Local officials agree that Michigan tourism is on the rise

By Gloria Nzeka
Capital News Service

LANSING – State and local officials’ efforts to grow the tourism industry are proving effective as someMichigan counties continue to see significant growth in the number of visitors.

Tourism is a one of the state’s leading industries, according to a recent report by the Outdoor Industry Association. It generated 232,000 direct jobs, more than twice as many as the aerospace industry, for example, the report said.

In 2017, more than 5.6 million trips were made to Michigan from outside the state, according to  SMARInsights, a marketing and research firm in Indianapolis. Those visitors spent $2.1 billion in communities and local businesses across the state.

It is a statewide success that local officials readily endorse.

In Allegan County, the amount of money that visitors spent has steadily increased every year since 2011, according to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. It grew 3.6 percent between 2015 and 2016.

The Petoskey area also experienced steady growth over the past 5 years. Peter Fitzsimons, the executive director of the Petoskey Area Visitors Bureau, attributed that growth to “our overall mix of history, architecture, natural beauty, outdoor recreation and a concerted effort by both city and county planners in preservation and restoration of our waterfronts, downtowns, parks and other public spaces.”

The Traverse Conservancy, which started in 1972, has protected more than 50,000 acres of sensitive lands such as waterfronts, wetlands and viewscapes, he said. Guests and tourists  have created a demand for boutiques, galleries, specialty shops and gourmet restaurants.

The bureau advertises on social media, billboards and print magazines to attract visitors,  Fitzsimons said. Spring, summer and fall are great and during the winter  there’s a robust downhill skiing industry.

Local officials say Mason County tourism did significantly well over the last year.

“We did some really good growth both in the spring and the fall,” said Brandy Henderson, the executive director of the Ludington Convention and Visitors Bureau.

In 2017, more people attended events and visited attractions like the Ludington Sandcastles Children’s Museum and Ludington State Park. Local hotels in the city generated more than $14 million in room rental income, the highest in the county’s history and 14.1 percent higher than 2016.

Henderson said the visitors’ bureau is more strategic and innovative in how it promotes Ludington.

“We are doing a little more niche marketing in terms of not just talking about our beaches but also talking about the craft beer industry and some other attractions that people can enjoy here too, and I think that is contributing to that growth,” Henderson said.

Travel in Michigan has been rising steadily, according to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. The agency reports that among the counties with the highest tourism growth in 2016 are Ottawa, 6.8 percent; Mackinac, 5.2 percent;  Allegan, 3.6 percent; Kent, 3.9 percent; Ionia, 3.4 percent; and Mason, 3.2 percent.

Another measure of recent Michigan tourism growth includes Mackinac Bridge crossings. They increased every month of 2017 through July, and numbered roughly 2.2 million during that period, according to the Mackinac Bridge Authority.

Bike sharing finds a place in more Michigan cities

By CRYSTAL CHEN
Capital News Service

LANSING — Some Michigan cities have joined a growing group of communities nationwide  turning to bike share programs.

In 2010 there were only four city-wide systems in the U.S. where residents could rent bicycles. That jumped to 55 systems with 42,000 bikes in 2016, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials, an organization of 62 major cities and 10 transit agencies.

Even though it is a home to the U.S. auto industry, Michigan is also keeping up with the tide. Detroit, Ann Arbor and Port Huron have launched bike sharing systems. Others are working to make the concept feasible.

“Bike sharing is an interesting idea,” said Amy Sasamoto, the Holland Downtown Development Authority coordinator. Her city surveyed residents  in December 2016 on its website to see if a bike share program is feasible there.

Local bike shops rent bikes to tourists and the downtown area is small, so “a bike share may not be that beneficial to downtown Holland,” Sasamoto said.

Funding is also a problem. “There were some questions as to how the funding could be obtained —  the budget could not support or effectively manage the system,” she said. “The city manager wanted the program to be free, and that made financing the idea difficult as well.”

So the program is on hold as the city looks for other ways to promote biking.

That includes making the downtown safe and accessible for bicyclists.

“Recently we underwent a road reconstruction on one of our main downtown streets, and part of the reconstruction added some bike lanes, and also the shared-lane markings. We put together on a map where those bike lanes are located throughout the city,” Sasamoto said. “We have partnered with some biking groups to do family rides and things like that.”

Meanwhile in Grand Rapids in February, the city commission approved a study to test the feasibility of a bike share program. The study estimated the start-up cost at $300,000.

“Bike share is found in many cities across the United States and is typically part of a larger effort to provide as many transportation options to people as possible,” said Kristin Bennett, the transportation planning and programs supervisor for the city.

A hybrid-type bike share system was approved by the study’s steering committee. The system combines stations and hubs with a “smart” bike that can be docked at hubs/bike racks but can also dock into stations.

