2017-08-10 / Front Page

St. Ignace Considers Moran Bay Operations

Pond Hockey Advocates Seek City’s Intervention
By Erich T. Doerr

The 2018 Labatt Blue U.P. Pond Hockey Championship is still more than seven months away, but even so the tournaments and the perceived need that something must be done to protect St. Ignace’s premier winter event were the main topic of discussion at the city council’s Monday night, August 7, meeting.

For the February tournament, more than 30 hockey rinks are set up on the ice in Moran Bay, if it is cold enough to freeze the bay. But organizers fear commercial boat traffic, specifically freight hauled from the Shepler dock to Mackinac Island, can disturb the forming ice and jeopardize the tournament, and they have asked the city council to close the bay to traffic, from the Mill Slip to the Favorite Dock, during the critical time of ice formation, with or without the blessing of the Shepler ferry company. President Chris Shepler says he will discuss the problem, but is not interested in closing down his winter freight operation, even for a month or so. If he is prevented from operating from his own facility, he has few options. He could run out of Mackinaw City, across the heavy ice in the Straits of Mackinac, or he could arrange to use the docks of his Mackinac Island competitors, both of which are south of the Favorite Dock. Star Line operates winter freight and passenger services from the old Chambers dock in the middle of town and Arnold Freight runs freight from the old state ferry dock adjacent to the Coast Guard station.

For the next several weeks, until the next council meeting Monday, August 21, the city will study its authority to close the bay. The U. S. Coast Guard claims the ultimate authority to regulate navigation on the Great Lakes, but says it will be inclined to protect the tournament area if all affected parties agree to it. So the city council will also consider how it might help facilitate a consensus.

Warm weather the past two years is blamed for moving the tournament off the bay. Last winter, it was moved to Chain Lake. In 2016, the tournament rinks were built on the parking lots at Little Bear East Arena.

But as organizers watched the fluctuating temperatures freeze and thaw the forming bay ice, they also could see that boats churning water and fracturing ice nearby could ultimately be the deciding factor in whether a safe ice sheet has a chance to set up.

Monday night, the council chambers at City Hall were filled just beyond capacity as representatives from business organizations and the United States Coast Guard spoke about the issue.

Advocates for the bay closing stressed the tournament’s significant economic impact on both winter and summer events, including weekly fireworks and the city’s Little Bear East Arena and Conference Center. The tournament attracts about 200 teams to the city and contributes an estimated $500,000 directly to local businesses and organizations.

Mark Sposito, a restaurant owner and member of the St. Ignace Events Committee, said businesses would like the city council to mediate the stalemate between pond hockey advocates and boat companies. He proposed an impartial committee to study the weather between January 7 and February 1 and close the bay between the Mill Slip and Favorite Dock if conditions are favorable to ice formation.

St. Ignace Chamber of Commerce President John Kling added that, in cold weather years, boat traffic through the tournament area could be stopped to allow the ice to form, while in warm years transportation could continue without interruption.

United States Coast Guard Lieutenant Junior Grade Sean Murphy, Sector Sault Ste. Marie Waterways Management Division Chief, said the Captain of the Port at the Soo has the power to shut the bay to boat traffic, as it does for the ice bridge between St. Ignace and Mackinac Island. He said the Coast Guard could help the city by setting up designated safety zones around areas for events, if needed. Special events such as pond hockey tournaments require the sponsoring organizations to submit an application to the Coast Guard, as the Special Events Committee has been doing. The Coast Guard is interested in helping the community in its endeavors, especially if all parties agree to closing the area to traffic.

Bridgett Sorenson, president of the St. Ignace Hockey Association, and an employee of the St. Ignace Visitors Bureau, and board member of the city Recreation Committee and Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, emphasized the financial importance of the tournament and the city’s responsibility to protect it. The money the Hockey Association raises from its concessions during the pond hockey weekend raises about one-third of its ice rink rental at Little Bear East and helps the association keep its tuition costs low and recruit new players so the local hockey scene remains viable.

