Wixom Assistant City Manager Tony Nowicki dons the professional persona at work, but during his free time he’s an avid outdoor sportsman who finds solace in nature. Nowicki’s sublime moments have always involved getting out into the woods, whether he is hunting with his sons or high-tailing it up trails by Hummer or bicycle. Years ago he purchased his Hummer for he and his wife to burn up trails across the country to discover some of the most underexposed and wondrous sights in the country — most recently the treacherous “Radical Hill” northwest of Golden, Colo. As a long distance bicyclist for years, he routinely pedals over 50 miles at one time and has traversed the spectacular landscape of the Upper Peninsula, often for charity events. Apart from exploring the countryside, he tinkers with vintage tractors. He earned his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Wayne State University and a master’s degree in public administration from Central Michigan University. He was formerly the Director of Public Services for the city of Monroe; a manager at Monroe Custer Airport; the Department of Public Works Director for Roseville; and Novi’s Director of Public Services before joining Wixom’s team. He and his wife reside in Novi and are the proud parents of two sons, both of whom graduated from Michigan Tech.
Share with us some of your excursions in the Hummer Club, including those in Colorado, South Dakota, Utah, and the Midwest.
TN: I’ve been involved in the Hummer Club since 2008, but before that I had a long history of enjoying the outdoors and off-road vehicles like motorcycles, dune buggies and other motorized vehicles. The Hummer Club is a new twist. The group is very responsible. We do national and local events where people with Hummers get together, do our little trips, go through drivers training and in addition to that, the group is very active in the Red Cross and volunteering to help during emergencies and natural disasters. On the recreational side of it, I’ve been to Drummond Island, Grayling, in the state of Michigan. Both of those (are) very fantastic, getting off into the areas not normally seen by a lot of the folks. But in Indiana, Colorado, South Dakota, and Utah — the western states are really phenomenal, the scenery. Indiana is where I learned to drive at AM General at their testing and their training facility near South Bend. They generally teach you what your vehicles can do. It’s phenomenal, the capability of these little trucks.
In Moab, Utah, I was out there last year. Tremendous scenery — wherever you go out in Moab you want to take a picture. The roads and trails that we traveled were constructed by the federal government in the 1940s and 1950s to promote the exploration of uranium and other metals in the area. Ledge roads — you look straight up and (there is) nothing but a cliff and straight down is again another cliff. Negotiating and navigating around the rocks. We had one specific area that was a wash-out and took us a little over an hour to travel one-tenth of a mile. It was phenomenal. We made it through there unscathed without any damage to the vehicle.
(We) just got back from there (Colorado) at the end of August. We started out in Golden, Colo. and went to areas near Central City, Black Hawk, Empire, Montezuma, some of the old mining towns up 12,000-13,000 feet in elevation. Climbing on some of these roads you look straight up and see nothing but sky as you back and forth on the switchbacks. The roads, cross slopes at 20-30 degree cross slopes — just phenomenal. Challenging to drive, but again the scenery is just phenomenal.
Cite some specifics of what you saw and how onerous the route was during some of these trips.
TN: Actually, it’s pretty stressful in driving. You almost want to call it the white knuckle drive where you go through some of these switchbacks. In one particular area we came to the end where you turn around and do a switchback and you look out the windshield, you see sky, the edge of one mountain and you see sky, through the rear view mirror it’s thousands of feet down. We got to one point and made the turn on the switchback and all four tires started to spin and you talk about excitement and an adrenaline rush. We were able to back up and reposition and make it around the rocks, but my wife was in the passenger side saying “Oh my God.” We made it up to the top with the other folks and just getting out of the vehicle and seeing what you’ve done, it was a sense of accomplishment, a sense of adrenaline, and again the view was phenomenal looking out at the Rocky Mountains. That’s basically why we got involved in this Hummer group. It provided us with an opportunity to get to areas that the typical tourist doesn’t see. You can’t get there in a passenger car. In fact, one group we saw (was) some people standing in a plateau area and the only way they could get there was by helicopter. We were able to drive up there and take in the sights. We had mountain goats just five feet from us, looking at us with curiosity.
How many members typically travel with you?
TN: It all depends. You typically want to keep your numbers down to 7 or 8 or less trucks. If you get too large of a group, you have issues with navigating and taking a lot of time on the trail. Everybody works together. You have spotters. You’re responsible for the truck once you get through. Safety is No. 1. Everyone looks out for the other person and the other truck. The one thing we insist on (is that) there is no alcohol anywhere associated with driving and also if you see any debris leftover from someone before you, we clean it up so the trails are better than when we got there.