“It could offer the most in terms of quality and versatility, especially as a system is initially developed and expanding,” Bennett said.

The study recommended options for single rides, a monthly pass, a student pass and a lower-income pass.

“A cash option for bike share passes would certainly be included,” Bennett said. “Equitable access to a bike share system is a major goal of the study’s steering committee.”

“The most frequent concerns we heard during our public engagement wasn’t against bike share,” she said, “but rather concerns about traffic safety while bicycling and who was responsible if something happened while riding a bike share bike, such as mechanical problems, theft and other damage.”

The Grand Rapids program won’t move forward until the city commission adopts a bicycle action plan to be completed this summer, Bennett said.

It could likely take another year or so to get the system off the ground, she said. “But that is all dependent on a number of factors, including funding, system planning and lead times from equipment providers to get equipment here and installed.

Lindsey DesArmo, the chair of League of Michigan Bicyclists, said safety is a concern for people who bicycle, walk or drive, and isn’t necessarily specific to bike sharing programs.

The league is an advocacy group representing the interests of bicyclists. It has advocated for legislation for safe distances for motorists to pass bicyclists and drivers drivers’ education training to address safety concerns about non-motor transportation.

“As the state becomes more strategic about the mobility of its people, bicycle infrastructure and bike sharing programs play an integral role in providing options for people to move from point A to point B,” DesArmo said.

Trails built, growers boosted with rural development grants

By RILEY MURDOCK

Capital News Service

LANSING — A nonprofit in Marquette is improving trails and promoting sustainable tourism.

A distillery in Grand Traverse is buying a second still to contract whiskey distilling using Michigan ingredients.

And a pasta company in the same town plans to improve seed processing to further promote the Michigan agriculture industry.

These are among the organizations that won Rural Development Fund grants from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in 2017.

The development grants fund projects to help industries that make use of local land, create jobs and support infrastructure that benefits rural communities. The department’s 2018 grants were announced in mid-March.

The grants are very competitive, said Heather Throne, an outreach specialist for the department’s Agriculture Development Division.

“We received 86 proposals requesting more then $6.4 million” for 2018, Throne said. Eleven were awarded for $891,905 in projects, including in Escanaba, Marquette and Ludington.

Of 73 applicants for 2017, 17 received grants, including Grand Traverse Distillery and Grand Traverse Pasta Co. in Traverse City and the Superior Watershed Partnership in Marquette.

The watershed partnership received a $75,200 grant for its Tri-County Nature Tourism Project, according to the department.

Carl Lindquist, the executive director of the partnership, said the grant has allowed the nonprofit to fund improvements for local tourism and maintenance of its natural spaces.

“It’s been an amazing grant,” Lindquist said.

Marquette and nearby Upper Peninsula communities have seen such an increase in tourism that they’ve incurred some of its negative effects, including trail erosion, Lindquist said.

A lot of local governments don’t have the resources to address costs related to tourism and maintain their sites, he said. The grant helped the watershed partnership make trail improvements and better maintain local sites.

It also helped fund a Great Lakes Conservation Corps crew to work with local governments and small businesses in Marquette, Alger and Delta counties to enhance nature tourism opportunities. The crew helped to build new trails and restore historic structures. The work also gives young adults the opportunity to gain experience in local government and conservation, Lindquist said.

Grand Traverse Distillery owner Kent Rabish said his grant will help purchase a second still that will allow him to contract out whiskey distilling. He said this will allow other companies to produce a product that is 100 percent made in Michigan, as more than half of all craft distilleries are purchasing starter ingredients from large companies rather than local ones.

“Just because a customer sees something distilled in Michigan doesn’t mean there’s an ounce of Michigan grain in it,” Rabish said.

Instead of buying ingredients from out-of-state and “repackaging” them, Rabish said his contract distilling will allow Michigan breweries and distilleries to support Michigan agriculture. Rabish buys grain and other ingredients directly from a neighboring farm for the company’s lineup of alcohols.

The equipment must be ordered 12 months in advance, and the new still is expected sometime over the summer. The company is operating at full capacity, and because of seasonal finances the upgrade would have been three to five years down the line without the grant, Rabish said.

“It’s been wonderful,” Rabish said.

William Koucky, the owner of Grand Traverse Pasta Co., said his company easily fit the profile for the grant. The company buys grain right from local farmers, mills it and makes it into pasta, he said.

The company received a $75,250 grant last year to purchase equipment to improve its processes, according to Agriculture and Rural Development.

The company plans to use its grant to improve the efficiency and infrastructure for seed cleaning and conditioning, which will promote the local grain industry, Koucky said.

However, the grant hasn’t been implemented yet. Koucky said the grant will reimburse  him, so the company must have the money to spend on improvements first.

“If I bought a $10,000 piece of equipment, the state would cover $7 (thousand) of it,” Koucky said.