A bold vision for the Straits of Mackinac

The waters of the Straits of Mackinac have long been active with maritime activity, first with Native Americans and then French traders. Then came the British and Americans.

Other centuries brought increased commerce – freighters hauling raw materials and goods and steamers hauling passengers to small towns and islands to escape the heat of industrial cities. Tourism took hold, and one island – Mackinac, with its pastoral setting and no cars – became the state’s top tourist destination. 

All the marine amenities that attract tourists today – ports, marinas, ferries and marine services – are the assets officials want to leverage to build a bolder economic future and create full-time, well-paying jobs. 

The vision is the Straits of Mackinac as a hub of maritime development and innovation. Advancements in a host of industries, everything from shipbuilding to shipping containers, make the Straits of Mackinac a sensible and winning location for marine innovation.

“What is Mackinac really? A marine transportation hub,” says Chris Byrnes, who is director of the Mackinac Economic Alliance, the economic development arm of Mackinac County. “Marine transportation is where we need to focus. We have this opportunity here because of this various marine transportation. One of our top projects is to create more family-supporting jobs, full-time, year-round jobs.”

Several innovative, ground-breaking projects are in the works or poised to launch, outlined in the county’s economic development strategy. They range from expanding ports to accommodate larger ships to the development of shipbuilding to the electrification of ferries and ships serving the Great Lakes. 

A freighter passing through the Straits of Mackinac in February.“Much of our identity is based on water,” Byrnes says. “So, we’re focusing on these businesses and organizations — there are eight government agencies, from the U.S. Coast Guard to tribal game patrol – that do their business based on boats and marine activity and transportation.”

Helping drive the county strategic plan were two recent studies. One, the Mackinac Island Transportation Study, funded by the Michigan Department of Transportation, calls for expanded ferry service throughout the winter, electrifying ferries, and other improvements. 

The other, a feasibility study by the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians regarding Opportunity Fund development, highlights the potential for expanded shipbuilding in St. Ignace and other developments, including clean, green energy. The Bureau of Indian Affairs awarded a grant for the study to determine what development makes sense in St. Ignace, a designated federal Opportunity Zone. 

The Mackinac Economic Alliance is competing with communities across the country for some of the $1.9 trillion infrastructure funding to help finance the projects. In all, the projects represent millions of dollars in investment.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new lift at Mackinac Marine Services.Among the initiatives already in the works is expanding the operations of Mackinac Marine Services in St. Ignace to include shipbuilding. Key partnerships are being looked at to bring shipbuilding to the Straits of Mackinac. The company received a $750,000 federal marine grant to purchase a new shipyard lift with the capacity to handle a boat up to 200 tons for maintenance, repairs and inspections. 

Also moving along are plans for the expansion of mining ports. Site and finance planning are in the works. The expansion would enable the ports to handle larger freighters, opening them to ocean-going vessels and global markets. The potential for container loading is also being explored; there are no container loading ports in the Upper Peninsula. 

Creating a Safe Straits Seaport could provide coordinated facilities and technology upgrades for various emergency services. The site could contain all-weather port facilities and equipment for marine safety agencies and new winter ferry service as outlined in the Mackinac Island Transportation Master Plan. Planning is proposed to include the U.S. Coast Guard, Straits E911, Straits Emergency Management, Sheriff Marine Patrol, Tribal Marine Patrol and Game Wardens. 

A former automotive ferry landing in St. Ignace could become a new freight port and housing complex, including high-end condos and market-rate apartments. The Michigan Department of Transportation owns the property, once used for car ferries connecting the peninsulas. The site is used for salt barns and garages for road maintenance. 

Among the sites in St. Ignace eyed for future marine development.
The site is also under consideration as a Marine Tech Center, a regional marine-growth venue that would include various partners – state and local governments, port and transit authorities, research institutions, investor and regional innovators.

There have even been conversations about relocating the ferry parking lots along the waterfront in St. Ignace to open up the shoreline for tourist access and improvements.

While the vision is ambitious, Marty Fittante, CEO of InvestUP, the lead regional economic organization for the Upper Peninsula, says “it's a timely vision and weds well to the priorities the State has with mobility.”

“As we have seen from regional successes that others might suggest are too bold for an area like the U.P. – like most recently the historic investment the State just made in a mill in Escanaba to anchor a new, emerging market for North America right here in the Upper Peninsula – real results can be achieved with passion, persistence, a plan and partnership,” he says.

Part of the vision includes clean marine energy development. The Mackinac Economic Alliance has partnered with Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s Office of Future Mobility and Electrification and the Great Lakes Research Center to investigate the electrification of Mackinac Island ferries and the potential to power these electric ferries with renewable energy from the region. 

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy is in the process of approving a grant application for a $3 million pilot project to transform the first Mackinac Island ferry to electric drive system. 

“If you electrify ferry boats and use coal for power, that’s worse than diesel in the first place,” he says. “Powering these boats with renewable energy is the other half of the goal …. These are improvements to make the industry more sustainable for the future. That’s what people want to hear about on their trip to Mackinac Island. It’s good public relations, while being good for the planet.

The lighthouse in St. Ignace.The Mackinac Economic Alliance has received $100,000 in key funding for Michigan Technological University to research the potential for hydro energy, energy generation and ferry electrification in the Straits, supporting the next step in marine mobility development. 

“Being able to use renewable energy to move those boats is the very next logical solution for us, because we’re surrounded by water,” Byrnes says, pointing to the possibility of tapping energy from currents running along an ancient riverbed below the Straits. “We’re served by water and that’s how most of our transportation is happening.”

Driving these initiatives is Mackinac County's unusual employment variations.

In the summer, the region is home to a flurry of activity – nearly 2 million people ride the ferries each season; a flotilla of personal boats is on the water or docked at marinas. The area is home to some 4,700 seasonal jobs. 

It’s another story in the off-season. Mackinac County has a 50 percent higher unemployment rate than any of Michigan’s other 82 counties (all 10 percent or lower). Mackinac County’s December unemployment rate was 15.9 percent.

Jobs are a concern in this county with a workforce of about 5,000 people. Most of the workforce is employed in tourism and related industries, including retail, food and beverage. The Grand Hotel is the county’s largest seasonal employer; most tourism-related jobs are non-existent in the winter. There is limited manufacturing.

“There are winters where we have unemployment as high as 40 percent in some areas, like in the city of St. Ignace,” Byrnes says.

The 2,101-square-mile county has been losing population, even though, at the same time, “there’s this building boom with people building million-dollar homes,” Byrnes says. “At the same time, we have a lot of seasonal folk and people moving off to greener pastures.”

That seasonal, tourist economy brings particular challenges, such as the retention of workforce, the socio-economic impact and growing the population, the InvestUP's Fittante says.  

“So, bringing in diversity of industry to Mackinac County is particularly important, and part of what is so exciting about this vision,” he says. “The big vision here would bring with it new highly skilled, high-paying jobs, which would then be the foundation to prove true the old adage that ‘if it’s a great place to visit, it’s a great place to live, and if it’s a great place to live, it’s a great place to work and do business.’”

Even the appeal of Mackinac Island plays into what Mackinac County economic officials are striving to accomplish. Tourists are drawn to the pastoral island because they can leave their cars behind for alternative transportation – foot, horse or bicycle. Its perceived greenness will be complemented by the electrification of ferries.

“We can build upon what we have for a better future; now is the time to do it,” Byrnes says. “We have to leverage this historic opportunity for our evolving future potential.”
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