Monday, June 28, 2010

Celebrating a place

This past week was Engineering Day, the one day out of the year that the public is invited to tour much of the locks complex here in Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan. It’s a big day for the Sault. People come from all around to tour the locks. I couldn’t make it this year, but have attended in years past and always enjoyed crossing over the locks and seeing the inside of the buildings.

The locks are important for the Sault. The facility employs a number of people, both in the direct operation and in ongoing maintenance. If the ‘super locks’ really comes to be, construction jobs for that project will make a substantial contribution to the local economy. But aside from that super project, the locks probably generates as much economic activity from tourism as from operation and maintenance. The locks are impressive and it is fun to see ships lock through. Many thousands of people visit the Sault each year, with a visit to the Sault locks as their main agenda item.

So Engineering Day helps us celebrate the locks. The local electric utility piggybacks on the celebration and opens the hydro plant to the public (at ¼ mile long and still running after 100 years, it is something to celebrate. The utility celebrates that the hydro plant generates one-third of the power the utility sells – far above the new renewable portfolio standards.) LSSU’s Aquatic Research Lab, located in the hydro plant, also benefits from the added exposure and a look at the lab’s hatchery operations adds to the interest of the plant tour. The sturgeon are a highlight of the hatchery tour. The International Bridge, another important feature of the twin Saults, gets in the act by hosting the Annual Bridge Walk. It’s a big weekend and a great celebration.

Celebrations of local features helps build a sense of place. Many places have local festivals celebrating natural features, historical events, cultural activities. It brings in tourists but just as importantly, builds the sense-of-place for residents, too. Whether it’s a big 4th of July celebration or an ethnic celebration such as Oktoberfest, it’s a good party and a good reason for people to visit and spend money (for example, Hays, Kansas, where I lived for several years and have family, is clever to combine their Oktoberfest with Homecoming at Fort Hays State University, the local University and my alma mater. It makes for quite a popular party.) Paradise, Michigan has its annual Blueberry Festival coming up in August, Cedarville has its annual Frog Fest coming up in July. The St. Ignace Car Show just wrapped up this past weekend (St. Ignace is getting known for its car show even though the auto industry did not really figure into the town’s history.) The biggest of the festivals in northern Michigan is the Cherry Festival in Traverse City, but that’s off the chart compared to the others.

Here in the Sault, we have an annual art-in-the-park event, a relatively new history festival, and others. Sporting events such as the annual I-500 snowmobile race and various fishing tournaments also bring festivities to town. New for this year is the Sault Marathon. It’s nice to see a diversity of events building up.

What we’re missing in the Sault is a St. Marys River Festival. The river is our signature feature. We should celebrate it. Over the years, Sault, Michigan has held various Locks Festivals and several years ago, the festival was a week-long event featuring a number of musical performances and other entertainments. Apparently that was not sustainable since we have not had a big locks fest since. The local sportsmen’s club held a St. Marys River festival which went well, but I’m not sure whether that has been sustained either. Perhaps the county, city, university, tribes and others should collaborate on bringing a nice, appropriately sized, festival to the Saint Marys River. We need to do more place-making along the river. Maybe a re-invigorated St. Marys River Fest would be a good start. Now we just need a group to come together to get it going.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Serenity Now

Research shows that idly petting your dog or cat lowers your blood pressure. I don’t know if similar research shows the same effect from gazing over a nice stretch of open water. I can only speak for myself.

About 20 some miles downstream of the Sault, the St. Marys River widens into Munuscong Bay. At about 4 miles wide and 8 miles long, it’s an impressive stretch of open water.

In my job as a Biologist, I get to visit Munuscong Bay spring, summer, and fall. I always look forward to those trips and am never disappointed. This past week, I was at the Bay as part of a planning session on invasive plants. Fortunately, Munuscong Bay doesn’t have very much in the way of invasive plants. We want to keep it that way.

One can enjoy waters in many ways. Fishing, boating (fast or slow), studying the natural history, photography, writing, and more. Or one can just take Otis Redding’s advice, even if we don’t have a tide to watch here in the Great Lakes. Instead we can just look out over the water. I don’t agree with Otis, though. It’s not a waste of time. It’s investing time in one’s mental health.

The St. Marys River offers many sites to look out over the serene open water and feel your soul restored. Where's your favorite?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

northern michigan in NYT

Petoskey, Michigan made the New York Times earlier this spring

Check it out, it's a fun story. But it does make Petoskey sound almost like, well, not quite a real place. Petoskey is a real place with a diversity of people, not all of which live in vacation homes.

