Muskegon Lake funds targeted

April 27, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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MUSKEGON — The industrial impact on the original Muskegon Lake shoreline over the past hundred years could become the focus of $13.8 million in federal stimulus spending.

The Great Lakes Commission in Ann Arbor, in partnership with the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission, has applied for $13.8 million from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration's Marine and Coastal Habitat Restoration division. The project would remove fill and riprap and restore the natural slope and shoreline vegetation around parts of Muskegon Lake to better support fish and wildlife.

The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration announced in early April that it had been provided $830 million under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and that $167 million would be spent on Marine and Coastal Habitat Restoration with the funds "expected to be awarded in 60 days."

Kathy Evans, program manager in the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission environmental planning department, said commercial activity along the shore of Muskegon Lake started with the sawmills in the 1800s, and then heavy industry caused more than 25 percent of the lake's original open water and wetlands to be filled in.

"I've heard the DNR fisheries division say that over a thousand acres have been filled," said Evans.

If the grant is awarded, the WMSRDC would manage the project, said Evans. It would require the hiring of consulting and engineering firms and then heavy equipment crews to remove fill, chunks of broken concrete and old pilings. Specialized contractors would replant native shoreline vegetation and some amenities might be added, such as fishing piers and boardwalks along the restored shoreline, added Evans.

She said the project would probably take about 18 months. While the WMSRDC isn't sure how many people would find jobs as a result of the project, the rough estimate is about 150.

The WMSRDC may learn by early May whether or not it will be granted the stimulus funds. If it does, "we are going to be turning this bid package around immediately," said Evans.

Evans said 12 locations have been targeted for restoration under the stimulus grant request. About half are publicly owned, by the city of Muskegon and Muskegon County, but some are owned by commercial entities such as Great Lakes Dock & Materials.

"We want to pull back out what we can" said Evans, noting that removal of fill "obviously" would not take place where buildings now stand.

The removal of fill and debris, and planting of natural wetlands vegetation in its place, would "create what they're calling more of a soft shoreline," said Evans.

To be included in the shoreline restoration project, a property owner would "have to promise they are not going to go back in and develop over it or remove it, so there is permanency to it — or at least some level of assurance it's not going to be taken out," she said.

The federal government's intent to distribute stimulus money as soon as possible has greatly accelerated the grant request process, obviously leaving many crucial details to be worked out later — as indicated by George Bailey.

Bailey, principal of Great Lakes Dock and Materials LLC, said, "We talked about doing some softening and integrating some of those things with our development, but were not going to dig out property. That's not anything that we basically agreed to."

"Everything is so speculative," said Bailey, adding there is "not anything in black and white." He said his company's properties are "in the zones that they're looking at doing some things, but that doesn't mean anything is going to be done on our property."

"There's monies that are being requested for shoreline restoration and things, but that doesn't necessarily mean that we are going to do it. We'll just have to see if they get money and what we can work out. I'm not going to start digging out land," said Bailey.

He has a project of his own he is proposing, although it is not a request for stimulus funding. Bailey wants to see if there is NOAA funding available for removal of old sawmill debris on the lake bottom at his property where the Lake Express ferry leases a dock. He said sometimes the wood debris is sucked into the cooling intake on the ferry. But he stressed that the various proposals are in their infancy, and first he would have to apply for dredging permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Bailey said his property on the lake "is really sitting there status quo, waiting to see if there are available programs that we can participate in, and if both programs fit with what our future development plans will be."

Two years ago, there were plans afoot for more development on Muskegon Lake, but two of the most high-profile projects appear to have been stalled by the recession.

In April 2007, a Texas company, Marinas International, confirmed that Bailey and his late business partner, John Bultema II, were selling the Great Lakes Marina on Muskegon Lake to out-of-state investors. Marinas International took over management of the large marina, and one of the corporation's executives, Stan Johnson, said at the time that Marinas International would be partners with Bailey and Bultema on development of 24 acres adjacent to the marina's shoreline property.

Johnson did not return recent phone calls to the Business Journal, but Bailey said plans are still alive to develop the 24 acres with Marinas International "into some type of mixed-use development, but we don't have a hard plan on that either." Bailey said the original plan was for more boat slips and some residential-type facilities, and perhaps also "some retail facilities … Something that would complement the community."

"We're still pressing ahead," said Bailey.

Muskegon Mayor Steve Warmington, who owns the Marine Taproom bar near the Great Lakes Marina, said he has heard no official discussion lately about expansion of the marina. He said that probably more than anything else, the weak economy has stalled those plans. Warmington said he understands the marina is "down as far as tenants" in its existing slips, of which there are nearly 300.

The Business Journal was unable to reach anyone authorized to speak on behalf of Marinas International.

In fall 2007, the venerable S.S. Milwaukee Clipper appeared headed to a new berth for a career as a tourist attraction and group event facility at the Mart Dock on the Muskegon Lake waterfront downtown. The deal fell through, however, and the Clipper is still two miles away, at the so-called Grand Trunk dock. Dr. Ray Hilt, president of the nonprofit group S.S. Milwaukee Clipper Preservation Inc., said now the organization is negotiating with the city, hoping the Clipper will be berthed someday soon at the city-owned Hartshorn Marina on the southeast end of Muskegon Lake.

Hilt said his group's plans should fit into the plans sketched out in the stimulus grant request, "because their plans for the Hartshorn peninsula are virtually the same as ours; we had planned on some fish docks, fishing piers out there."

The city, he said, "has been a marvelous help to us, trying very hard to get us located someplace in Muskegon because of what this will be able to do for the area."

But he noted that the state of Michigan denied the group's application for a permit in 2006 to move the Clipper to the Hartshorn Marina.

"We do intend to put up an active battle for our site, because we believe both of these things can exist," said Hilt.

He was referring to the Clipper as a tourist attraction, and shoreline restoration that will enhance the natural fish and wildlife populations.

Hilt noted, however, that Muskegon Lake already abounds with walleye, bass and perch.

"It’s a great lake to fish in but there's gotta be room for other things besides fishing, because this economy in this area is not going to exist solely on fishing. The city needs all the attractions it can get."

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