Sleeping Bear Gateways Council aims to help National Lakeshore
By Jacob Wheeler
Cars parking a mile from the popular Pyramid Point trail on a busy July weekend. Toilet facilities maxed out at Empire Bluffs. Traffic spilling onto state highway M-109 from Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.
Big crowds. Too little parking. Not enough workers to serve the tourists at area establishments, because they have nowhere affordable to live. These are the summer growing pains of our Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and surrounding communities in 2019.
Along the Lake Michigan coastline, we have become a prime destination for tourists from all over the country—and the world—because this gem of the Great Lakes is no longer a tidy secret. In 2011, the ABC show “Good Morning America” anointed us as “the most beautiful place in America.” Since then, the media accolades have mounted.
Most recently, on September 8, The New York Times featured our “Sahara-level sand dunes” and “Mediterranean blue water.” A month earlier, when the Washington Post published its county-by-county map of the temperature impacts of climate change nationwide, it referred to the “famed Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore near Traverse City.”
Not “little-known” or “remote”—the word used was “famed.” And if the current metrics are any indication, our 15 minutes of fame is far from over.
According to the National Lakeshore’s visitation tally, July was the second busiest month—ever—with 499,376 people passing through the turnstiles. (August was down by 10 percent compared to the same month a year ago, however, and a wet, cold spring yielded fewer tourists in June.)
Sleeping Bear Dunes attracted more than 1.6 million visitors each year between 2016 and 2018 and last month welcomed its 50 millionth guest of all time to the Visitor Center in Empire. Some local citizens think visitation to the National Lakeshore could soon crack the 2-million-per-year mark, though the Park makes no such future projections.
Tourism has long fueled the local economy. A National Park Service report two years ago found that visitors to Sleeping Bear spent $183 million in 2016 in communities near the National Lakeshore—that was the year we set the all-time visitation record of 1,683,554. Doing the math, this works out to each visitor spending nearly $109 to support the local economy.
Welcoming the importance of tourism to our economy and way of life—but conscious of these growing pains—a new group called the Sleeping Bear Gateways Council is stepping forward to facilitate dialogue between the National Lakeshore, local business owners, and civic leaders in both Benzie and Leelanau counties (the Park’s southern and northern boundaries, respectively) to pool resources and manage that growth.
“In anticipation of continued rapid growth of residents and visitors to the Sleeping Bear Dunes area, we seek to work with local communities, stakeholders, and the National Park Service in preserving the unique character and natural resources of the area for the benefit of its citizens, visitors, economy, and environment,” reads the Gateways Council’s mission statement.
The Council will hold meetings on Tuesday, September 24, in Glen Arbor and Wednesday, September 25, in Frankfort to introduce business leaders, elected officials, and citizens to gateway community planning models. The meetings will feature guest speaker Destry Jarvis, a consultant with gateway planning expertise who will speak to communities and stakeholders about developing a planning structure to better meet the needs which are anticipated in the future.
Many other National Parks have gateway councils or non-profit partners that help the Park by raising money or coordinating volunteers to fill voids left by the constraints of Park staff. For instance, here in our neck of the woods, Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes maintains the popular Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail throughout the year, and the group also stepped up in a big way to service garbage cans and toilets at the Dune Climb during the federal government shutdown earlier this year. Meanwhile, the Preserve Historic Sleeping Bear non-profit is an integral part of the annual Port Oneida Fair each August.
But until now, no one has undertaken the ambitious goal of bringing business leaders and officials from Frankfort to Glen Arbor to the same table to discuss solutions to our most vexing summer problems.
Sleeping Bear Gateways Council president Mike Rivard, committee members Bill Witler and Pete Anderson, and National Lakeshore chief of interpretation and visitor services Merrith Baughmann attended the National Summit for Gateway Communities last December in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, to learn how similar citizen groups can help their National Park to manage growth. (A gateway community is designated as no further than 60 miles from a Park boundary.)
“We now understand that the opportunities and challenges of gateway communities around the [Sleeping Bear Dunes National] Lakeshore are in large part consistent with those of other gateway communities across the United States,” Rivard says. “Gateway communities are not large cities, and they have limited capacity to deal with issues. If you don’t deal with them on a community level, you risk receiving negative feedback [from tourists]. With social media what it is today, a negative experience can deter people very quickly. We want people to understand that we’re trying to plan ahead.”
From Watchdog to Community Partner
The current Sleeping Bear Gateways Council was born when the Sleeping Bear Citizens Council retooled and rebranded itself.
Previously. in the 1970s, the Citizens Council was a watchdog group that advocated for private property owners during the early decades of the National Lakeshore, as the federal government used eminent domain to remove disgruntled landowners from their homes to create the Park. The Citizens Council viewed the Lakeshore with suspicion, and their relationship was one of mutual distrust.
Each year, the Citizens Council and the National Lakeshore superintendent would meet, giving council members unabridged time to voice concerns, criticisms, and recommendations.
“The superintendents didn’t look forward to going to those meetings,” says Scott Tucker, who became Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore’s superintendent in 2016. “But today, Mike Rivard calls me about something, and we meet formally or informally for coffee.”
The Council’s new goal is no longer to protect landowners from the Park but rather to work with the Park to manage growth.
“The watchdog part has dissipated,” confirms Gateways Council president Rivard. “Scott [Tucker] is the most forward-thinking superintendent that’s been here.”
Collaboration, Dispersing Visitors
“Who doesn’t love this place? But it’s threatened,” opines Tom Porter, an Empire resident and Gateways Council representative.
Porter estimates that he saw nearly 80 cars at the Empire Bluffs Trailhead one day this summer, and the parking lot is made for about 20. Porter points out that the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore has many more access points than the average tourist knows about, and he wonders what can be done to educate visitors on the myriad things to do.
