Not all the beaches on Lake Michigan are eroding locals want tourists to know

'We still have a lot of beach to offer,' is the message Lake Michigan beachside communities are sending.
Has a closed beach reopened yet? Have water levels dropped a bit? Is there plenty of room for sunbathing and shallow waters for kids’ swimming? The answer to those questions and more will be found on a new resource that shows visitors to Southwest Michigan up-to-date conditions at public beaches on Lake Michigan in this season of record-high water levels.

Written updates, photos and videos of Berrien County’s state, county and local public beaches will be posted this season on a new website found here, says Arthur Havlicek, President & CEO of Southwest Michigan Regional Chamber.

“We plan to provide a description for each beach that accurately summarizes its condition,” Havlicek says. 

The new site is the brainchild of the Summer Tourism Coalition, formed to help offset the dire images of high-water structural damage, eroded shorelines, and shrinking beaches that have dominated the news in recent months.

Led by the Southwest Michigan Regional Chamber of Commerce and Southwestern Michigan Tourist Council, the coalition’s aim is to create “an honest and open communication stream for locals and tourists to get more information regarding the condition of local beaches,” according to the group’s announcement of the new site.

A view of the lighthouse at Silver Beach in St. Joseph.

County records show 22 public beaches on Lake Michigan in Berrien County alone; those will be the focus of the initial project. “Our hope is to provide a one-stop source that includes all of this information, for all of our beaches,” Havlicek says.

In addition to reports on each of the beaches, the site will include information about the other attractions the area offers, says Millicent Huminsky, Executive Director Southwestern Michigan Tourist Council.

Those might include activities such as Makers Trail, a tour of the 44 beer, wine and spirits producers in Berrien county, she says. Or, because Southwest Michigan is known for its selection of fresh fruits and vegetables, with a diversity of produce second only to California, she says, farmer’s markets and stands may be listed.

Information about parks, museums, boat launches, dog parks, campgrounds, and summer events also will be included on the website.

The lakeshore conditions report should prove invaluable to people who travel from all over the country to visit the area, Huminsky says, especially those who may not be aware that lakeshores vary greatly over time—what they saw on the news two days after a storm may bear little resemblance to the same beach a few weeks later.

And this season’s beaches may not look like the beaches tourists saw on their last visit. 

High water levels are expected to continue into the summer of 2020.

‘‘Not to dismiss (erosion damage to) Lake Michigan coasts, but we still have a lot of beach to offer,” Havlicek says. “I was starting to worry that’s not the narrative that’s getting out there.”

That could present a problem to coastal communities where tourism is a leading industry.

Rocky Gap Park in Harbor Springs.

For instance, in the city of St. Joseph, every summer more than 40,000 tourists park at Silver Beach alone, Huminsky says. Many more park in town and walk to the beach. 

At Warren Dunes State Park south of St. Joseph, where three miles of sandy shoreline and towering dunes are the main attraction, day-use visitor numbers have nearly doubled—from 316,941 in 2014 to 604,916 in 2017, according to the State of Michigan.

Camping nights have increased from 17,265 in 2014 to 19,849 in 2017.

“Tourism is a major driver of the local economy and businesses cannot afford to have people second guess their trip to our area,” Havlicek says.
The Summer Tourism Coalition
The “Summer Tourism Coalition” includes representatives from St. Joseph Today; the KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship; the Cornerstone Alliance; the Berrien County Parks Department; and Holt Bosse, a local, full-service marketing agency based out of St. Joseph who will be providing marketing and communications support for this effort. Mid-West Family and their local influencers have been brought on board to share and promote the campaign in their respective channels.

More than 80 percent of the park’s visitors come from outside the state, many from Illinois and Indiana. 

Those visitors are the target audience for this information—people who want to see for themselves how the beaches are faring so they can plan accordingly.

Photos and videos, and perhaps aerial drone footage, will allow them that chance.

“And it all will be dated so people know it’s current content,” Huminsky says.”Part of our plan is to assess each beach and promote what it does have to offer. If beachfront has been reduced due to high water levels, we can still promote the fact there may be walking trails or other activities to do on-site.”

The coalition is currently compiling content for the site that it will post as information about each beach becomes available. “We hope to offer a mix of community submitted photos as well as on-the-ground reporting from the participating organizations in the coalition,” Havlicek says.

The coalition plans to have the complete listing available before the season begins Memorial Day weekend. At that time member organizations will promote the site with links on their own social media pages and websites, Havlicek says.

“The chamber has 700 members in the area, and we can distribute it to all of our members, he says. “Our member-based organizations can help amplify the story we are trying to tell. It’s an organic way to get the word out.”

In addition to information about public beaches and tourism activities, the coalition hopes to include information about lake life that can be useful to locals, from how to apply for expedited permits to protect shorelines to lists of contractors who can perform the intended work. 

“We’d also try to update the site with the corrective actions taken by elected leaders, as that information becomes available,” Havlicek says. For example, cleanup of winter litter has already begun along the lakeshore, and some municipalities are faced with repairing parks and walkways and damage to other structures.

Huminsky said it’s unlikely sand will be brought in to supplement beaches until water levels recede a bit. “At this point, it would be pointless (to bring in sand),” she says. “The waves would wash it all back into the lake.”

“I do believe that (water level) will come back as it has in the past. It’s a cycle that happens over and over,” she says.

Meanwhile, it will be helpful for people to know what they can expect as the season unfolds. “If beachfront has been reduced due to high water levels, we can still promote the fact there may be walking trails or other activities to do on-site, Havlicek says.

“Weko Beach, for example, has a tremendous amount of beachfront left. It also has a direct-boat launch, hiking trails, a campground, is dog friendly, etc.”

“Tourism is the third-largest industry in Michigan’s Great Southwest and in the State of Michigan,” Huminsky says. “Lake Michigan is the number one reason that summer vacationers choose this area and we need to be sure that they receive accurate information on the condition of our beaches.”

Photos by Joshua Nowicki, unless otherwise indicated. See more of his work here.
Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years, most of that time in Southwest Michigan.


Read more articles by Rosemary Parker.

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