The hockey association’s success, in turn, defers expenses to allow the city to host numerous hockey tournaments each winter that bring people to the community during the winter. The tribe’s Kewadin Shores Casino also reaps benefits from pond hockey with significant increases in traffic and slot machine revenues during that week, which increases the amount of money given back to the community via two-percent grants for funding projects like free public skating.

“If this event doesn’t happen, there will be a terrible trickledown effect,” Ms. Sorenson said. “This is a million dollar weekend for this community and it’s your job to figure out a solution to keep this event happening.”

Mr. Sposito emphasized that St. Ignace is defined by its special events like weekly fireworks and the recent MINI on the Mack that are funded with profits from the pond hockey weekend. He does not believe the Events Committee could fund all its projects without the pond hockey profits, and noted their loss would also negatively impact other area communities, such as Mackinac Island, by reducing the draw of visitors to St. Ignace who also visit the Island. He questioned if the Little Bear could even survive without the $115,000 that pond hockey contributes.

Hotelier Howard Cole added that having pond hockey is the only way that some St. Ignace hotels can stay open in the winter and the Events Committee’s work with tournamentraised money is vital for other area events.

Dave Kunze of the Chamber of Commerce said the pond hockey tournament sponsor, Labatt Beer, has stated its interest in having the tournament on the ice, which is its primary appeal, rather than on shore, and has told organizers it is not interested in sponsoring a parking lot hockey event.

He said if pond hockey lost the Canadian beer company’s funding, the event would likely only be able to continue at about a fourth its current size. He said closing the tournament area for three weeks is critical to the tournament’s success and asked the city to exercise control over the bay.

Visitors Bureau board president Jimmy DeKeyser said heavy ice usually forces boat operations to cease every winter, anyway, and most people on the Island plan for that by getting their supplies over prior to the end of the year. He suggested that the boat companies should find alternative docks away from Moran Bay.

Mr. Shepler agreed that the pond hockey tournament is important to St. Ignace, but suggested conversations about restricting freight traffic should include representatives from Mackinac Island, which will feel the impact of such action.

He said Star Line’s five-year exclusive franchise with the city to provide winter passenger service to the Island will expire in two years and his company plans to aggressively bid on it, which could mean that passenger service, in addition to freight, would be running from the Shepler dock in St. Ignace.

This winter, his company is also embarking on a $1.7 million dock and development project on the Island that could require heavy construction materials to be sent over this winter. Work will not begin on the dock until November 1, and the materials have yet to be ordered, since its engineering firm has not finalized what will be needed. It is a certainty that Shepler’s will need to move materials for this project in January and February, if possible, Mr. Shepler said, and his company needs to complete the project in time to begin passenger service next season on April 20.

In addition, he lost substantial revenue last winter when he agreed to shut down for a few weeks to let the ice form for the tournament, and he contends some of his business went to other companies in the meantime.

Winter freight movement takes some skill, he noted, and he can’t afford to shut down for a month, lay off his employees, and find they are gone when he needs to start back up.

Mr. Shepler said he is open to mediation to find a solution, but he will not make guarantees ahead of time. He noted his flexibility is reduced this year because of his own dock work.

He refuted a claim made at the meeting that Mackinaw City closes its harbor to boat traffic in the winter, made to emphasize the ability of St. Ignace to do likewise. Mackinaw City does not close its harbor, he said.

Councilmember Luke Paquin said he favors supporting the pond hockey tournament and the city needs to find a way to help make it happen. He believes everyone needs to come together and work out a way to assure things can get done, even if the city does not have the authority to close the harbor.

Mayor Connie Litzner asked city attorney Tom Evashevski to meet with Lt. Murphy and iron out jurisdiction issues relating to the bay and assured the pond hockey advocates that the city will return to the discussion at its next meeting in two weeks.

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