How Saugatuck built its community identity by preserving its natural assets

"A big sense of the community here is trying to keep a good hold on the natural environment and not have too much development."

With its 282 wooden steps leading visitors to a spectacular view of the Kalamazoo River at an elevation of nearly 800 feet, Mt. Baldhead is one of the most iconic destinations in Saugatuck. But in the late 2000s, those beloved steps were dangerously close to being removed for safety reasons.


"The stairway was just deteriorating," says Kirk Harrier, Saguatuck's city manager. "We're a small city and we have a lot of park expenditures that the city just can't fund with the general revenue that we get from property taxes. It's just not feasible."


However, the stairs are still in place today thanks to a $63,800 Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund (MNRTF) grant that funded their renovation in 2008. MNRTF uses the proceeds from Michigan oil, gas, and mineral lease and royalty payments to acquire and develop public recreational lands. And in Saugatuck and other Michigan communities, it's played a major role in helping communities secure or preserve a sense of identity.


"A big sense of the community here is trying to keep a good hold on the natural environment and not have too much development," Harrier says. "... Without the trust fund, without that money coming in to do these projects, there's no way a small community like Saugatuck could do that. It'd be lost."

Mount Baldhead. Photo by Doug Coombe.


Preserving Saugatuck's identity


While the Mt. Baldhead renovation has had a major positive impact on a landmark beloved by Saugatuck residents and visitors alike, it's far from MNRTF's biggest investment in the city. In 2010 and 2011, the trust fund made grants totaling over $10 million to purchase what is now known as the Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area, a 173-acre plot stretching along Lake Michigan and the Kalamazoo River just north of bustling Oval Beach. However, the process of successfully purchasing it for public use was a saga that played out over the decades.


Community members worked to purchase the property from a private owner for years, but the effort seemingly failed when another private owner purchased it instead. That owner began considering developing the property, which is when a coalition including the city of Saugatuck, the Land Conservancy of West Michigan (LCWM), and the Nature Conservancy rallied to preserve it for the public.


"It was one of those things where we just said, 'This can't happen. We've got to keep trying,'" says April Scholtz, land protection director for LCWM.


After a lengthy negotiation process, the involved parties settled on a purchase price and the city (with assistance from LCWM) was successful in obtaining the MNRTF grant. The natural area is now a destination in and of itself, while also serving as a publicly accessible extension of Oval Beach, which Harrier describes as "a big economic engine" not just for Saugatuck, but for the entire surrounding area. Scholtz says the property helps further cement the city's identity as a beach community that's drawn visitors from Chicago, St. Louis, and beyond for decades.

Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area. Photo by Doug Coombe.


"It's huge for Saugatuck," Scholtz says. "... It is one of the high points of our state and one of the main attractions in our state. If those places had been converted to individual family homes, the rich would be able to enjoy it very well. But people like me and a lot of other folks would not be able to enjoy those areas and get an idea of what this community was like."


Sean Steele owns the Star of Saugatuck, a paddlewheel boat offering cruises of the Kalamazoo River and Lake Michigan, and operates the city's historic chain ferry. He says projects like Mt. Baldhead and the Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area are critical to the city's tourism economy.


"All of that creates a destination, creates an activity for someone coming in from out of town to experience all of that," he says. "It's not just one thing. Saugatuck and [the neighboring city of] Douglas allow several activities to flow into each other, which I think is kind of unique in Michigan."


Harrier says that destination would not be what it is without MNRTF – especially in the case of the Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area, which he says "absolutely would not have happened" without the fund.


"A lot of times people take it for granted," he says. "You live somewhere and you think, 'We have this beautiful beach and we live on Lake Michigan and we have access to these properties and we just assume everyone else has access to that.' And a lot of people don't. So when [visitors] come here, they're really blown away."

Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area. Photo by Doug Coombe.


