2013-06-21 / Top News

Cawthorne’s 22 Years on Commission Benefits Community

By Wesley Maurer, Jr.


Dennis Cawthorne Dennis Cawthorne To Dennis Cawthorne goes much credit for a host of improvements during his 22 years on the Mackinac Island State Park Commission, and for service that extended downtown to benefit the Medical Center, the school, and even long-distance telephone service. His service here began right out of high school as a carriage driver in 1960, continued with summer administration of the chamber of commerce while attending Harvard Law School, later as a leader in the Michigan House of Representatives, a successful lobbyist, and most recently as chairman of the park commission. He retired from the commission in May, at the end of his last gubernatorial appointment. For all but three years of his 22 years on the commission, he served as its chairman, and throughout his service, say his colleagues and community leaders, he was a dedicated and hard-working public servant.

“He did a great job as chairman of the Mackinac Island State Park Commission, always acted in the public interest,” said Frank Kelley, his law partner, fellow park commissioner, and long-time political friend. “When I say public interest, I mean unselfish interest and what anyone would agree was for the good of the public. That’s the way he’s programmed, and that’s the way he’s motivated.”

Mr. Cawthorne was first appointed to the commission in 1991 by Governor John Engler, and he set about to reclaim some of the public land and protect some of the public access that had been eroded from Michigan’s first state park, the largest chunk being the Stonecliffe estate on the Island’s west side. But he also reorganized the lease structure for cottages built on park land, promoted development and continued historic interpretation of the commission’s major sites on the Island and mainland, and worked in Lansing and Washington to protect at least some of the funding to allow Mackinac State Historic Parks to stay in business during the state’s most recent recession.

“In terms of his accomplishments,” noted Mackinac State Historic Parks Director Phil Porter, “when you line them up, it is just staggering. You begin to put together all the pieces of what he has done, or what has happened under his leadership of the commission, and it is really quite astounding over 22 years.”

Multiple improvements to the commission’s historic properties, from the reopening of Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse, the creation of Historic Mill Creek Discovery Center, multiple restorations at Fort Mackinac, reconstruction at Michilimackinac, the Manoogian Art Museum, land acquisitions and scenic easements, Mr. Porter noted, all happened under his leadership.

“When you’re there for 22 years,” he said, “a lot can happen.”

And, while the park staff made many of those projects happen, Mr. Porter said, “it only gets done because the commission finds the money to do it and then embraces the planning and encourages the staff to move forward.”

That good leadership, in Mr. Porter’s mind, is one of Mr. Cawthorne’s major contributions to the commission and the park. His administration of the commission, he said, allowed it “to operate in a way that I think was always perceived as very professional, very honorable, very effective in the way they carried out their business…We’re all very proud of the way the commission operates.”

Whether it be historic projects, preservation, or politics, Mr. Porter said, Mr. Cawthorne “would always keep the big picture in mind, he would be very encouraging, very supportive, … he allowed the staff to do their work in an effective way, provided the leadership we needed without ever micromanaging it, and from that respect, he was just an outstanding person to work for.

“He was also a person with great personal integrity,” added Mr. Porter, “and great commitment to the mission of what we do. He really got it. He not only understood what we do in general, but he understood Mackinac in particular.”

Mr. Cawthorne’s reputation in Lansing as one of the state’s outstanding lobbyists also benefited Mackinac Island, both in terms of procuring and protecting operational funds for Mackinac State Historic Parks and in creating legislation that benefited the school, the city, and the Mackinac Island Medical Center.

“His being in Lansing was a tremendous help to the commission and to the state park because he constantly was working on our behalf in terms of legislation and funding,” said Park Commissioner Richard Manoogian, who has served since 1995. “He did a great deal in terms of preserving and trying to maintain the funding for the state park through legislation.”

While revenue bonds support much of the commission’s preservation efforts, the state contributes a sizable allocation for general operations, and this has always come under scrutiny when governors and legislators believe the money could be spent elsewhere.

Most recently, politicians in Lansing proposed elimination of the commission’s $1.5 million general fund budget, believing a head tax could be levied on visitors arriving by ferryboats. But, Mr. Porter pointed out, “they simply didn’t realize that the boats don’t land in the state park, they land in the city, and we had no leverage by which to get that [head tax] money, so Dennis put together a very thoughtful strategy and plan on how to counter that, but he did it in such a way that we were successful, the legislature put the money back in, the governor signed the bill, but nobody ever lost face. He never made anybody look bad for what was not a particularly strong position. He did it in a way that was diplomatic and very effective and yet got our money back for us.”

Some of that money is now safer because the allocation has been tied into the state’s park endowment fund.

