Adventure Park
Koteewi Aerial Adventure opened in the Summer of 2016. It’s a series of treetop trails and ziplines built into the trees behind the tubing hill. It’s called aerial because the trails are 20-60 feet in the air. The adventures are self-guided tours that last two or three hours, though they also offer a day-long pass.
The name Koteewi (pronounced ko TAY-wee) is shortened to K-Trails for the equestrian adventure, which started in the Summer of 2017. Owner John Stewart boards 24 horses at the facility, and offers guided trail rides geared toward families. “Hamilton County parents are looking for an experience when they visit,” says Stewart, “and we focus on providing a special memory.” Regularly scheduled excursions include Family Trail Rides, Sunset Rides and Chuck Wagon Dinner Rides.
Hamilton County Parks Director Allen Patterson says as the vision for Koteewi developed, it made sense to partner with private businesses. As experts in their fields “they provide a better service than we would if we were to hire park staff to come in and operate them ourselves,” he says. Although they don’t have a system for tracking total visitors, Patterson is sure each attraction has grown since they’ve been open.
The Park plans to unveil a recreational lake and small shelter this Spring, designed for fishing, electric motors and non-motorized watercraft. That will likely complete the build out for now, though the master plan calls for an eventual Inn and Conference Center. The idea is to create a “state park-like environment within a half hour drive of home for county residents,” says Patterson.
But the park is also meant to spur private enterprise and economic development, and that process is already starting. A private group has announced plans to build a group of cabins for rent across the street.