2017-09-14 / Front Page

Bay Closure Will Not Be Considered

By Kevin R. Hess

The city will not consider closing Moran Bay to boat traffic for three weeks this winter if conditions seem conducive to ice formation for the U.P. Pond Hockey Championships. The decision, its timing unexpected by many involved in the issue, was made at a city council meeting Tuesday, September 5. In an effort to protect the large event that boosts the town’s economy and funds other events throughout the year, the St. Ignace Events Committee, Chamber of Commerce, Visitors Bureau, St. Ignace Business Association, and the Downtown Development Authority had earlier asked the council to consider temporary bay closure if conditions were right and if the city had jurisdiction to do so.

Although the matter was not on the agenda Tuesday night, and events planners were not in attendance, Councilman Paul Fullerton proposed the resolution as an addition to the agenda at the meeting, and it was approved by the majority of city council. No roll call vote was taken on the issue, but several on the council voted “aye” and no dissenting votes were voiced.

The request to consider closure was made in part by the belief that boat traffic, specifically the boats of Shepler’s Ferry, could disrupt ice formation on the bay. The group asked the city council to consider closing the bay to traffic from the Mill Slip to the Favorite Dock. Only Shepler’s service would be affected by the proposed closure. At an August 7 meeting, several members of the public spoke in favor of closing the bay and of the importance of the pond hockey event to St Ignace. Questions arose then as to who had authority to close the bay, as the Coast Guard contended that only they had that authority. The discussion was tabled to give time for city attorney Tom Evashevski to iron out jurisdiction questions, and the council agreed to return to the discussion at its August 21 meeting.

Then, the city delayed action on the request after it had yet to receive word of jurisdiction by the next meeting, when discussion continued, becoming heated over the claim that the motion of the boats could hinder the ice from forming. Mark Sposito, a member of the Events Committee, believed the boats were a disruption, while Councilman Fullerton disagreed. All parties again agreed to wait until they heard from Mr. Evashevski concerning jurisdiction over the bay.

The issue was not on the September 5 meeting agenda, but was added to the agenda during the meeting. After all scheduled business had been accomplished, Mr. Fullerton made a motion to deny the request, saying he did not believe the boats had anything to do with the ice formation on the bay. The motion was seconded and opened for discussion. Deb Evashevski, director of the DDA, objected to the action, saying it was not fair for the council to address this after previously saying they would inform the public about when this would be on the agenda again.

“You told them you were waiting for word from the Coast Guard, and now you are adding this without giving opportunity for further discussion,” she said Tuesday night.

Many of those who voiced concerns at earlier meetings were not in attendance, but Mr. Sposito said later that there would have been several representatives there if they had known it was going to be discussed. The mayor could have stopped action on the motion that night, he pointed out.

Mr. Sposito said that their group was promised the issue would not be brought before the public again until the council determined who controlled the bay, and they would be informed when it was added to the agenda for a future council meeting.

“They didn’t do that, and that’s not right,” he said.

Mayor Connie Litzner said later she did not know the issue would be brought up at the meeting, but that she knew it needed to happen sooner than later. She had received word from Mr. Evashevski prior to Labor Day weekend that council does, indeed have the authority to close the bay and she had planned to add the discussion to the September 18 meeting agenda.

“I did tell [the events organizers] that I would inform them after our first meeting,” she said. “They were also at the [August 21] meeting. I let them speak openly at both. I asked at our last meeting if they felt they all had the opportunity to speak and say everything they wanted, and they said they did. I then told them it would be postponed indefinitely because I didn’t know for sure when we would address it. They had an open door at two meetings.”

Mrs. Litzner also said that she didn’t believe anything else could be said that hadn’t already been said.

“I’m not sure what more would have been accomplished,” she said. “Also, this was a council meeting open to the public. Mr. Sposito and anyone else could have been there if they chose to be.”

Mr. Fullerton later said he was not aware that the jurisdiction issue had been resolved before making the motion.

“Honestly, I regretted not making the motion at our last meeting,” he said later. “I decided to do this myself. This was not group thought. The issue needed to be resolved.”

Besides disagreeing with the idea that the boats could disrupt the ice formation, Mr. Fullerton did not believe it was right to stop commerce to Mackinac Island or fair to Shepler’s to shut down the area of the bay where they operate, while others are able to operate.

Mr. Fullerton, who provides air service between to Mackinac Island from the Mackinac County airport in St. Ignace, said, “I’ve been watching the ice form on that bay for over 30 years. It affects my business as much as anyone else’s. It’s just mother nature. We can’t control the weather.”

