2010-07-31 / Top News

Tourism Soft at Historic Sites So Far This Summer

By Karen Gould

Historic sites at the Straits of Mackinac are coasting through the season, with attendance down 9% from last year at all five Mackinac State Historic Parks properties. Revenue is also down, by approximately 4%, through mid-July.

A decrease in school groups early in the season, a substantial weakness in motor coach tours, and bad weather on key weekends are being blamed for the lackluster first half of the tourist season, said Director Phil Porter in a report at the Mackinac Island State Park Commission Friday, July 23.

“Last year was decent,” he said. “We've been holding our own despite the economic conditions. This year may be a less fortunate story.”

By historic site, compared to last year, Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island is down 8.5%. In Mackinaw City, Colonial Michilimackinac is down 7%, Mackinac Point Lighthouse is down 12%, and Mill Creek Discovery Park is down 13%.

The relative success at Colonial Michilimackinac is attributed to an increase in fami- ly activities, which is being marketed as “Everyday is Kids Day at Colonial Michilimackinac.”

Popular in recent years, Mill Creek Discovery Park attendance rose 30% in 2008, following the addition of an aerial cable ride. After that, attendance leveled off, and now is dropping, said Mr. Porter.

In 2009, park attendance on the Island and on the mainland was down 2% from 2008. By site, Fort Mackinac was up about 2%, Colonial Michilimackinac was down 5%, Mill Creek was about the same, and Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse was up 2%.

Weddings held at the sites are up, however, and the Somewhere in Time gazebo behind Fort Mackinac is the most popular spot for them. In 2009, 20 weddings were held at the agency's sites, with 28 booked so far this year.

Lower gate receipts and deeper state appropriation cuts loom.

“Without question, there will be some reduction in our budget this year,” said Mr. Porter. “The question only is how much will it be.”

The state Senate is proposing a 6.2% cut ($99,100) in funding for the fiscal year that begins October 1. The House has proposed a 9.2% cut, or $147,100.

That could worsen if the federal government withholds $500 million in Medicaid payments to the state, a matter being debated in Washington.

The state allocated $1.6 million to Mackinac State Historic Parks this year, contributing to a $6,311,690 budget.

Mr. Porter said the commission might not have to cut the large number of trees proposed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to be removal from the approach area at the southeast side of the Mackinac Island Airport, which the commission manages for the state.

“They've heard our argument and they are willing to make what would be a very rare exemption for allowing this tree stand to remain,” said Mr. Porter.

“From a practical perspective, these trees are not what pilots talk about when they fly onto Mackinac Island,” he said. “These are not the trees they are concerned with.”

Pilots he's talked with are concerned with trees on the western end of the airport, instead, Mr. Porter said.

The commission is negotiating the purchase of avigation easement rights in that area so it can take down trees there to meet FAA standards and alleviate pilot concerns.

As for the southeast approach area,, he added, “I think we're going to have some good news and we're going to get this exemption, but until it is in writing from the FAA, I want to be just a little cautious.”

In May, tree cutting at the airport was halted when commissioners learned that thousands of trees needed to be removed from the southeast approach. While checking elevations, St. Ignace surveyor Neil Hill discovered there were considerably more trees than the 99 trees state engineers had identified. Mr. Hill marked 1,600 trees, and that only included trees that were four or more inches in diameter, said Mr. Porter.

Commissioner Laurie Stupak asked for the explanation given by engineers over the discrepancy in the number of trees.

“I don't think we were ever given a reason,” said Mr. Porter. “Frankly, I think the engineers blew it. The engineers gave us a report that said, when you do this, it will be 99 trees, and we went out and started cutting. The surveyor is the person who actually goes out and is able to determine the elevation of a tree, and he said, 'You guys have a lot more trees to cut than you think you do.' That's when we stopped the project and went back to the engineers and said we need good data.”

Armed with new data, Mr. Porter said the Michigan Bureau of Aeronautics, which is overseeing the project, has now offered four options, including clear-cutting the area, as originally planned.

The commission also could clear-cut and then replant trees, which is a slightly better option, he said, although the area essentially would look like a Christmas tree farm.

A third option would be to leave the trees and cut a few particularly high trees. Then, the area could be marked with navigation lights for planes, which would be about five poles with upward shining lights. It's not a perfect solution, said Mr. Porter, but it would save the trees.

The fourth option was to ask the FAA for the cutting exemption with the understanding that Mackinac Island has “priceless natural features here that we don't want to ruin.”

Commissioners asked if they should make a congressional appeal, but Mr. Porter said he would like to continue to work with the Bureau of Aeronautics and FAA on the matter.

In another airport matter, the facility will be closed for seven days as the Automated Weather Observation System (AWOS) is replaced and runway cracks are sealed. The closure will only be during the day, and pilots and residents will be notified once the dates are known. The airport will remain open at night.

The commission received $144,000 from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to conduct a physical inventory of the archaeological collection from Fort Michilimackinac. More than 122,000 artifacts have been unearthed from the Mackinaw City site since 1959.

Archaeologists at the fort are now excavating the demolition layer of House E of the Southeast Rowhouse. The demolition layer was created when the fort was moved from the mainland to Mackinac Island in 1780-81, leaving a rich layer of artifacts, Mr. Porter said.

“The archaeologists love the demolition layer because it is full of great stuff,” said Mr. Porter. A Jesuit ring and knife parts have been found so far.

When finished, archaeologists will sift through the British layer, the French layer, possibly a prehistoric layer, and then pure soil.

Commissioners approved a lease transfer from John W. and Lorabeth Fitzgerald to the Lorabeth M. Fitzgerald Trust. The annual lease payment for the East Bluff cottage will start at $3,176 and will be adjusted annually with the federal inflation rate. A sublease for the same cottage was approved for Tracy Cole of Menasha, Wisconsin, from August 19 through September 1.

Commissioners approved reelecting all present officers, including Chairman Frank Kelley, Vice-chairman Dennis Cawthorne, and Secretary Laurie Stupak. Serving on the Airport Committee is Mr. Cawthorne, Father Jim Williams, and Karen Karam, the Finance and Audit Committee includes Richard Manoogian, Fr. Williams, and Barry Goodman, and the Fund Development Committee includes Ms. Karam, Mr. Goodman, and Mrs. Stupak.

The commission's next regular meeting will be at 1:30 p.m. Friday, September 24, at Fort Mackinac.

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