New manager sees something special in Bay City State Park

Rich Fenner, the newly-hired Bay City State Park Manager, knows a good thing when he sees it. Fenner, who has worked in Michigan’s state parks since 1988, says the Bay City park has unique qualities that make it special. 

He says that the Friends of the Bay City State Park group is large and active, the Spray by the Bay Spray Park draws families every summer. It’s the first spray park inside a state park in Michigan.

He also says the people of the community feel a strong connection to the park.

“There’s a lot of community involvement here,” Fenner says. “I think a lot of the local guests see this as their park. It’s Bay City’s park, not the state’s park.”

This marks Fenner’s second stint at the Bay City State Park. He worked here from 1999 to 2010 as a Lead Worker and Ranger. Fenner returned to Bay City in July 2018 as the temporary manager. He was hired for the permanent job early in 2019, earning praise from the Friends of the Bay City State Park group.

“We are now glad to have him back and look forward to working with Rich and his staff to continue making Bay City State Park one of the best in the Michigan state park system,” says George Lauinger, Friends of the Bay City State Park President.

Fenner is excited about the opportunities here. “We have some good things coming up,” he says.

The Bay City State Park is home to more than 1,000 feet of beach and 2,000 acres of wetland woods, wet meadows, cattail marshes, and oak savannah prairies. It’s a haven for birds, wetland wildlife, and plants. The park includes a campground, day-use area, and the Tobico Marsh.

One feature in the day-use area, “Come Play by the Bay,” is about to come down. The structure will be open this summer, but is at the end of its life expectancy. Demolition begins after Labor Day and construction on a new play structure begins immediately after that. Depending on the weather, the new play structure should be open in the summer of 2020.

“There’s also a push to do some updating in the Jennison Nature Center,” Fenner says. “Unfortunately, the funding hasn’t been secured for that yet, but I think it will happen pretty soon.”

The Nature Center was built in 1940 and renovated in 1995. The 10,000-square-foot building includes a 100-seat auditorium and an exhibit hall. Fenner hopes to renovate it to allow multiple groups to use it at the same time. School groups, churches, and more rely on the center to learn about the natural world.

A Connectivity Study in the park also has begun. The study considers the connections between the day-use area, campground, parking lots, Tobico Marsh, and more. The goal is to help visitors move easily and safely between different areas, Fenner says.

He also is considering how to connect the park’s trails to the Iron Belle Trail, which is two biking and hiking trails that run 2,000 miles from Belle Isle State Park in Detroit to Ironwood in the Upper Peninsula. Part of the Iron Belle Trail passes through Bay City. “It’s going to tie into some of our Rail Trails,” Fenner says.

Ongoing improvements are planned throughout the park, Fenner adds. Park staff continually look at ways to improve water drainage to prevent flooding while protecting wildlife.

“We have regular meetings with other divisions of the DNR about the park and Tobico management,” Fenner says. “There’s a lot of thought put into the wildlife here.” The goal is to determine safe ways for people to enjoy the park without damaging wildlife habitat.

Visitors hike the trails and view the wildlife year-round. Fenner says he sees walkers wearing headlamps to enjoy the trails during the short days of winter. Families line up to get inside the spray park on hot summer days. 

The park’s busy season is about to begin. Fenner says by about the third week of April, the number of visitors significantly increases. “Even my wife made a comment the other day that ‘Even though it’s cold outside, it’s sunny. It feels like spring.’ You know, spring is right around the corner.”

For details about the State Park, click here. For park events, visit the Friends of the Bay City State Park website at
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