Developing Macomb's Blue Economy

If I say 'Macomb County, Michigan', what comes to mind? Maybe you think of Reagan Democrats, sprawl, Mile Roads, growth, the third most populous county in the state, or the defense industry. What about traditional downtowns located along unique bodies of water? Few of us identify Macomb as home to of some of the most impressive water resources in our region.

Gerry Santoro, Program Manager of Land and Water Resources at Macomb County's Planning and Economic Development Department says, "We're trying to change the image. Let's realize and celebrate what we are."

The Clinton River, whose headwaters are in Oakland County, meanders through Macomb County, providing 40 linear miles of coastline. And of course there's Lake St. Clair, a massive lake that separates Michigan from Ontario, Canada and provides Macomb County with 32 miles of coastline.

With these assets, it's no wonder that Macomb County has one of the highest concentrations of marinas and registered boaters in the United States.

Historically, Macomb County, specifically the city of Mount Clemens, was a destination for its famed mineral baths, which drew visitors from near and far to soak in its supposedly curative mineral-rich waters. While the fever surrounding mineral baths died out in the 1940s, there is a new-found excitement in harnessing the economic development potential of the County's unique freshwater assets.

Key political leaders, foremost among them being County Executive Mark Hackel, have realized the importance of Macomb's water assets and united behind a strategic development plan for an initiative they are calling the "Blue Economy."

The plan looks at Macomb's water resources as critical to economic development efforts and improving the quality of life in the County, but it also recognizes the importance of  good environmental stewardship of those assets in order to ensure their sustainability.

Recreational use of water assets is a key component of the Blue Economy initiative, and they're not just talking about the Jobbie Nooner. Macomb sees lots of potential in Lake St. Clair's status as a fishing destination. Kevin Van Dam, one of the most decorated sport fisherman in the world, proclaims Lake St. Clair the "best smallmouth fishery on the planet." Nineteen naturally occurring species of fish are open for recreational fishing.

Perhaps even more exciting is the emergence of the Clinton River Blue Way Water Trail, which has been under development for about six years. The Blue Way traverses the entire county, from Lake St. Clair to Mount Clemens to Clinton Township to Romeo and Utica. We often hear about greenways like the Dequindre Cut in Detroit, but a blue way is a newer concept in Michigan, allowing public access to the river all along its banks. The Blue Way is intended to encourage paddling hobbyists in kayaks and canoes to get out on the river and create recreational opportunities previously unknown in Macomb County, such as public camping. Additionally, the County believes that the Blue Way "present[s] many opportunities to educate the public about their role in protecting water quality and wildlife habitat" and boost tourism in the County's towns.

"Every single community along the Main and North Branches of the Clinton River are recognizing the benefits of having a river flow through their communities," notes Santoro. Sterling Heights is rezoning its land abutting the Clinton River to make more optimal use of the river resource. Schools are beginning to make use of the river for educational opportunities.

Anne Varra, Executive Director of the Clinton River Watershed Council, whose mission is to enhance, protect, and promote the Clinton River and Lake St. Clair, says, "The goal is to get people to the water and understand the resources around them."

CRWC does this by promoting a spirit of volunteerism around water resources. "One of the best things we do at the Watershed Council is enriching the volunteerism of this community. We attract on average 10,000 volunteers each year," says Varra.

Events like the recent Stonefly Search on the Clinton River are examples of this. The stonefly is an insect active in the winter whose presence indicates high water quality. Increased visibility and access to St. Clair and Clinton River can increase residents' attachment to those bodies and inspire them to protect the waters. Water can be a pillar of community building.

Access to water resources is a key component of the Blue Economy, but it is something that has been elusive in the past. The County admits in its Strategic Development Plan that "too few Macomb County residents regularly have a chance to see and access Lake St. Clair or the Clinton River."

The plan is to change this by acquiring waterfront lands through the foreclosure process, as well as changing land use policies to encourage the development of walkable public access sites. Whether or not the foreclosure process, as opposed to eminent domain, is robust enough to assemble access sites to waterways is a matter for debate, but land use changes and utilization of funding from tax capture districts are underway to make access a possibility.

Many take for granted that Macomb County is home to several traditional downtowns, such as Utica, Mount Clemens, Romeo, New Baltimore, and St. Clair Shores.

This excites Gerry Santoro. "We've identified five nodal areas for walkable, new urbanist communities on Lake St. Clair. New Baltimore can be the Saugatuck of Eastern Michigan." Utica's dedication of its riverwalk last year is a testament to a changing culture in Macomb that is embracing its natural resources and increasing residents' ability to access them.

Of course, to ensure the Clinton River and Lake St. Clair's capacity to provide the population with recreational opportunities, environmental stewardship of these resources is critical. In order for the Blue Economy to function, the waters must remain safe for swimming and healthy enough to support their fish populations. Reconciling increased access to Macomb's waters with care for the health of the waters is key.

"A lot of local governments have gotten really serious about spending the money to separate combined sewers to promote water quality," Santoro notes. "Are we there yet? No. We still have beach closures from time to time, but we are re-learning how to be effective."

Because water systems know no boundaries (the Clinton River spans Oakland and Macomb Counties and it and Lake St. Clair belong to the larger Great Lakes Water Basin), they can...well, water the seeds of regional cooperation.

"It can't be any other way," says Varra. "If there is anything I can emphasize, it's that partnership is critical. We have a wealth of talent in this region. This a great time for us to be doing what we're doing."

Matthew Lewis is project editor for this series, which alternates monthly in Metromode and sister publication Model D. Our underwriters for this project are Lawrence Technological University and the Erb Foundation.

All Photos by David Lewinski Photography
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