By Melinda Baird, firstname.lastname@example.org
State Representative Donna Lasinski (D-Scio Township) kicked off the first of many upcoming topic-specific town hall meetings with a rather safe topic choice: parks and recreation. About 40 people gathered at the Chelsea District Library to hear from a panel of experts on recreation issues ranging from the state to local level.
Susan Lackey, Chair of the Board of Directors at Heart of the Lakes Center for Land Conservation Policy, spoke of the huge economic boost conservation and natural resources can bring to an area, and more specifically to the Big 400. That’s the name for 400,000 acres of publicly accessible land spanning western Washtenaw, southern Ingham and eastern Jackson counties. The area attracts over a million users per year for its ideal camping, hunting, fishing, hiking, mountain biking, boating, bird watching, and golfing conditions.
According to the Outdoor Industry Association, 63% of Michiganders participate in outdoor recreation (not counting hunting or fishing), Lackey said, which is significantly higher than the national average of 48%. In this state, it’s a $19 billion a year business that includes lodging, food, gasoline, gear, and manufacturing of gear.
“To put it another way, the economic value of just wheeled sports, such as mountain and road biking, is greater than the combined value of home entertainment, movies and video games,” Lackey said. Nationally, the value of outdoor recreation is greater than the automotive and pharmaceutical industries, she added.
Lackey emphasized the huge opportunity available for local communities to capitalize on the area’s natural resources that have been accumulated over 80 years by turning it into an economic asset that spurs jobs and attracts residents.
Chelsea City Manager John Hanifan reiterated Lackey’s message from the perspective of city government. Hanifan said the city, “like all competitive cities, moved its economic platform beyond chasing smokestacks to placemaking.” The process of intensely assessing the city’s parks and recreation offerings began roughly four years ago, Hanifan said, and the implementation phase is just now beginning. Having allocated about $10,000 annually to parks five years ago, the city now spends $80,000 to $100,000 annually.
Tyler Klifman, Parks and Trails Planner at the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), described the state’s progress in constructing the Iron Belle Trail, which is a set of two trails—one for hiking and one for biking – that will ultimately span the state. Because the trail will be forged using 65% of existing trail, Klifman said SEMCOG is working with local communities to address gaps. These gaps, such as the one headed northwest out of Ann Arbor along the Border-to-Border Trail, are often due to highways or wetlands and will need more significant funding to resolve.
“Being this is a governor’s initiative, and he’s reaching his last term and would like to see some major progress, there’s a much larger pot of money that will hopefully be coming soon to fund these projects,” Klifman said.
Jeff Hardcastle, who spearheaded the Huron Waterloo Pathways Initiative, spoke of the role the private citizen has in improving parks and recreation. Private partnering and funding can be the push governmental units need to get projects off the ground, he said. Often, it is a private group that can help coordinate among jurisdictions and raise funds for soft costs such as feasibility work. HWPI, a non-profit volunteer organization partnering with the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission, the Michigan Fitness Foundation and the 5 Healthy Towns Foundation to develop and expand non-motorized pathways that connect into Michigan’s growing trail network, has done exactly that.
Finally, Ginny Trocchio, Superintendent of Park Planning at Washtenaw County Parks & Recreation Commission, reminded those in attendance of the vast nature preserves in the area, including the new Watkins Lake State Park and County Preserve. Located at the far southwest border of Washtenaw County, the lake is the only designated Waterfowl Refuge in the county.
The format of the forum was a bit of an experiment by Lasinski in anticipation of more complicated topics needing public discussion over the next six months to a year, such as health care, roads and infrastructure and education.
July is National Parks & Recreation Month.