Sleeping Bear Gateways Council aims to help National Lakeshore manage growing pains

By Jacob Wheeler

Sun editor

Cars parking a mile from the popular Pyramid Point trail on a busy July weekend. Toilet facilities maxed out at Empire Bluffs. Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive traffic spilling onto state highway M-109. Big crowds. Too little parking. And too few 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. We’ve 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 “the most beautiful place in America”. Since then the media accolades have mounted. On Sept. 4 the New York Times featured our “Sahara-level sand dunes” and “Mediterranean blue water”. A month earlier, when the Washington Postpublished 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” … “famed”.

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 10 percent compared to the same month a year ago, however, and a wet, cold spring yielded fewer tourists.) Sleeping Bear Dunes attracted more than 1.6 million visitors each year between 2016 and 2018, and last month welcomed its 50 millionth visitor, 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 to Leelanau County has long fueled the local economy. A National Park Service report two years ago found that visitors to Sleeping Bear in 2016 spent $183 million in communities near the National Lakeshore. That was the year we set the all-time visitation record of 1,683,554. That 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 leaders and civic leaders in both Leelanau and Benzie counties (the Park’s southern boundary) 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, Sept. 24, in Glen Arbor, and Wednesday, Sept. 25, in Frankfort to introduce business leaders, elected officials, and citizens to gateways 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 anticipated in the future.

Many other National Parks have gateways councils or nonprofit partners that help the Park by raising money or coordinating volunteers to fill voids left by the constraints of Park staff. Here in our neck of the woods, Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes maintains the popular Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail throughout the year, and also stepped up in a big way during the federal government shutdown early this year to service garbage cans and toilets at the Dune Climb. Meanwhile, the nonprofit Historic Sleeping Bear is an integral part of the annual Port Oneida Fair each early 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 manage growth. A gateway community is designated as 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,” said Rivard.“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 and criticism and offer recommendations. “The superintendents didn’t look forward to going to those meetings,” said 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 premise they were originally created for was no longer a top priority,” added Tucker.

The council’s new goal is no longer to protect landowners fromthe Park, but to work withthe Park to manage growth.

“The watchdog part has dissipated,” confirmed Gateways Council president Rivard. “Scott is the most forward-thinking superintendent that’s been here.”

Collaboration, dispersing visitors

“Who doesn’t love this place? But it’s threatened,” opined Tom Porter, an Empire resident and Gateways Council representative. 

Porter estimated he saw nearly 80 cars at the Empire Bluffs trailhead one day this summer (the parking lot is made for 20). Porter pointed out that the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore has many more access points than the average tourist knows about.

“We have visitors who only come to the Dune Climb or to Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, or to float the Platte River,” admitted Tucker. “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 person that leads, but that brings parties together,” said Rivard. “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 leaders in Glen Arbor and Empire than they do in Benzie County—Sleeping Bear’s 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,” said Rick Schmitt, co-owner of Stormcloud Brewery and the Garden Theatre 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?”

Business at Stormcloud mirrors visitation to Sleeping Bear, said Schmitt, who sold fewer pints of beer in May and June when 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. 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 service between points within the Park.

The Bay Area Transportation Authority (BATA) offers a free Bayline route with buses that run every 12-15 minutes during the daytime in downtown Traverse City, between Acme to the east and Meijer to the west. BATA offers village connector routes between Traverse City and Glen Arbor or Suttons Bay, but has not used service withinthe National Lakeshore that could be more useful to tourists.

Infrastructure is also an important part of the conversation that’s building.

“We shouldn’t build a bathroom in one spot, while another one is opening two blocks away,” said Tucker. “We need to open collaborative communication between the Lakeshore and the community.”

But housing remains the most vexing issue facing area businesses.

Schmitt said that his employee count at Stormcloud this year was 15 percent lower than 2018. Workers simply weren’t 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,” said Schmitt. “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. Those are non-strategic parcels the Lakeshore purchased from citizens who sold to the Park.

But according to Tom Ulrich, deputy superintendent at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, 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 visitor to the Park. Ulrich believes that would exclude the hospitality or retail business. One could argue, however, that workers at Cherry Republic, or Stormcloud, or countless other local businesses support the tourists drawn here by the National Lakeshore.

Sleeping Bear’s staff is closely watching Acadia National Park in Maine, which is lobbying Washington, D.C., for permission to build sorely-needed workforce housing on Park property 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,” said Ulrich. “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 we’ve watched our tourism season expand from Memorial Day to Labor Day to mid-April until Halloween.

“If you can’t find a place to stay the night, then you won’t come,” said Tucker. “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 the 50thanniversary of its founding legislation in 2020, 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,” said Tucker. “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.”

Looking to Other National Parks

When gateway communities consultant Destry Jarvis speaks to community stakeholders in Glen Arbor and Frankfort on Sept. 24 and 25, he will present from a December 2018 paper he authored that recommends actions needed for gateway communities to succeed:

Gateway communities offer what big cities lack — a cleaner environment, less traffic, clear air, safe streets, and a friendly, small-town atmosphere. Most are and will continue to grow by attracting businesses that provide services to tourists, recreationists, and other visitors. Even in a down economy, gateway communities benefit from being adjacent to national parks — anchoring sources of jobs and revenue to keep communities afloat, or give rise to improving circumstances of local small businesses.

On the other hand, too rapid development and unplanned growth result in the same social, economic, and aesthetic ills that people are fleeing from the cities, diminishing the quality of life for residents, reducing the allure for visitors, and adversely impacting national park and other public land’s natural and cultural resources. 

Blending human needs with cultural heritage, environmental conservation, and appropriately sited economic development is the proper role of gateway communities, which can only be achieved by community visioning, comprehensive planning, and zoning or other land use policy and regulation enacted at the local level, but with technical assistance and small federal grants to achieve locally agreed upon goals.

In Jarvis’ opinion, model examples of national parks working with collaboratively with gateway communities include Blue Ridge Parkway, Appalachian National Scenic Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Acadia National Park, Zion National Park, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Congaree National Park, New River Gorge National River, the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, and Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.