Give us a snapshot of what the terrain is like, the dangers therein, and how many miles you tour in a day?
TN: Mileage depends on the severity of the trail. Like I indicated earlier, one spot took us over one-tenth of mile per hour to travel because of the rocks in Utah. In Colorado, (there’s) loose gravel, loose dirt, a lot of erosion over the trail. You have the freeze-thaw action, so there’s a lot of boulders or chunks of rock that came down on the trails. It’s generally a lot of rock. None of it is smooth rock; most of it is jagged and can cut the sidewalls of your vehicle and damage your vehicle. In fact we were in one area and we have side rails to protect the running boards and side panels of the vehicle — they are pretty heavy duty and unfortunately I happened to bend one significantly, but it did protect the body of the vehicle. When rocks are wet you tend to slide. We had one area in Moab when we came around the bend and there was a large boulder in front of us. The bigger trucks, the H-1s, they actually were driving with their tires right off the edge of the cliff. You look straight out and there’s nothing there.
What is the most thrilling about these adventures? Where do you envision traveling to next?
TN: The most thrilling about these adventures is the people and the scenery. We’ve met people all over the country that own Hummers but come from all walks of life. You get a real understanding of what other people are going through where they live. Being in government working with the city of Wixom, I have an interest in how the other communities in parts of the country work with their government and with their communities. I’m able to ask a lot of questions and learn quite a bit about the similarities of the problems they’re faced with and a lot of the differences. To me, that’s the most thrilling part. The driving is great and being able to navigate and to make it through some of the areas is tremendous, but talking with the people and looking at the views that the typical tourist doesn’t see is the most thrilling and to see how wonderful our country (is) is spectacular. There’s nothing like it.
Along with taking Hummer trips into unknown territories, you enjoy long distance bicycling. How do you prepare for these long tours?
TN: I’ve been riding since early 1980s. I prepare right now with a small group of people that get together on Fridays or on Sunday mornings in Wixom at Mack Park around 7-7:30 am. and we’ll travel to Island Lake in Kensington and back. For me I typically put on 45-50 miles on a Sunday morning for training and exercise. Most of my travels, the organized rides, are for charities. Lupus has one, the Ann Arbor bike club Downriver Cycling has a tour and they are various distances. The Clinton River Rider (Bicycle Club), they do the Blue Water Ramble in October around the lake. They’re all generally to support the bicycling club and bicycling education in the elementary schools and some of the middle schools and to support various charities of the organization’s choice. That’s why I like to do this. You meet a lot of good people. A couple weeks ago, two of our councilmen, Tom Rzeznik and Jim Cutright, rode with me at the (Slow Spokes Bicycle Club’s) Peach of a Ride. We met some great people. A nurse tagged along with us. We all pick up with groups and (it) becomes a nice social event, as well.
Where would you like to bike next?
TN: My dream ride locally would be to ride the shoreline of Michigan starting in Monroe, going around the thumb, up to Mackinac and then down to Benton Harbor area toward Chicago.
You have a lifelong passion for hunting. Where have you hunted and what do you normally target?
TN: Primarily in Michigan. I have hunted in Texas and have taken javelinas and bear in Texas. That was a thrill, but primarily in Michigan I hunt deer in the western part of the Upper Peninsula and other parts of the state, and small game. Hunting provides me with the opportunity to get a little closer to nature and spend time out of doors. I enjoy the outdoors, the air, everything out of doors. Just recently I accompanied my wife — she drew a bear tag and last weekend she was fortunate enough to shoot her first bear. That was a real thrill. It’s a thrill to see new people to the sport of hunting, youngsters harvest their first animal and teaching them firearm and hunting safety and a little about the outdoors. That makes it all worthwhile. Even if I don’t harvest an animal, it’s a success when I’m with other people.
We understand you recently went on a bear hunting excursion, where did you go and share with our readers some of the wild animals you encountered.
TN: This one in Baraga County in Upper Peninsula. We saw a nice, huge, huge sow and her cubs. We watched them for about a half-hour just kind of wandering around. That was interesting, the way she took care of her cubs and watched over them, watched them scurry about. We also saw a wolf who kind of looked at us and couldn’t tell exactly what we were so it kept on circling. Obviously it got bored with us and walked away.
Last weekend I took my wife in a tree stand. A nice black bear came in and sat 50 yards from us and looked at us and wandered around. There were a few opportunities to shoot but at first she was uncomfortable, but then when the bear presented us with a good broadside shot, she took it and put it down in a humane way. It was a thrill to see all the friends in the area congratulate her and help us bring it out of the woods.