Mr. Cawthorne’s strength in government relations lies in his style of persuasion, which is constructive and deliberate.

“I always try to approach things in a low-key way,” he said, “so, with legislators, I sit down in a low key way, try to explain the importance of the Island to any legislator who would listen, its importance in terms of its economic value as well as its historic and scenic value, and try to convince legislators that investing in Mackinac Island is a good investment for everybody. And I try to present this stuff factually, just try to be a straight shooter with them, and I think, generally, that is appreciated.”

Downtown in the city, Mr. Cawthorne’s legislative work has also been beneficial.

“Dennis has a very good working relationship with the city,” said Mayor Margaret Doud. “We work very well together. He knows Mackinac and he knows the uniqueness of many of our situations on the Island, and we certainly hope that he will continue to work with the city in many different capacities.

Several years ago, when AT&T dropped long-distance charges to neighboring communities, it said the Great Lakes isolated Mackinac Island from the program, and continued to charge long-distance toll to the mainland. Mr. Cawthorne, Mayor Doud recalls, argued successfully before the Michigan Public Service Commission that Mackinac Island is contiguous to St. Ignace, and now calls made between the two communities are charged at the local rate.

He helped convince the U.S. Farm Home administration to fund the city’s sewer and water plant expansion in the 1990s, worked to get the legislation passed that allowed for the establishment of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, which allowed for hotel room assessments, and helped with rural school legislation.

While he was a paid representative for the Northern Michigan Schools Legislative Association, much of the work he did for the Mackinac Island school, and all of his work on behalf of the city and state park, has been pro bono.

One of the more significant contributions to the city, financially, Mayor Doud said, was Mr. Cawthorne’s work with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to grant the Mackinac Island Medical Center emergency room status, which, she said, has qualified the facility for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Mackinac Island, she said, is one of the very few non-hospitals in the country to be granted emergency room status.

“He was also very instrumental in helping to get the sign ordinance passed,” she said. “He helped to draft it, and worked with us to pass it. It definitely benefitted the appearance of Main Street and the surrounding areas.”

“He really has been a lobbyist for the whole island,” Mr. Porter said. “In the best sense of the word, he has been out there as an advocate for trying to care for and protect the Island and assist those who live here in a real pos- itive way.”

Mr. Cawthorne said he has been cautious in his efforts on behalf of the city so as not to be perceived as interfering or controlling.

“Particularly as commission chairman,” he said, “I tried usually to not in any way interfere, or be seen to interfere, with the city council’s deliberations, but I did work for passage of the sign ordinance and passage of the formula, or chain fast-food, ban, so I drafted the sign ordinance, I drafted the anti-chain fast-food, drafted those and took them to the council and worked on the council to adopt those. And I didn’t do that as commission chair, but I think being chair of the commission helped to give my efforts some heft. …Those were the things I really thought needed to be done.”

A major initiative, of which he is most proud, has been to bring back into the state park some land which he felt needed to be protected for public use.

In the early 1980s, the state park lost 36.6 acres through an adverse possession case involving property from the old Stonecliffe estate, and when Mr. Cawthorne was appointed to the commission about 10 years later, he said, “One of my objectives was to get as much of that back as we could get.

“We managed, through various devices, to protect nearly one mile of Island shoreline, by outright acquiring it from owners, getting scenic easements, acquiring development rights, so I’m really quite proud of the fact that we did a great deal to preserve critical lands on the Island.”

Chimney Rock, or Sunset Rock, which was privately owned, was acquired, as was the area around Brown’s Brook. Scenic easements were negotiated below Grand Hotel’s swimming pool and in a housing development below Stonecliffe. John McCabe sold to the park his development rights to six acres he owned near British Landing, and a biking trail was established along the state-owned shoreline in front of Mission Point Resort to create better access to the waterfront.

“I always thought that it was important to do,” he said of the trail, “because it firmly established the fact that this was public property along the shoreline. So I was always very proud of that, too, that the public’s rights were asserted and protected on these critical shorelines.”

Mr. Manoogian said Dennis Cawthorne’s knowledge of the Island, his knowledge of the commission and the park made him an effective leader on the commission.

“The fact that he knows the Island so well, I felt we always tried to do everything we could to fulfill our mission and still contribute to the Island’s overall well-being and benefit. So the fact that he was there, was always on the Island a great deal, gave him a lot of knowledge that some commissioners who are not regular Islanders wouldn’t have had.

“Knowing Dennis as well as I do, I think that, even though he’s not on the commission, he’ll do everything he can in the future to continue helping the Island and the state park and the commission.”

“I certainly expect to be active on the Island for some time to come,” Mr. Cawthorne said.

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