Small coastal towns love the water but ‘don’t want to be Traverse City’

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Capital News Service 

LANSING – The relationship between residents of coastal communities and their local water heritage can advance restoration efforts, create recreational opportunities and promote tourism and economic growth, a new study says.

At the same time, that relationship can create tensions between environmental and economic interests, it says. 

“Widespread deindustrialization has changed the landscape and character of many Michigan communities,” according to researchers from Michigan State University and the Office of the Great Lakes in the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.

“In response to these often-devastating changes, natural resources agencies have invested in restoration projects along waterfronts to facilitate a shift from an industrial past to new recreation and tourism development,” they wrote in the Journal of Great Lakes Research.

They based their findings on community engagement interviews and focus groups. 

One element of the research was designed to measure the socioeconomic impacts of waterways restoration projects, such as construction of boardwalks and kayak launches, removal of invasive species and beach cleanups. It was carried out in Alpena, Manistee, Sault Ste. Marie and Port Huron, four small cities with waterfront industrial heritages. 

The other element involved interviews with visitors to a Smithsonian Institution Water/Ways traveling exhibit in Harrisville, Big Rapids, East Jordan, Niles, Owosso, Beaver Island and Detroit. The questions there focused on the roles of water in visitors’ lives.

Participants described water as a place to both feel something special and do something special. They agreed that “water is for enjoyment,” including “spiritual fulfillment, recreation and family/social sharing,” and that “water identity is a feature that binds groups across communities,” the study said. 

Even so, it said participants reported a difference between their individual values – for example, the environmental benefits of water resources – and community water values, such as economic and tourism benefits. 

Lead author Lissy Goralnik said, “Everyone mentioned they don’t want to be Traverse City. People from there can no longer afford to live there.” 

Residents interviewed in Manistee, Alpena, Sault Ste. Marie and Port Huron understand the Traverse City experience where tourism has had a positive impact in terms of good health care and young people with new ideas moving in “but they don’t want it to explode,” said Goralnik, an assistant professor community sustainability at MSU. 

“They don’t want traffic to be heavy. They’re afraid of the quality of life changing and not being able to afford being in their homes,” she said. “They live right in town, they walk places, they see friends at the grocery store, they raise their children at the beach.”

Goralnik said Alpena adopted a “smart strategy” to rebrand itself as a place to visit for quiet sports, referring to nonmotorized sports like bicycling, hiking and stand-up paddleboarding.

To build trust and encourage “cool ideas,” it’s essential that waterfront projects have collaboration and share information among residents, local governments and community foundations, as happened with development of Port Huron’s Blue Water River Walk, she said.

Local officials should also commit to long-term support for grassroots projects, such as the development of kayak launch sites that are accessible to users with disabilities on the St. Marys River in Sault Ste. Marie, she said.

Emily Finnell, who heads the Office of the Great Lakes that funded the $122,000 study, said the project helps an understanding of key characteristics of communities that successfully revitalize and restore their waterfronts.

State agencies can use the findings to work with coastal communities to provide “tools and resources” to build local capacity and broaden public involvement with waterfront restoration, Finnell said.

For example in Southwest Michigan, the Office of the Great Lakes is working with the city of Benton Harbor to help implement a “shared vision” for restoring and revitalizing Ox Creek and Hall Park. 

Ox Creek is a tributary of the Paw Paw River, connecting with the St. Joseph River that flows into Lake Michigan, and its watershed has been adversely affected by urbanization, industrial discharges, flooding and illegal dumping. The city says the project will benefit the community through new recreational opportunities and as a catalyst for housing and economic development.

That involves collaboration of state, local and federal agencies and funding assistance for pedestrian bridges, outdoor classrooms, bike paths along the creek and, eventually, businesses, Finnell said. Proposed Hall Park improvements include a skating rink, playground and splash pad.

Also, the Redevelopment Ready Communities program in the Michigan Economic Development Corp. works to ensure that water assets are part of development programs, she said.

The study said many residents interviewed for the research had grown up in waterfront communities, moved elsewhere and later returned home because they felt attached to the water and the landscape.

The study found a tension between use and over-use of the water that pits ecological protection against the “negative implications” of economic development. 

“Unsurprisingly, economic development and regional planning groups were more enthusiastic about increased tourism investment than environmental volunteer groups,” it said. 

In addition, it noted that so-called “resistant-to-change” residents of waterfront communities are concerned that what they value the most about water would be harmed by physical changes in the natural and built environments or by an influx of tourists and other users.

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