2017-08-12 / Top News

Councils Discuss Bay Closure for St. Ignace Pond Hockey Ice

By Jacob A. Ball and Erich T. Doerr

Year-around Mackinac Island residents want ferry service to the mainland to continue as far into winter as possible, but by January, St. Ignace’s attention turns toward the annual Upper Peninsula Pond Hockey Championships that for two straight years have been hampered by the lack of ice along its waterfront on Moran Bay.

Therein lies an issue. Pond hockey tournament organizers this year are campaigning for a St. Ignace city ordinance that would close the bay to marine traffic, from the Mill Slip to the Favorite Dock, annually from January 7 to February 1 in hopes that would allow adequate ice to form for the skaters and crowds of spectators the event attracts.

The February tournament is a major cold-season draw for St. Ignace, with hockey rinks ideally laid out in neat rows on Moran Bay ice. In the last two years, however, organizers have been forced to hold all or most of the competition on Chain Lake, northwest of the city, and in a Little Bear East Arena parking lot.

Mackinac Island, on the other hand, relies on ferry service to run for as long as possible in winter so supplies and building materials can be shipped to the Island for winter projects and to meet residents’ needs. Islanders cross to the mainland for doctor’s appointments and to shop for items not available there in winter.

Discussion at an August 7 by the Mackinac Island City Council and August 2 meeting of the St. Ignace City Council focused on the logic behind closing the bay, who can make such a decision, and the impact of pond hockey on the St. Ignace economy.

The St. Ignace council will try to come up with some answers prior to its 7 p.m. August 21 meeting. The U.S. Coast Guard claims the ultimate authority to regulate navigation on the Great Lakes, but says it will be inclined to protect the tournament area if the cities agree to that; so the city council will also consider how it might help develop a consensus.

A copy of a letter advocating bay closure to the St. Ignace City Council was read to the Island council at its meeting. In discussion that followed, councilmembers and residents attending the meeting questioned how much a stoppage of boat traffic would help ice form on the bay, and said St. Ignace’s Chain Lake alternative worked well the last two years.

The Island council has no jurisdiction in the matter, but noted Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry, which provides off-season service to St. Ignace, is heavily involved in the discussion. Company President Chris Shepler says he’s open to discussion, but wouldn’t want to halt his winter freight operation, even for a month or so.

If that became necessary, he said, there are options: He could run ferries from Mackinaw City, not preferred because of ice in the Straits of Mackinac, or he could arrange to use the docks of his Mackinac Island competitors, which outside the area where boat traffic would be prohibited. Star Line operates winter freight and passenger services from the old Chambers dock in the middle of town and Arnold Freight runs freight from the old state ferry dock adjacent to Coast Guard Station St. Ignace.

About a foot of ice is needed for the pond hockey tournament to be held on Moran Bay. According to George D. Ashton, a researcher on the process of lake ice formation, in ideal conditions, the average temperature over a three-week period would need to be 20 degrees Fahrenheit or lower to create 12 inches of ice. On a one-week timetable, the average temperature would need to be zero to achieve adequate thickness.

Along with proper temperature, Dr. Ashton identifies ideal conditions for ice formation as little wind and clear skies. This means, given the volatility of weather patterns in the Straits of Mackinac, it’s difficult to predict whether conditions will allow for ice formation. Heavy gusts and overcast skies often hinder the process and can arrive without warning across the Straits.

During winter, boat service continues between St. Ignace and Mackinac Island as long as Lake Huron is deemed safe for passage. This provides Island residents and businesspeople convenient transportation and a conveyance for goods.

Island Councilmember Dennis Bradley said he doesn’t believe it would be in the Island’s best interest to support the bay closure proposal. It would cut off some freight shipments and could affect the wintertime economy, he said. Island Councilmember Jason St. Onge said that if the weather is cold enough to form ice, ferry service will be cut off naturally.

Although concerns were raised by most councilmembers during the meeting, lack of jurisdiction and a desire to avoid conflict with the Island’s mainland neighbors led to a decision to continue discussing the issue with St. Ignace.

At the St. Ignace council meeting, the City Hall chambers were filled beyond capacity as representatives from business organizations and the United States Coast Guard spoke about the issue. Mr. Shepler agreed the pond hockey tournament is important to St. Ignace, but suggested conversations about restricting freight traffic should include representatives from Mackinac Island.

He said Star Line’s five-year exclusive franchise with the city to provide winter passenger service to the Island will expire in two years and his company plans to aggressively bid on it, which could mean that passenger service, in addition to freight, would be running from the Shepler’s dock in St. Ignace.

His company is also embarking on a $1.7-million dock and development project on the Island that requires heavy construction materials to be sent over this winter. Work will not begin on the dock until November 1, but Shepler’s will need to move materials for the project in January and February, if possible.

In addition, Mr. Shepler said he lost substantial revenue last winter when he agreed to shut down for a few weeks to let ice form for the tournament. He contends some of his business went to other companies in the meantime. Mr. Shepler said he is open to mediation toward a solution.

U,S. Coast Guard Lieutenant Junior Grade Sean Murphy, Sector Sault Ste. Marie Waterways Management Division Chief, said the Captain of the Port at Sault Ste. Marie has the ultimate power to shut the bay to boat traffic, as it does for the ice bridge to form be- tween St. Ignace and Mackinac Island. He said the Coast Guard could help the city by setting up designated safety zones around areas for events, if needed.

St. Ignace Mayor Connie Litzner asked city attorney Tom Evashevski to meet with Lt. Murphy and iron out jurisdiction issues relating to the bay. She assured the pond hockey advocates the city will return to the discussion at its next meeting in two weeks.

From the St. Ignace perspective, the event provides crucial financial support to help businesses remain open through the winter and provide funding for other community events that support the St. Ignace economy yeararound. On average, the tournament attracts about 200 teams to the city and contributes an estimated $500,000 directly to local businesses and organizations.

The closure would not be arbitrarily approved, rather the decision would be reviewed weekly during the time period to determine if closing Moran Bay could potentially support ice formation. If the forecast was not deemed promising, boat service would be allowed to continue.

Several residents offered comments at the St. Ignace council meeting.

Many St. Ignace restaurants and hotels surveyed by Chamber of Commerce President John Kling said that they would need to close during the winter if not for pond hockey.

Mark Sposito of the St. Ignace Events Committee said that through pond hockey, St. Ignace is able to host numerous events free of charge the rest of the year. Without the pond hockey revenue, he said, there would be no way to fund these events.

The impact of these events is substantial for St. Ignace’s summer tourism industry and reaches beyond the city with many attendees traveling to Mackinac Island, as well. During the recent MINI on the Mack event, many participating vehicles could be seen parked in the ferry lines’ lots.

According to Bridgette Sorenson of the St. Ignace Hockey Association, the organization and Little Bear East Arena depend on revenue generated by the pond hockey championships. Smaller hockey tournaments also bring in players and families who book hotel rooms and eat in restaurant.

Kewadin Casino in St. Ignace saw a 26% increase in slot-machine revenue during the 2017 pond hockey tournament, compared to the other weekends in February. This increases the amount of money given back to the community by the Sault Tribe through its two-percent revenue grant funding such services as free public skating.

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