Redefining Ludington


One hundred miles up the Lake Michigan coast, MNRTF has also played a major role in helping the city of Ludington redefine its identity as a community. City manager Mitch Foster grew up in Ludington in the '90s and then left town when he was a teenager. When he returned 16 years later to settle down as an adult, things had changed significantly. New investment was coming to downtown Ludington, driven primarily by new outdoor recreation destinations.


"When I was here [as a child], Ludington was just the place you came to shop," Foster says. "It wasn't a place you came to have fun. And I think that has completely transitioned."


One of the major reasons for that shift is the creation of Ludington's downtown Waterfront Park, situated on Pere Marquette Lake just a stone's throw from Lake Michigan. The city acquired the park property with a $359,000 MNRTF grant in 1994 and developed the land with a $500,000 MNRTF grant in 1996.


"That area used to be filled with an old factory, aggregate piles, and had seven car ferries docked there at one time," says Heather L.-V. Tykoski, Ludington's community development director. "Now it's not industrial. It's a community park ... and has pretty much become the gem, the hub, the gathering place, right adjacent to our downtown. Without the trust fund, that would not have happened."

Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area. Photo by Doug Coombe.


A sculpture garden and playground are now popular attractions in the park, and Foster and Tykoski both describe it as a catalyst for other developments including waterfront condos and two marinas. But it's not the only MNRTF-funded project that has contributed to a sense of community identity.


The fund has also supported the improvement of Stearns Park, which offers a half-mile of public beach in downtown Ludington. In 2009 MNRTF awarded $125,300 to the city to improve the park's break wall and in 2018 it awarded $300,000 for the development of a water trailhead in the park including a kayak rack, parking, and an accessible walkway.


"Stearns Park and Waterfront Park have completely transformed the waterfront," Tykoski says. "They've taken Ludington from an industrial town and helped it transition into the economy we have now, which is a lot more tourist-based and a lot more service-based than it is industrial."


Barry Neal is the owner of House of Flavors, a restaurant and ice cream parlor in downtown Ludington. He grew up in Ludington and recalls it being a destination for hunters and fishermen when he was growing up, but he says it's "broadened" its appeal since then. Laughingly referencing his own business, he says the town needs "more than mini-golf places and T-shirt shops and ice cream parlors."

Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area. Photo by Doug Coombe.


"You want to have things that people of all ages and demographic backgrounds can enjoy and use," Neal says. "And ... it doesn't cost anybody any money to enjoy those things. You don't have to pay to go to the sculpture park. You don't have to pay to sit on the benches and watch the sunset. We're a great destination for people to come up and take a big breath and, on a low budget if they choose, enjoy nature and all we have to offer."


Ludington-area residents are also eagerly awaiting the outcome of two major MNRTF-funded projects that are currently in the works. In 2018 the trust fund awarded $12.5 million to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to purchase 100 acres of land, including 60 acres of unaltered sand dunes, to be added to Ludington State Park. Also in 2018, the trust fund granted nearby Pere Marquette Township $839,400 to acquire a 319-acre former Dow Chemical property, which is expected to become a largely undeveloped natural area after an environmental assessment is completed. Foster says the Dow project in particular "could be transformational" for the area in connecting existing trails and boosting outdoor recreation opportunities.


Tykoski says the trust fund has been "pretty catalytic in getting these things done" for Ludington.


"Without grant funding, these things wouldn't happen," she says. "This community has 8,076 residents, and while we have very generous donors, we don't have a lot of money."


And those investments have created what Foster describes as "a new sense of pride" for residents like himself.


"Coming back now as an adult and having kids here, what that area has become ... really showcases Ludington for what it will be now and into the future," Foster says. "It gives you a place to say, 'This is why we love living here.'"


“Preserving Michigan” is an ongoing series exploring the history and impact of the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund on the people and communities of Michigan. The series is underwritten by the Michigan Environmental Council. Issue Media Group maintains editorial independence for all of our underwritten content. Please review our editorial underwriting policy for more information.
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