Grants spotlight lighthouse projects

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LANSING — Several Michigan lighthouses are seeking grants to keep their lights shining, and their roofs, windows and paint in ship-shape condition.

While most lighthouses are in good shape, the people looking after them face a greater challenge than ever before, said Terry Pepper, executive director of the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association in Mackinaw City.

“When they first took ownership, there was a great surge from the public to get them restored,” Pepper said. “But they still need constant maintenance, and it’s more difficult to come up with money in these difficult economic times.”

The state Historic Preservation Office received 10 grant applications this year. The money comes from the Michigan Lighthouse Assistance Program, funded through the sale of “Save Our Lights” specialty license plates, which raised $152,065 in 2009.

Denise Sachau, grants manager at the preservation office, said the program receives about $160,000 a year from the plate sales, a figure that has stayed steady in recent years.

“The license plate fund has stayed pretty consistent even with the economy,” said office architect Bryan Lijewski, with the program funding five to 10 projects each year.

Michigan has 128 lighthouses — the most of any state — and most located on the shore are in good to excellent condition, Pepper said. “In the water, it’s a different kettle of fish,” he said. “Some are in deteriorated condition because the Coast Guard’s not maintaining them.”

The Coast Guard originally owned all Michigan lighthouses, but it transferred more than 70 to the state in 1999, which Sally Frye, secretary-treasurer at the Michigan Lighthouse Alliance in Traverse City, said was due to advances in GPS technology. Since then, the agency has given others to government groups and nonprofit organizations.

The Coast Guard has maintained the lenses on active lighthouses, but the rest of the structures have needed significant attention, Frye said. “It’s extremely expensive,” Frye said. “Many have not been used, so there’s maintaining the foundation, re-roofing, windows. It takes a great deal of money.”

Frye said the Coast Guard will transfer four or five more lighthouses to groups at the 2010 Great Lakes Lighthouse Preservation Conference in June, including two on Lake Huron and one on Lake Michigan.

Overall, lighthouse tourism is a big asset to the state, Frye said. “They are the jewels of Michigan,” Frye said. “They are a wonderful draw in these economic times and can help the state if we work with tourism and the government.”

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