Creating a cultural hub in Marquette

Marquette’s arts and culture community is taking a big step forward, thanks, in part, to two separate state grants that will transform a vacant building and its grounds into a cultural center and a trailhead for pathways leading in and out of the city.

The former Marquette Chamber of Commerce building in Father Marquette/Lions Lakeside Park will be renovated as a vibrant public space for culture and recreation.

The project also includes creating a trailhead connecting local and regional trail systems, including the city’s new Cultural Trail, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts Art Town grant program and the Michigan Native Heritage Fund. 

Public art on Marquette's Cultural Trail.When completed, the venue will serve as a community cultural center, a new gateway to downtown Marquette, and an all-season regional trailhead. The center also will serve as an information hub and be open to the public year-round. 

“This funding shows the state values placemaking and culture to our economy and quality of life,” says Tiina Morin, who is Arts and Culture manager for the city of Marquette. “This project will create a cultural epicenter, encouraging cultural and recreational tourism, boosting local business revenue, and providing greater access for both residents and visitors to explore the city’s cultural life and their own creative pursuits.

“More importantly, the center will house the office that provides resources and support services to the creative sector.”

Marquette received two grants for the project. The city was awarded a $583,750 Revitalization and Placemaking Program (RAP) grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. Those awards are given to public space place-based infrastructure for a single project in a traditional downtown. Marquette was one of two communities in the Upper Peninsula to receive that type of grant; the other was Escanaba.

This vacant building will be redeveloped as Marquette's cultural center.The city also received $458,800 as part of the Michigan Spark Grants Program, administered by the state Department of Natural Resources. That grant program helps communities create, renovate, and develop areas to create recreation opportunities for residents and tourists. 

"The Cultural Center provides a welcoming hub for all things arts in the city of Marquette. We will assist in promoting the different programs as they develop, regionally, statewide and nationally. Marquette offers a wonderful mix of outdoor adventure and natural beauty so this is the natural next step in promoting the area," says Susan Estler, CEO of Travel Marquette.

Travel Marquette, she says, is looking at balancing the emphasis on outdoor recreation with "all the wonderful art and culture Marquette County has to offer." Popular draws include the Fresh Coast Film Festival, Revolve, The Holiday Lasers on the Ore Dock, the Plein Air Festival, Art on the Rocks, and North of the 45th.

A recent public art tour hosted by the City of Marquette Office of Arts & Culture."A balance of offerings makes for a more sustainable tourism economy," Estler says.

The City Community Services Department will be the lead on the project in cooperation with the Office of Arts and Culture. The Superior Watershed Partnership and Land Conservancy assisted with the successful grant proposal.

The site plans include the construction of a paved trail spur to connect to the other trails, ADA-accessible public bathrooms, a public water station and drinking fountain for filling water bottles., a trailhead information kiosk, and additional green space and landscape improvements.  

“The cultural center will be at the intersection of local, state, and national trails and provide access to all the city’s cultural amenities. It will be a great place to understand what’s going on in Marquette, and all of its offerings,” Morin says. “We’re bringing culture and recreation together to create a unique destination with dynamic public space.”

Although Marquette is known as an outdoors mecca for biking and hiking, the city does not have an urban trailhead in the city, “something that’s much needed,” she says.

Marquette City Manager Karen Kovacs says the cultural center and trailhead will provide new indoor/outdoor space and a centrally located public venue for a wide range of events, activities that should significantly increase the tax base, contribute to the vitality of the downtown district, and reactivate a public space in the heart of the city.

Kovacs estimates the economic benefits from community events that occur along the city’s Cultural Trail tally more than $3.2 million annually; that figure will significantly increase with the planned improvements. It’s expected that the revamped building and site will bring more residents and tourists downtown. 

“The proposed cultural center will be utilized for both public and private programming space, including but not limited to event space, gallery space, office space, and a regional trailhead, “ she says. 

The space will also be available for use by local organizations, local businesses, and other local governments for related contractual events. Officials will work closely with a variety of cultural and city organizations. 

Kovacs says various activities will be held at the new center including the annual Art Week events, exhibits, and senior programming throughout the year. The community is invited to offer programming as well.  

The building has been vacant since June 2022 when the Lake Superior Community Partnership moved out; it was formerly the home of the Marquette Chamber of Commerce.  

The structure sits on a hillside in Father Marquette Park and adjacent to the city’s cultural corridor, which includes the Marquette Regional History Center, Upper Peninsula Children’s Museum, the ore dock in the lower harbor, including the Iron Ore Heritage Trail, the Iron Belle Trail, the North Country Trail, and the city’s new Cultural Trail. The Cultural Trail runs seven miles along the city shoreline, from the mouth of Carp River to Presque Isle. The trail honors and preserves Marquette’s diverse cultural heritage, history, and environment through public space design, public art, and interpretive signage.

Marquette city staff meet with artist Jason Quigno at site of his future sculpture installation.The city-commissioned art sculpture, the Seven Grandfathers Teaching Sculpture, will be installed in June. The work is by Anishinaabe contemporary stone sculptor Jason Quigno. It will be placed at the entrance of one of the two new piers in downtown Marquette. 

Morin says the former chamber building has a mid-century vibe but sits in the middle of a historic park, which has an old European feel with a garden and stone pathway. The project will create a Lake Superior viewing platform at the site. Plans call for new exterior facades, interior upgrades, ADA compliance to improve accessibility; solar panels, improved ADA parking, and improved stormwater management using green infrastructure. 

Physical site preparation will not begin until the spring and summer of 2024, with a tentative project competition date of fall 2025.
 Currently, the cultural center is hidden in the lower level of the Peter White Public Library in Marquette. 

“The city's Office of Arts and Culture has transitioned into a cultural resource hub to support the growth and health of the creative sector. This space will provide a more visible platform to do that,” Morin says. “We’re the only city in the U.P.  with an Office of Arts and Culture. It was a very progressive thing for the city to do in 1991. At that time Marquette did not have the cultural offerings that it has today.

“The City has played a large part in that growth. It’s a testament to the city commission for supporting arts and culture and valuing and preserving our unique way of life up here.  The city’s return on investment is paying off with these grants and will continue to pay off.”

Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years. She is a regular contributor to Rural Innovation Exchange, UPword, and other Issue Media Group publications. 
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