Councilman Robert St. Louis said he sympathizes with those making the request and agrees that the pond hockey event is important to the community, but does not want to close the bay.

“We need other avenues,” he said.

Councilman Luke Paquin, who wanted to keep the city’s options open to consider the jurisdiction issue and who did not favor the timing of the decision, said he thought the decision should have been made with the events planners present, and that it will be important to continue to keep an open line of communication with all parties involved.

Councilman Jim Clapperton supported the motion, saying that the council could not favor one group of taxpayers over another.

Mrs. Litzner said she spoke with Chris Shepler, owner of Shepler’s Ferry, following the meeting and that Mr. Shepler has agreed to talk with the events committee and stay in communication. While Mr. Shepler was pleased with the decision of the council, he said his company would do everything it could to make sure the event was successful.

“We’re not going to stop our communication process with the events committee,” he said. “We don’t want to be the reason we don’t have pond hockey. It would be a shame if we were one of the reasons, but I don’t believe we are. Mother nature is the main factor.”

In preparation for the 2017 event, one that ended up being held on Chain Lake owing to warmer temperatures, Mr. Shepler said they stopped running their boats for nearly the entire month of January to potentially allow ice formation, but in the end, the weather was too warm.

“Mark [Sposito] and I spoke, and [the boat line] made a business decision to shut down for four weeks,” he said.

Shepler’s lost money during that time, he said, and when they started running again, they had trouble getting all of their workers back.

“We laid off our employees, and then when we decided to run again, a lot of them had either taken vacation or took on other things,” said Mr. Shepler. “I don’t blame our guys for taking that time off to do other things. It’s not fair to them to lay them off and tell them to stick around in case we need them.”

Mr. Shepler said they were asked to commit to shutting down for nearly a month preceding the 2018 event, but that the company is not able to commit to that time frame so soon. This was a contributing factor to the request made to City Council to mediate between the two parties.

“I can’t say we are or aren’t going to run this soon before the event,” he said, “but we want to be in communication and do what is best for St. Ignace. I love St. Ignace and St. Ignace has been very good to us.”

Mr. Shepler noted the need for contractors and other businesses to use their boats to transport supplies to Mackinac Island, saying that shutting down the bay would affect more than just his business. In addition, Shepler’s has a dock expansion project underway on the Island that needs to be completed before April 20 and they need all the time they can to run their boats to get it done. They also plan to aggressively bid on the winter passenger service to the Island when the current contract expires.

A shutdown for his company, he said, would impact, “jobs, our services, and a competitive marketplace,” said.

Mr. Sposito said that his concern was that the hockey association would be hurt if the pond hockey tournament was not able to operate to its fullest potential. He said that the hockey association contributes between $40,000 and $50,000 to the finances of Little Bear East Arena for rental of the rink, a significant portion of the arena’s budget.

The tournament is significant to the economy of the St. Ignace community, and allows some businesses to stay open through the winter. If some or all of that was lost due to an inability to hold the tournament on the bay, Mr. Sposito says the Events Committee would have to begin cutting some of the summer events. Profits from the pond hockey tournament are used to fund the weekly fireworks, Movies by the Bay, bridge crossing events, and more.

“It’s not just about the hockey tournament,” he said. “There would be far-reaching repercussions.”

The Events Committee is also concerned that sponsor Labatt Blue may lose interest in funding the tournament if it is no longer hosted on scenic Moran Bay. The company had told its organizers that having the tournament on the Lake Huron bay ice is its primary appeal in sponsoring the event.

“Labatt corporate contributes around $100,000 to the event,” said Mr. Sposito. “We could get a local Labatt sponsorship, but they could probably only give us about $1,000. Instead of the 200 teams we’ve been seeing, we could easily drop down to 25.”

Mrs. Litzner said there are still options to host the event, even with the council’s decision. There is a bay near the casino that has no boat traffic nor anything to hinder ice formation. She has also asked Enbridge Energy about the possibility of using some of its rubber booms designed to contain oil spills as a way to contain the ice in the playing area on Moran Bay. They could serve as a barrier between the hockey ice and Shepler’s ferry route. Enbridge engineers agreed to look into the possibility, but have not yet given a response.

“If they could set up a boundary for the ice without stopping business, I would absolutely be in favor of doing that,” she said. “It would be the best for all parties.”

Mr. Sposito said there are no plans to pursue further action in the matter, but hopes everyone involved understands the importance of pond hockey to the St. Ignace area.

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