Although you’re known as an outdoorsman at heart, you are a man with many interests, including repairing old tractors. How many tractors have you restored?
TN: Right now I have two that are fully restored; one is a 1946 2N Ford, the first one I restored; the second is a 1939 Farm All “A”. One of the very few — Farm All made about 500 tractors. Before they had electric start. It’s all hand-crank. The Farm All looks like it came off the assembly line. It typically takes me between a year and two years to restore a tractor to like-new condition. I tear it apart — every nut and bolt, repaint, clean it, and make sure it’s in good working order.
Do you sell them?
TN: I do not sell them. Right I use the Ford to plow snow in my driveway. Both of my tractors I’d like to donate to an agricultural museum. I have no interest in selling them. My primary interest is to preserve history. I enjoy history and equipment built in the past and seeing it restored so others can see what came before us. In fact, the Wixom Community Foundation has a specific fund for historical preservation that is a little fund I had started. What I hope to do once enough funds are generated in that account, (is) request that these are allocated to the preservation of historic features and properties here in Wixom.
What got you involved in this unique hobby?
TN: My grandfather years ago had an old Ford tractor himself he used on his farm. I often helped him take care of it and work on the farm. After his passing, I would be the one to make sure the tractor was running and would go out and help my grandmother take care of the farm. Now it’s just all brush, but I use it to cut it and keep the farm in good shape. I’ve been to tractor shows. Again, it’s the people. These are great people who restore tractors. First (thing) you do is go up and talk to them about their tractors, they want to start them up and go for a ride.
Finally, you have been the assistant city manager of Wixom for almost a decade now. What do you see as your greatest accomplishment during your tenure?
TN: There’s been a lot of accomplishments in Wixom. I don’t look at it as my particular accomplishment — we do things together. This is a team from start to finish, from top to bottom. We all contribute. The areas I think I had the most influence over and have a sense of accomplishment for is we reorganized part of Public Services and were able to save operationally about $40,000 a year, and that accumulates over time. We put it together and drew the Department of Public Services, the DPW (Department of Public Works), Water and Sewer much closer together. Through collaboration of these groups we were able to save money, increase communication and operate more efficiently. I have a tremendous sense of accomplishment of how we were able to put that team together. The thing we stress is thinking how can we operate in a more efficient manner. Just to name a few with the DPW, we’ve come up with the salt brine, the beet juice for de-icing and changed the ice control policies around so we’re much more effective than in the past. We secured grants for LED street lighting. Before I got here there was no mechanic at the DPW. We were able to hire one and put together a tremendous fleet maintenance and management program that saves us money. He was able to add on components on the equipment to extend the life. It was a tremendous accomplishment, in addition to the VCA (Village Center Area). When I got here, (City Manager) Mike Dornan said we have to build a community downtown. We started that with the private sector and the city, and put together the VCA program. As looking at our downtown, it’s well underway. Part of that was working with the RCOC (Road Commission for Oakland County), Drain Commission, and MDOT (Michigan Department of Transportation). Putting and implementing that program was a tremendous sense of accomplishment for me.
How do you view your role in steering the city forward, especially given this financial climate?
TN: It’s a team approach, so what is my role? I work with the other department heads, city manager, and City Council, providing input. My opinions (are) based on 30 years experience, what works in the past, and what may not work on how to keep the community working forward economically. We put together a program we called “Municipal Services, the Wixom Way” and I started cataloging all of the cost saving measures, the privatization initiatives and way we operate in Wixom and then shipped (them) to Lansing and Oakland County and to other communities. There really is a pattern. Wixom has a proven track record of operating in an efficient and effective manner and now other communities are looking at us to see what some of our initiatives are. And we keep going. Right now we’re talking with other communities about joining with us who have water treatment plants and joint sludge removal and disposal programs, trying to partner with them. My specific role: be an active and creative team member here helping the city manager and City Council recognize opportunities and putting together initiatives to continue to improve the lives of the residents here in Wixom.
In general what do municipalities need to focus on during these tough times when revenues continue to drop?
TN: They need to focus on their core mission and not lose sight of it. The core mission of communities: public safety (police and fire) , transportation, road systems and of course, public utilities. Once we’re able to achieve and maintain those at high levels, then can begin focusing on other activities and undertakings, but without public safety — it’s like a pie, you can’t look at any one segment of a community and say, “Okay, if we have great public safety then we’ll have a great community.” You need great fire, police, public works and quality of life issues. Everything has to go together and function, but it all starts with the core mission and core responsibility.