I like Petoskey. We go there often when we want to go to a different town for a change of scene.

It occurs to me that Petoskey wasn't always the Petoskey we know today. I've heard that that part of Michigan actually used to be hillbilly county and was even the inspiration for Lil' Abner 'though I have not confirmed that story.

Whether the Lil' Abner part is correct, that area of northwest lower Michigan certainly did make a transition from rural outpost to somewhere considered by many to be the place to be, for a large part because it was discovered by the money-ed crowd.

A place doesn't have to become a yacht haven for wealthy people, but somewhere in their history some towns made a transition from 'frontier town' -- the mining, logging, railroad, or other industry that upon which the town sprang up -- to modern town that attracts forward thinking people. That happened in some towns and their economies show it. I am quite interested in seeing whether the place-making movement can help other towns make that transition.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Third Place

Placemakers talk about the third place. Your first and second places are home and work, respectively (at least for those with those priorities). Third places are where you go when you're not at home or at work. Typically it's a cafe. One of the favorite third places in our town is a nice, local cafe, but, similar to being a visitor in a small town church, one needs to be careful in selecting a place to sit. You wouldn't want to sit where Bill and Mark and their crew sit.

Third places are important. One small town in the Great Plains, when faced with the prospect of their one cafe closing, decided to run the cafe as a public enterprise through the library.

When I was in college, our third place was a small grill-style restaurant whose liquour license was limited to beer. That was before the current trend for microbrews and local beers, so there was only one choice for beer. But an upscale microbrew or pub with a wide selection of specialty beer has become a common third place in several towns.

For some towns, the 'upscale' part hasn't quite caught on. Somne towns have a number of traditional downtown bars that may well be third places for their patrons, but to some don't project the image the town is trying to portray. Placemakers find themselves in a similar role of the ladies that worked to convert mining towns, logging towns, railroad towns and other rough-and-tumble towns to 'respectable' towns.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Some skillful placemaking

At its south end, Lake Huron flows into the St. Clair River. Port Huron, Michigan and Sarnia, Ontario are right at the start of the river. Both towns grew up as industrial cities. Sarnia was Canada’s first petroleum refinery and a center of the chemical industry. There is still has an active refinery on the Canadian side of the river. Port Huron grew up as a shipping town, and still bills itself as Michigan’s Maritime City. The riches of the area’s forests, ag fields, and, later, industrial enterprises, and easy shipping of those products, made the town prosperous. Port Huron and Sarnia could have gone the way of other rust belt towns, but some far-sighted placemaking has instead left it a lovely river-front town.

Even though practically none of the natural riverbank remains – it’s all rip-rap and sheet piling – both towns committed to the idea of public access to the river. Public access was a guiding principle as former industrial sites were cleaned up and replaced with offices, public works, mixed use residences and parks. Other than stretches of private homesites that remained private homesites (including luxury homes where fish shacks previously stood), the rest of the river features walkways close enough to the river to fish from. And fishermen use those access points extensively day and night. The immediate proximity to open Lake Huron makes Port Huron/Sarnia a port of choice for boaters (including yacht owners).

One example shows the Port Huron’s commitment to public access. When the new sewage treatment plant went in, the standards called for a fence to exclude riverfront access. Instead the city insisted, against the directives of government agencies, on retaining public access.

Now, thanks to the efforts of the St. Clair River Binational Pubic Advisory Council, projects have begun to reclaim some of the riverfront to more fish-friendly cover on both sides of the river. With all of the waterfront development, a natural stream course isn’t feasible, but sheetpiling and rip-rap are being replaced by shallower-gradient rock walls and gravel. With the reduction in industrial discharges and the clean up of the water treatment systems over the past many years, a thriving fish community occurs, including a healthy sturgeon population.

The cleanup efforts are likely helped by the area’s relative affluence. Although the recession has taken a large toll on personal incomes, the yachts and luxury homes along the river indicate some degree of financial wherewithal remains (and waterfront property appears to be out of the price range of most people, unlike the St. Marys River where ordinary people can live on the river). A local industrialist helped in placemaking by reclaiming a mile of former industrial land to public use, including the Great Lakes Maritime Center.