“We have visitors who only come to the Dune Climb, or to Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, or to float the Platte River,” Tucker admits. “Our challenge is: how do we spread out visitors in the coming years over more of our 70,000 acres? How do we provide opportunities throughout the Lakeshore? We need to be in tune with the community and tell people, ‘You can go [south, toward] Frankfort’, ‘You can go to Maple City’—instead of just everyone lands in Glen Arbor.”
Part of that is getting communities on different sides of the Park to talk with each other.
“The Gateways Council is not trying to be the [one] that leads but that brings parties together,” Rivard says. “We want to allow stakeholders from various parties to understand how the issues are different from one area of the Park to another. Glen Arbor is in the center of the Park; at the southern gateway, Frankfort has different issues; Maple City has different issues.”
National Lakeshore staff, who are headquartered at the Visitor Center in Empire, have far more contact with business owners and elected leaders in Glen Arbor and Empire than they do in Benzie County, Sleeping Bear’s other gateway community. And yet, the Park enjoys a symbiotic relationship with towns there, too.
“I’m very encouraged that this group is being formed to have candid conversations about the impact of the National Park on surrounding communities and the positive experiences and challenges that come with thousands of people visiting our region,” says Rick Schmitt, co-owner of Stormcloud Brewing Company and The Garden Theater in Frankfort. “The enormous volume of people in the summertime creates challenges for businesses and municipalities. How do you manage everything from parking to restrooms?”
Visitation to Sleeping Bear this year was mirrored by business at Stormcloud, which sold fewer pints of beer in May and June compared to previous years—this pattern fits, given that rainy, cold weather dissuaded tourists from driving to visit the National Lakeshore.
“We know for a fact that our business benefits from Frankfort being the gateway to the Dunes, and we know that because we talk to people every day who are visiting this beautiful part of the world,” Schmitt adds. “The reason they’re here is because of the beauty of the Park.”
Transportation, Infrastructure, Workforce Housing
One way to alleviate traffic congestion at certain popular spots like the Dune Climb, Pyramid Point, Pierce Stocking, and Empire Bluffs—and to disperse tourists throughout the National Lakeshore—would be to provide free, frequent bus services between points within the Park.
The Bay Area Transportation Authority (BATA) offers a free Bayline route with buses that run every 12 to 15 minutes during the daytime in downtown Traverse City, between Acme to the east and Meijer to the west. BATA also offers village connector routes between Traverse City and Glen Arbor or Traverse City and Suttons Bay, but the transportation authority has not provided services within the National Lakeshore that could be more useful to tourists.
Infrastructure is also an important part of the conversation that is building.
“We shouldn’t build a bathroom in one spot, while another one is opening two blocks away,” Tucker says. “We need to open collaborative communication between the Lakeshore and the community.”
But housing remains the most vexing issue that area businesses face.
For example, Schmitt says that his employee count at Stormcloud this year was 15 percent lower than in 2018; workers simply were not able to find local housing at an affordable cost.
“Subsequently, employees are asked to work longer and more days a week to handle the peak volume,” Schmitt says. “That’s not sustainable for any of us.”
The National Lakeshore is open to the idea of building local workforce housing on Park land. Two parcels of land along County Road 677 near the Empire airport could be ideal—they are non-strategic parcels that the Lakeshore purchased from citizens.
But according to Tom Ulrich, deputy superintendent at Sleeping Bear Dunes, the federal Department of the Interior, which manages the National Park Service, has a strict and narrow interpretation of what kinds of private businesses could collaborate with the National Lakeshore on housing. Currently, Sleeping Bear could only house its own workers and those employed by businesses directly supporting visitors to the Park. Ulrich believes that would exclude the hospitality or retail sectors. One could argue, however, that workers at Cherry Republic in Glen Arbor, or Stormcloud in Frankfort, or countless other local businesses support the tourists who are drawn by the National Lakeshore.
Sleeping Bear’s staff is closely watching Acadia National Park in Maine, which is lobbying in Washington, D.C., for permission to build sorely needed workforce housing on Park property—housing that would benefit employees of both the Park and local businesses.
“The National Parks Omnibus Act of 1996 allows Parks to address housing issues with public-private housing issues,” Ulrich says. “What a great thing it would be if [Acadia is] successful and convinces someone in the Interior Department to be less constrained on who they could rent to.”
Meanwhile, the amount of rooms available for tourists is also a concern, particularly as the tourism season has expanded from the traditional Memorial Day to Labor Day of the past to the extended mid-April until Halloween nowadays.
“If you can’t find a place to stay the night, then you won’t come,” Tucker says. “We have conversations with visitors making the [60-minute] drive from Cadillac, because they couldn’t find a place nearby. The limiting factor is the number of beds.”
As Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore prepares to celebrate in 2020 the 50th anniversary of its founding legislation, a lot is riding on the Park’s ability to work with local communities to manage the tourism growth that appears inevitable.
“We have community that’s in the spotlight and easily accessible from big cities,” Tucker says. “Depending on numerous factors—from the cost of gas to the weather—our visitation could rise. Hopefully, as it does, we can adapt to plan for it. We all hold a piece of the puzzle.”
A version of this article first appeared in the Glen Arbor Sun, a semi-sister publication of The Betsie Current.
Photo Caption: Millions and millions of stars on display in the Milky Way above D.H. Day Farm in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, just like there are more than 1.6 million visitors to the Park each year. (Okay, it is more like 150 to 400 billion stars in the Milky Way, but that did not work as well for a caption.) Photo by Noah Sorenson.