2016-10-13 / News

Sea Grant Program Can Help Small Shoreline Communities Like St. Ignace

By Karen Hopper Usher
Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism

Small coastal communities are laying the groundwork to bring cash to their waterfronts.

Community members, researchers, designers, engineers, and others are helping six small harbor communities plan for the future. The effort, coordinated by Michigan Sea Grant, could have a statewide impact by modeling development strategies for other coastal communities, creating safe harbors for recreational boaters and spurring tourism.

Four communities last year participated in a program that helps to develop five-year plans for their waterfronts: Ontonagon, Pentwater, Au Gres, and New Baltimore. Two more – St. Ignace and Rogers City – will go through the process in October.

More than 80 communities with small public harbors will benefit from the program because the planning materials it develops will be available free through Sea Grant.

The idea is to come up with a plan to make these communities welcoming from the waterside, said Mark Breederland, a facilitator and educator with Sea Grant. That might mean addressing placemaking, economic, environmental, or other problems in their master plans, Mr. Breederland said. Doing so sets the stage for paying for those improvements.

“If the city wants money, the commission wants to see a five-year waterways plan,” said Gary Marowske, chair of the Michigan Waterways Commission, an advisory group for the Department of Natural Resources that determines which communities get state funds to revamp their waterfronts.

Participating in the program was free for the six communities and worth “well north of $50,000” if the community opts for the three-day version, Mr. Breederland said. Single day programs are worth $10,000 to $15,000, he said.

St. Ignace will participate by hosting a public visioning session Monday, October 24, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the St. Ignace Public Library. Everyone is welcome. (See related story in this issue.)

The city says it hopes to come up with a plan for the next 10 to 20 years that will stimulate growth through its core, said retired harbormaster Clyde Hart, who is coordinating preliminary work with current harbormaster Michael Singleton.

The city’s greatest asset is the water, Mr. Hart said. Making that waterfront more attractive to businesses is key.

One idea is to encourage people to spend more time on foot because pedestrians spend more money. The best chance of getting people walking could be boardwalk or beach access improvements.

Mr. Hart said he hopes the researchers will help St. Ignace find the data it needs to apply for grants for improvements.

That worked well for Ontonagon in 2015. The village wanted a plan to create a downtown waterfront community that attracted businesses and residents and “make it a place to live,” said Joseph Erickson, Ontonagon village manager.

The waterways commission awarded the community $254,000 this year to dredge its marina. The Natural Resources Trust Fund awarded the village a grant for a pedalcraft landing area. The community is waiting to hear if it will get a Recreation Passport Grant for lighting and walkway improvements to its Lake Superior beach.

Some communities that want a chance to win state money to fix up harbors may need to plan on downsizing, said Mr. Marowske of the Waterways Commission. Others may need to include marketing, activities, and entrepreneurship in their plans.

There are no guarantees with the program.

Pentwater, population just under 1,000, struggles when winter weather shoves sand into its channel and stops boat traffic from visiting the village. Village officials said they had hoped working with Sea Grant researchers would help it find a way to pay for the estimated $100,000 a year needed for dredging after the Corps of Engineers stopped doing so, said Juanita Pierman, the village president.

That’s not uncommon, said Don Carpenter, a civil engineering professor at Lawrence Technological University who is helping small harbor communities.

Federal funding for dredging has dried up and the loss is keenly felt by small harbors left to foot the bill, Mr. Carpenter said.

Pentwater still has no solutions to its $100,000-a-year problem, although there are some new ideas about how to generate revenue, said village manager Rob Allard. Sea Grant is evaluating the financial situation in Pentwater and the results of that analysis are due this fall.

“Our whole economy is based on waterfront tourism. We believe tax dollars are collected for this purpose, but we never get any of it back,” Mr. Allard said, comparing boater registration fees to automobile gas taxes that eventually filter down to local communities.

“It shouldn’t just fall on this village,” Ms. Pierman said.

There’s a safety issue to keeping small harbors open, Mr. Carpenter said. When bad weather blows in off the big lakes, boaters need ports of refuge.

Whether the small harbor sustainability program continues depends on funding from state agencies, Mr. Breederland said. The planning materials and lessons learned from these six studies will be available, but Sea Grant can’t promise the full $50,000 equivalent in the future if the project doesn’t continue to get funding.

Sea Grant is a cooperative program between the University of Michigan and Michigan State University.

The small harbor case studies project is supported by Sea Grant, the Department of Environmental Quality’s Office of the Great Lakes, DNR, Lawrence Technological University, Edgewater Resources, the Department of Talent and Economic Development, and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

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