Rotary Charities eyes coal dock deal

Rotary Charities is taking over the leadership role to design a new Discovery Center project and obtain the coal dock on West Grand Traverse Bay from Traverse City.

TRAVERSE CITY — One of the region's most influential nonprofit agencies will head up efforts to obtain the Traverse City coal dock property for a Discovery Center Great Lakes campus makeover.

Rotary Charities of Traverse City hopes to boost a two-year effort to expand Discovery Center Great Lakes, an alliance of water-focused nonprofit agencies situated on Rotary Charities property on M-22 in Elmwood Township. 

The campus is across the road from the city’s earthen, key-shaped pier known as the coal dock, a property Discovery Center officials want city officials to give them without charge. Discovery Center's goal: create a regional education and tourism destination on the site.

Rotary Charities moved in to revive and lead the project after it stalled over city commissioners' lack of interest and disagreement among the Discovery Center's member organizations.

"For Rotary to step in and take the lead is awesome," said Mike Wills, chairman of the Discovery Center board. "Our nonprofit partners are busy fulfilling their own mission and they don't have any background in development and ... this is a massive undertaking. Rotary has the experience and credibility and resources to make things happen."

Marsha Smith, Rotary Charities' executive director, said Discovery Center officials presented their initial plan as an all-encompassing vision headed by a large private marina on neighboring shoreline to generate income for the nonprofits. She said the project now will have to proceed in phases, and a private marina wasn't the right place to start; indeed, it created dissension among the Discover Center own organizations. 

Environmental concerns about dredging and alterations to 200 feet of shoreline for the proposed private marina led leaders of Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay to withdraw their support in December 2014.

Smith said the idea for a private marina is off the table, for now.

"We're scaling back and just focusing on the community marina ... the coal dock and our own 50 feet (of shoreline)," Smith said.

The initial proposal called for using the coal dock as a parking lot to serve the private marina. No private marina means a reduced need for parking, which opens the coal dock property for other uses.

Rotary officials reached out Discovery Center members' boards, supporters, staff and key volunteers with a survey that seeks their ideas on how to use the property and whether Rotary Charities should attempt to purchase the coal dock and related property.

City commissioners expressed no interest in making a gift of the coal dock and accompanying 4.6 acres of property on the west side of M-22. The two parcels combined were appraised at $2.68 million in 2012.

A committee of commissioners has been at work on a new policy to govern the sale of city-owned assets, and Rotary Charities and Discovery Center officials have closely followed the committee's work.

Wills said the goal is to have a new Discovery Center plan in hand when the city finishes its work on the policy. 

Smith said Rotary Charities officials' review is in the early stages, but she hasn't ruled out making an offer to buy the property from the city.

"We would love to have it in any way," she said.

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