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.