Niche sports help put rural towns on the map

Small towns in rural Michigan have turned successful races and other sport pursuits into year-round branding -- capitalizing on the very aspects that make their community a perfect fit for the event.

The rutted gravel roads that make the countryside surrounding Hastings in southern Michigan ideal for a grueling race -- also fuel interest in the community as a year-round destination for training.

The eerie graveyard of Great Lakes ships in the deep waters off Alpena in northern Michigan lure divers but also curious tourists on glass-bottom boats.

The rock formations that draw throngs of tourists to Munising in the Upper Peninsula each summer turn icy in the winter, enticing ice climbers and spectators alike, pumping dollars into an-otherwise sleepy town. 

What do these events have in common besides being niche sports at their core?

They're excellent examples of transforming authentic recreational assets into high-profile athletic or endurance-based outdoor events -- that became also transformative as an asset and brand for the community, says Brad Garmon, director of the Michigan Outdoor Recreation Industry Office. 

Sports competition and outdoor recreation activities abound in small towns across Michigan, all of them important and likely bringing dollars to those communities, but the three featured in this story really standout as top-notch examples.

“You can really only do ice climbing on natural ice where the water is falling off of cliffs and stays cold for a long extended period,” he says. “That's Pictured Rocks, so that could only really exist in that place in time.”

Hastings, situated near Yankee Springs Recreation Area, offers the perfect mix of backroads, weather and changing elevations to make for a thrilling gravel course.

The clear waters of Lake Huron and the vestiges of a long history of Great Lakes shipping and mining make for a rare opportunity to explore Alpena’s past.

These communities are really building on what makes those places special and makes them memorable, Garmon says.

"That placemaking element — that's what I really love about these events. They can help communities not only get some cash but also help the community understand how its assets are seen in the world and how they can attract people," he says.

That is, not only to visit for one event a year but to return to train or even launch a business, he says. 
Gravel bike racing

In Hastings, the county seat of Barry County, locals back in 2009 initially were skeptical about the Founders Barry Roubaix Killer Gravel Road Race. They made sure its 274 bicycle racers started outside of town at the Long Lake Outdoor Center in the Yankee Springs Recreation Area.

 “They didn't want a bunch of people clogging up the downtown,” Garmon says.

Named after the classic Paris–Roubaix professional bicycle road race, the Barry-Roubaix features rolling gravel roads, pavement, one mile of rough two track, rocks, sand, mud and -- depending on the weather -- snow and ice -- along the county's winding back roads. 

Those road conditions, however, are a hot commodity in the fast-growing sport of gravel biking, and community economic development sorts saw the potential of the annual event, held most years on the third Saturday in March. They began accommodating and catering to racers and visitors.

The race now begins and ends in the middle of downtown Hastings and has spawned spin-off races and events, year-round training activities and even new businesses.

Nichole Lyke, economic development director for the Barry County Chamber & Economic Development Alliance, says the annual race has led to the creation of new bike trails throughout the county, marked with permanent wayfinding signage, and generates economic activity throughout the year; riders come back to train on the course and prepare for additional fall and winter rides.

“We have also seen an increase in the use of bike repair stations throughout Hastings and Middleville, and have at least one new business that has opened -- specifically to provide bicycle repair, maintenance, and parts, as well as new bikes,” she says.

The race caps at about 4,200 riders, and has grown year over year, with new divisions and difficulty levels — the longest race is 100 miles. 
“In addition to the direct impact from the riders, their friends, families, and sponsors tend to join them – they stay at the hotels, motels, and airbnbs in the county, and shop the retail stores downtown and eat at local restaurants,” Lyke says.

Dan King, community development director for Hastings, says the event brings countless spectators and residents to the core of the city on event day. 

“The estimated economic impact for this event is between $750,000 and $1,000,000 for Hastings and Barry County. The event has grown so much in popularity that participants return to Hastings and Barry County throughout the entire year to ride the courses,” he says. “These participants are frequently spotted after their practice rides in various local shops and restaurants spreading economic impact throughout the entire year.”

Michigan Ice Fest

Likewise, the Michigan Ice Fest started small 30 years ago but has grown to become one of the premier climbing events in the world, giving the summer tourist town of Munising a reason to celebrate winter.

The first Ice Fest in 1991 came about through the organizing efforts of Mark Reisch of Kalamazoo, and was “just a handful of people meeting at a bar in Munising to climb together during the day and swap stories at night,” says Matt Abbotts, one of the event’s current organizers.
 In 1995 Reisch handed the reins to Bill Thompson of Down Wind Sports and he added slideshows by professional climbers as a headline event.  Classes and gear demos were added to make it easier for those interested in trying out the sport, Abbotts says. “All of this helped interest,” he says, “and participation grew over the next few decades with more than 1,000 climbers attending in 2022.”

Several films have been made about climbing in the area, including The Michigan Ice Film, which spread word of the event even further, making the festival an international destination.

The festival is not without its challenges.

“The weather in the U.P. is pretty wild in the winter,” he says. “Many visitors, even those from mountain states, have never really seen winter like this.  But while it can be a challenge, it's definitely one we love. 

“People will remember a -20F day with hurricane force winds a lot more than they'll remember a calm, relaxing, easy day,” Abbotts says.

Another challenge is operating in the "off season" in a small community.  Munising sees a lot of visitors, but primarily in the summer, he says, and businesses close in the winter and the locals enjoy the reprieve from the tourists.  “The community is incredibly supportive of the event,” Abbotts says, “and we are so grateful for that—  but it's a small town and we fill up pretty much every available hotel room.”

For the past few years, pandemic aside, more than 1,000 climbers have registered for the event and based on numbers from the Park Service it's likely that there are at least 1,000 spectators as well, if not more.  

“Climbing is a growing economic force in the area all winter long, not just at the festival,” Abbotts says. “We launched a guide service several years ago which takes climbers out all year, ice and rock, and we run several hundred trips during the winter months.” 

Shipwreck scuba dives

How has “Cement City” become a hot tourist destination?

“Shipwreck diving,” Garmon says. “People don’t realize that scuba is a thing here in Michigan, but the story of how Alpena became the home of the NOAA Thunder Bay Shipwreck Sanctuary — one of only 15 in the country— and gained new life and identity (even the youth hockey renamed itself to match) is a great one.”

Lake Huron’s cold waters have preserved more than 200 shipwrecks in and around this designated sanctuary, with sites for snorkelers, recreational and technical divers to explore some of the nation’s best-preserved historic wrecks. 

“They do lots of events, including Get Into Your Sanctuary and a Film Festival, to keep the year-round identity strong,” Garmon says.

Divers visit the wreckage, but casual tourists can enjoy the museum, open year-round at no cost, or view the ghostly shipwrecks from the surface on glass-bottom boat tours.

The future

There’s room for growth even among activities that are already popular — marathon runs, bicycle races, water and snow events — with the trick being for organizers to mesh events rather than compete for participants, Garmon says.

Up-and-coming interests that are a good fit in Michigan could include snow-shoe and dog-sled racing, stand up paddle board and kite-boarding, and other endurance activities.

“I think the idea is how do you convene a community to talk about what it wants to build on?” Garmon says. “The part I'm trying to bring to the equation from the state level is information about what are the trends in outdoor recreation that you could use.” 

Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years, most of that time in Southwest Michigan.

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