Why the U.P. should go to the dogs

Traverse City resident Gary Howe is a dog lover and supporter of getting folks outside and interacting in public spaces. Leading the charge to build the city's first dog park was a natural fit. But head over the Mackinac Bridge to the Upper Peninsula and you might struggle to find a dog park anywhere within the area's 16,377 square miles.

Perhaps residents in the U.P. haven't been as vocal as Howe and his then-colleagues on Traverse City's Parks and Recreation Commission. E-mails to various development and economic organizations focused on the U.P. came back with a variation on the same response: Sounds like a good idea, but it's not on the radar.

The U.P. should care, though. According to Realty Times, dog parks are a "must have" for many pet owners who are looking to buy their first home.

"Savvy communities are recognizing the need and establishing designated dog parks as a home buyer perk that works," wrote Mark Nash, a residential real estate author based in Chicago.

Some U.P. communities are beginning to take notice. Karl Zueger, parks and recreation director with the city of Marquette, says citizens groups have begun to express interest in expanding an existing off-leash ordinance that functions in the city-owned campground during the winter months.

"The city staff and the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board are currently reviewing surplus land, ordinance requirements, infrastructure needs, operational and maintenance costs, and implementation options for creating an all season off-leash area," Zueger explains.

Not a dog park per se, but something. After all, springing a dog park from scratch is no easy feat. Lauren Vaughn, parks and recreation superintendent at the city of Traverse City, says finding the money was the biggest hurdle.

"There was no city money for the majority of the construction-related expenses," she explains. "Over $26,000 has been raised, mostly because of the volunteer effort." These funds covered fencing, benches, dog-waste disposal stations and signs.

All involved agree the expense, time and effort were worth it. Though no economic impact study has been conducted, Vaughn notes local business owners, including an ice cream shop a half block away from the park, have seen an uptick in business.

Additionally, Howe believes property values adjacent to the dog park will rise. "Why else would real estate listings list proximity to dog parks as an asset?" he posits.

Ultimately, Traverse City has gained socially, both Howe and Vaughn say. Howe shares his favorite story from the dog park. "Two strangers met at the dog park, started talking, and one person happened to be looking for work. The other person happened to be hiring," Howe recalls. "That's what happens when you design places that foster social interaction."

Back in Marquette, citizens are beginning to demand the type of place Howe describes.

"There have been increasing complaints from the public of dogs being off-leash on athletic fields, parks and beaches," notes Zueger. "The outcome has been disruption of events, safety of the park users and pets, and unwanted waste that is left behind."

Why is this happening? "The feedback from the citizen pet owners is that there is no current legal location to allow their pet to run and socialize."

An hour south down the road, Tom Penegor, director of recreation at the city of Escanaba, notes demand for such a public space is also growing in his hometown. He says they're currently searching for a location within the city.

"The location needs to be somewhat centrally located and there needs to be funding from the community to support a park of this type," Penegor explains.

Regardless of how they get it done, it's clear Marquette, Escanaba and any other city in the U.P. would benefit from following Traverse City's example--something Zueger says they've done before.

"When developing public policy, the city often looks to other communities that have successfully pursued similar initiatives," he explains. "Traverse City is a community that Marquette has used in the past."

A dog park for Marquette is not imminent. Due to a change in fiscal years, the earliest a new project could begin is either fall of 2014 or spring of 2015. But citizens of Marquette can always act now to make their interest known.

"I may suggest that any findings and recommendations of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board would be presented to the city commission," says Zueger. "If the recommendation is approved, the project would be incorporated into the next fiscal year capital improvement and operational budget to be presented during the budget hearings in August 2014."

Meantime, Howe will be cheering for a dog park in Marquette from Traverse City. "What I know from living in and visiting Marquette is that it certainly is a dog town," he says. "I don't see any reason not to have one or more up there. I know when I visit I'll certainly bring my beagle."

Joe Baur is a freelance writer and filmmaker based in Cleveland. He's also the Sections Editor of hiVelocity. You can contact him at joebaur.com.
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