If you want to see what happens when a town commits to public access to its water front, come see Port Huron/Sarnia. (For a good view of the river front, including the luxury homes, take the tour boat.) You’ll see that with public access, people interact with the river in many positive ways and become motivated to work to improve the place’s qualities.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Normal, Part 2

Part of what makes a place a nice place to live, work and play is what’s considered ‘normal.’ In the most recent posting, I described how walking is becoming the new normal in many places. Of course walking is just one aspect.

Normal could also include tolerance for and indeed support for people looking for all kinds of healthy choices such as availability of outdoor recreation options and even a wide range of food choices. Normal could also include an overall feeling of concern for environmental quality, overall pride in the area’s history and culture, visual appeal of the town. Normal can mean a diversity of desires and opinions. Economic developers stress an area’s feeling of welcoming of new people even if those new people bring slightly different ideas.

I’ve heard both sides of the ‘slightly different ideas.’ One the one hand is the danger of gentrification. As suburbanites move out to the land of working farms, some begin to complain about the sounds, smells and sights of their new neighborhood. They may not think that part of the charm of living in a rural area includes the sound of tractor motors and back-up beepers at 530 AM or the wafting of animal smells or the sight of old equipment. Some townships, upon receiving notifications of purchases of new residential properties in their rural areas, send the new owners a friendly letter explaining a bit about life in the county. These new residents are briefed about what they may expect to see, hear and smell. Farmers in Michigan are protected to some degree from complaints from neighbors. The right-to-farm law in Michigan protects farmers who follow best management practices from nuisance complaints regarding their farming practices (but again, the protections are for those farmers who follow best management practices).

On the other hand, a little gentrification wouldn’t hurt in some places. I recall several years ago hearing a local, long-time resident complaining about these darn new neighbors that ‘want us to have mufflers on all our cars and clean up our junk piles.’ Umm, yes, maybe your old neighbors would like that, too.

There are ways to welcome new people and ideas without losing what made the place appealing to begin with. It takes people working together to plan for it all. People working together to accomplish progress? How normal is that?

I can think of a few places that residents and officials came together for environmental cleanups. Maybe these places could thus be known, if not just for the natural beauty of the area but also for what they were able to accomplish.

Once could be a site on the Detroit River formerly known as the Black Lagoon. With that name, you can perhaps imagine the conditions of the river at that brownfield site. Thanks to hard work by many people, fish now can live in that section of the river and it’s been renamed “Elias Cove.” A mixed use residential development is planned for the site.

Things didn’t work out quite so well for Bay Harbor outside of Petoskey, Michigan. A site contaminated by cement kiln dust was re-fitted to luxury residences only to find the cement kiln dust resurfacing in to Lake Michigan. In the not-to-distant future, it will be known as ‘a place they fixed’ but ‘they’ still have to come up with a workable answer to the question ‘now what?’

Here in Sault, Michigan, three contaminant hot-spots have been cleaned up. The old leather tannery, the old carbide plant and an old manufactured gas plant (the former two represent economic engines of the Sault’s past that required substantial clean up). Still, we have a lot more work to do before we can become knows as ‘the little town that could.’

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Walking: The New Normal?

We’ve generally had a warm, dry, early spring up here in the EUP. You know, the kind of weather that’s called ‘nice.’ Maybe because of the 'nice' weather, I’ve seen a lot of people out walking. Not just in town, but also along rural roadways. And it’s not just people who’ve lost their driver’s licenses to DUIs!

It’s looked to me like over the past several years, more and more people are walking as a way to enjoy being outside, as a way to get some exercise, and as a good way to socialize with one’s walking partner(s). It’s great to see.

Not that many years ago, walking was not so normal. How many of you had this experience? You were out for a stroll and someone you knew came by in their car. They’d stop to offer a ride because obviously you’d run out of gas or for some other reason were forced to walk instead of drive. It happened to me several times. I could hardly dissuade those well-meaning acquaintances in their attempts to offer me a ride. They’d leave somewhat puzzled why I’d prefer to walk.

Again, it’s great to see the new interest in walking. Not to be pushy, but if we could see more people walking as a form of transportation, not just recreation, that’d be even better.

Pleasant surroundings, pleasant weather, a safe route, all encourage walking. Towns are looking into walkable communities projects, including walkability audits, designated coffee break walking routes around offices, maps and guides to choice walking routes, walk/ride to work/school days. It all helps promote walking. But what might really promote it is the relatively new, positive attitude about walking.

So wouldn’t part of a place’s sense-of-place revolve around what’s normal for that place? Changing attitudes can be a slow process and probably has to happen organically, but how can we encourage changes in attitude like that? How did walking get to be the new normal?