Travel and tourism pros help renovate Sturgeon Point Lighthouse

Volunteers load rock to be placed around the foundation of the Sturgeon Point Lighthouse.

May 29, 2015

A unique partnership between the Department of Natural Resources, Grand Valley State University and members of the Michigan travel and tourism industry (a group called Michigan Cares for Tourism) is paying big dividends for Michigan by refurbishing state resources and upgrading the kinds of attractions that help sustain the industry - an industry that generates $22 billion a year for Michigan's economy.

A recent two-day work event at Sturgeon Point Lighthouse - a state-owned site just outside of Harrisville State Park on Lake Huron - accomplished what would have taken local volunteers and staffers years to get done.

Built in 1869 and made operational the next year, the Sturgeon Point lighthouse features a 70-foot, 9-inch tower. It became a U.S. Coast Guard station in 1915, was electrified in 1939, and was deeded to the state of Michigan in 1961 after the Guard had moved on. In 1982, the Alcona Historical Society leased it from the state and began to convert it into a monument/museum. The lighthouse is still operational.

Travel and tourism pros, DNR staff gather outside Sturgeon Point Lighthouse to start the work day.As more than 160 volunteers and DNR staffers cleared brush, repaired damaged facilities, hauled stones, built pathways, painted and stained buildings, and constructed concrete pads for artifacts, it wasn't long until the area bore little resemblance to what it looked like a week earlier.

The partnership sprang from the mind of Patty Janes, a professor at Grand Valley State University in hospitality and tourism management. Janes, who had a background in parks and recreation as a professor at Central Michigan University, was a board member of Tourism Cares, a nationwide nonprofit dedicated to cleaning up and rehabilitating historic sites. She had participated in several Tourism Cares events - at Ellis Island and Mount Vernon, for instance - when the light bulb went off: Why not a similar state program?

She approached the DNR's Maia Turek at a Travel Michigan Advisory Council meeting for the state's strategic travel plan.

"I said, 'The DNR is the right partner,' and she said, 'I love it, we're in.'"

Volunteers assemble picnic tables at a recent work day at Sturgeon Point Lighthouse.Turek, a recreation programmer with the DNR Parks and Recreation Division, said the idea was a no-brainer.

"Of course we'd like to work with volunteers," she said. "Of course we'd like to restore some of our historic resources."

Janes then added Travel Michigan to the partnership, and finally Indian Trails - which agreed to furnish motor coaches for transporting volunteers - and then signed on Travel Michigan. Michigan Cares for Tourism was born.

The group applied for and won a $5,000 grant for seed money (announced at the Governor's Conference on Tourism in 2013) and got the ball rolling. Since that time, the group has added sponsors from all factions of the travel and tourism industry.

The first Michigan Cares event, held in 2013 at Mill Lake at Waterloo State Recreation Area, attracted about 100 volunteers was a resounding success. A second, held at Belle Isle, attracted some 450.

A volunteer paints the inside walls of the museum at the Sturgeon Point Lighthouse.The group decided that two events annually - one in the spring and one in the fall - is about right. This fall, they're headed to Fayette Historic State Park.

Janes began enlisting partners to help fund the program. Driven, a marketing firm in the Metro Detroit area, has donated more than $40,000 in marketing support since 2013. McCann Detroit - the marketing firm that runs the Pure Michigan campaign - granted the organization $10,000 to purchase a trailer for transporting gear to the work sites. A $10,000 grant from the General Agency - a family-owned insurance company in Mt. Pleasant - helped purchase the tools necessary to equip the trailer.

"Now that we have a core set of supplies, we can go and support other people's efforts, too," Janes said. (Which they have; Michigan Cares recently brought its tool trailer to a park in Mt. Pleasant for a work day.)

The Michigan Cares for Tourism board takes the lead on choosing appropriate projects, with special input from the DNR.

"We can pick out areas of need and pick projects that can handle this much work at one time," said Turek.

Volunteers haul excess dirt away from an area that's been excavated at Sturgeon Point Lighthouse.And the DNR is all in. Anna Sylvester, who runs field operations in northern Michigan for the DNR Parks and Recreation Division, estimated that the DNR saved 800 person/hours because of the Sturgeon Point Lighthouse event. Staffers worked side by side with industry professionals and travel and tourism students on everything from cutting down dead trees to building picnic tables and planting an herb garden.

Volunteers come from all phases of the tourism industry.

Jim Engel, general manager of Bavarian Inn Lodge in Frankenmuth, was attending his third consecutive event.

"I heard about the program at the meeting where Patty got the grant and I signed up," he said. "This is sort of my Habitat for Humanity."

Engel, who took charge of painting a few storage sheds and an old brick privy at the Sturgeon Point work day, brought six other Bavarian Inn employees and four other Frankenmuth tourism workers with him.

"My goal is to bring as many Frankenmuth people as I can," he said. "It's a pleasure to be here."

Kirsten Borgstrom, a freelance publicist who works with convention and visitors bureaus, spent the day clearing brush and hauling it to a chipper.

"One person does just a little bit, but when you get a large group like this, it's truly amazing what you can accomplish," she said. "It's a fun event."

Janes said she was delighted by the turnout, what it accomplished, and what it bodes for the future - for both the travel/tourism industry and the DNR, which she describes as "the ultimate partnership."

"The for-profit side and the nonprofit side were two different entities," she said. "But we're all in this together. A hotel isn't going to make it if it doesn't have attractions to bring in the people.

"People tease me about getting teary-eyed about this," she said, "because I do."

For more information on the program, visit www.gvsu.edu/michigancaresfortourism.