Traverse City Record-Eagle

February 3, 2013

License plates to help dunes back on table


TRAVERSE CITY — An idea to sell specialty license plates that tout the popular Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore dozed for several years, but it's been revived.

Preserve Historic Sleeping Bear, a nonprofit, hopes to sell the specialty plate to help fund its efforts to protect the park's historic resources and landscapes.

State Rep. Ray Franz, R-Bear Lake, just announced he will introduce the legislation.

The news came as a surprise to Kerry Kelly, who pursued the same idea in 2008 but wanted plate proceeds to go instead to Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes, a nonprofit for which he volunteers.

"We maintain a very good relationship with (Preserve Historic Sleeping Bear)," Kelly said. "We don't want to cause rifts, but we wish we had done it or done it together with them. But we weren't consulted on it, so we wish them the best."

Susan Pocklington, director of Preserve Historic Sleeping Bear, said she didn't know about the Friends' 2008 effort. No one had reached out to notify her group or to collaborate, she said.

"Preserve didn't know anything about it because no one ever told us," she said.

She stumbled on the information online, but only after spending months working with the office of State Sen. Darwin Booher, R-Cadillac.

"At that time, we did consider (including Friends) at that point," Pocklington said. "We like to collaborate with them on projects. But we had already invested so much time and energy into it."

As a courtesy, they informed the Friends group before the legislation was introduced the first time in September, she said.

Kelly said the struggling economy deep-sixed the idea back in 2008. The set-up fee was expensive and the group had to guarantee a minimum amount of licenses would be sold.

"With the economy going down at that time, we felt it wasn't the right time," he said. "We didn't think it was a bad idea, but the timing didn't seem right."

Both nonprofits work closely with the park. Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes is an all-volunteer group that helps the park with a wide range of projects, including river, shoreline, trail maintenance and establishing new trails.

Tom Ulrich, the park's deputy superintendent, predicts the specialty license plates will be popular if last year's record number of visitors to the 50,000 acre park is any indication.

"Of course, I'm biased, but Sleeping Bear is fantastic and well-loved throughout Michigan," Ulrich said. "Last year was our biggest year with 1.53 million. It blew away any previous record."

Ulrich said that proceeds from the sales will mean that Preserve can do much more work on historic structures and controlling non-native species. The park will likely review the plate design when it's ready, he said.

Specialty licenses require money and legwork, and depend on legislative approval. The set-up fee is $15,000, and the nonprofit group has to guarantee 2,000 sold in the first year and 500 annually for the next five years, said Fred Woodhams, a Michigan Department of State spokesman.

The plate is discontinued if sales numbers aren't met, but the nonprofit doesn't have to ante up money for a shortfall, he said.

All of Michigan's public universities have their own specialty plates, along with 10 other nonprofits that support a wide range of causes, including organ donation, lifehouse preservation, Boy Scouts and Olympic education, Woodhams said.