Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 10, 2013

Discovery Center pitches for coal dock property

By BRIAN McGILLIVARY bmcgillivary@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — An alliance of water-focused nonprofit agencies hopes to create a regional educational and tourism destination that starts with converting Traverse City Light & Power’s unused coal dock off M-22 in Leelanau County into a community harbor and private marina.

Representatives from the Discovery Center Great Lakes shared their plans with city officials late last week, an initial step to lease or manage the 2.2 acres of waterfront and a key-shaped, earth-filled pier about a mile north of M-72 in Elmwood Township.

Officials from Light & Power, the city-owned utility, recently acknowledged they’d like to unload the old coal dock property.

The proposed $6 million marina project would comprise the first phase of a roughly $20 million, privately funded proposal to create an educational and recreational destination focused on the Great Lakes and the region’s maritime heritage.

”It’s a big project, but it could really be something in the long run,” said Michael Wills, a local developer and the Discovery Center’s board chairman. “This would be a cool thing for the community.”

The conceptual, $13 million to $15 million makeover would triple the size of the Great Lakes Children’s Museum, create a wooden boat building shop for the Maritime Heritage Alliance, and possibly house a fresh water aquarium -- all connected to the waterfront by a pedestrian bridge over M-22.

But the key to creating the long-term vision for the site across M-22 from the coal dock hinges on the ability to create a private marina that produces an annual revenue stream for the nonprofits, Wills said.

The proposed marina would have two components: a private, 100-slip marina in front of private property to the south of the coal dock, and a community harbor that uses the coal dock and the harbor basin it creates. The community harbor would continue to house the tall ship Manitou and ships of the Maritime Heritage Alliance, the Watershed Center, and Traverse Area Community Sailing.

The Discovery Center also would open a section to house charter fishing and diving boats while maintaining the coal dock as a deep water port capable of serving tour ships or water taxis.

”It opens it up to the public ... and creates truly a community harbor that gets people on the water in a variety of ways,” Wills said.

Initially, the Discovery Center would pave the center of the coal dock to provide public parking for the marina, but leave the edges open for picnicking and fishing. Long-term construction of the pedestrian bridge would allow project developers to move most of the parking back to the west side of M-22, opening the coal dock for other uses such as an aquarium, Wills said.

Discovery Center officials already met privately with city and township officials, and Wills said all are supportive of the concept. They will make a formal presentation to a joint meeting of Elmwood Township board and planning commission on Nov. 19.

”Personally, I see this as all positive,” said Jack Kelly, Elmwood Township supervisor. “What this could be if it materializes is a very amazing activity node, with our marina and park, the Discovery Center, and development of ... (adjoining) properties.”

A proposal to use the property under a lease or management agreement will go to the Light & Power board on Dec. 10. No action will be taken, said Tim Arends, the utility’s executive director. Board members first want to meet with the city commission before rendering a verdict.

”It clearly is going to be a city decision, not just Light & Power,” Arends said. “The Light & Power board does not want to make any decision without the support of the city commission.”

Mayor Michael Estes and Commissioner Jim Carruthers both said they support the concept, but to varying degrees. Carruthers considers the proposal good for the city.

”We are a water-based community, and I think expanding our marina is important,” Carruthers said. “It means more boats, more people, all getting involved in the Great Lakes.”

Estes is not yet sold.

“There had better be a whole lot of benefit for the city,” Estes said. “Not to have a huge amount of benefit for city residents would be a mistake.”

Estes said there won’t be any quick decisions. First the commission and Light & Power board need to decide who will own the property. Then there is a legal question if it would be considered park property once Light & Power declares it surplus.

City resident Fred Nelson recently filed a lawsuit seeking court review of other management agreements the city has entered with nonprofits for use of city parkland. Nelson maintains management agreements that give exclusive use of city parkland to a nonprofit require voter approval.

“I can’t imagine any commissioner jumping to conclusions about this proposal until the lawsuit is resolved,” Estes said.