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Cover Story

By Scott MacInnes

For over a decade, the city of Houghton has actively pursued the “winter city” approach to planning. The area receives annual snowfall in excess of 200 inches, resulting from the northwest prevailing winds traveling across Lake Superior. With a five to six month winter, it is very important that Houghton embrace positive attitudes toward winter. In 1997, the Winter Cities Association held two planning workshops in the city, involving civic and business leaders to help identify projects and set goals that would enable the city to take full advantage of winter.

Input at the workshop included issues of snow management, the lack of sunlight and need to “cheer up the town,” to blading and cross-country skiing opportunities. Following the workshops, the city pursued a winter recreation plan, a winter walkability plan, and made a decision to increase its efforts in winter festivals and activities.

Citizens of Houghton generally have a positive attitude toward their long, cold, and snowy winters. Winter has become an important part of Houghton’s niche and strategy as a “winter city” to attract new residents and business to the community. Supporting winter recreation is an important role for the city.

Winter Recreation Planning

Houghton creates a luge track for sledding right through its downtown.

A unique feature of Houghton’s population is the predominance of 15 to 19 year olds and 20 to 24 year olds, particularly when compared to Houghton County. The city has two to three times the percentage of persons in these age groups than Houghton County. This is due primarily to the presence of Michigan Technological University (MTU) in the city and resulting student population. For recreation planning, this is especially important, as younger citizens have different recreation needs than older citizens. While MTU provides excellent recreation facilities, students use many city recreation facilities, such as the beach and waterfront walkway/trail. Many students who live in the city tend to walk, bike, or roller blade to the campus, downtown and other city destinations, creating new needs and demand for pedestrian and biking improvements.

Houghton’s recreational offerings include facilities that are designed to accommodate all-season use. Winter creates different opportunities, such as hockey/ice skating, sledding, cross-country and downhill skiing, ice fishing, and snowmobiling. The city has developed a 4.5 mile paved trail along the Portage Lake waterfront. This non-motorized trail is extremely popular with residents and visitors. In winter, the trail is used by snowmobilers.

Dr. Robert Nara, Houghton businessman and civic contributor, donated 96 acres land to the city for a nature and recreation area. A master plan for winter usage was developed for the site and included a lighted sledding hill, back country ski/hike/bike/nature trails, and a warming chalet. Features of the Nara trail system include:

  • linkage to Michigan Technology University trails

  • over 50 miles of trails for hiking, biking, running, skiing, and snowshoeing

  • 20 miles of trails groomed for Nordic skiing

The West Houghton Park has become very popular for its outdoor skating and hockey rink. Since the ice is mostly maintained by volunteers, a new concrete slab surface was added to make their job easier, and the city is planning a roof structure to keep snow off the ice.

Winter and the Pedestrian

City employees constructed a snow house for the annual Snow Festival with MTU.

Houghton has constraints to being a good walking town—its hillside geography makes walking harder. Some areas of the city have slopes in excess of 18 percent. Lake effect snowfalls with an annual average around 220 inches can be counted on from November through April, and beyond—more than five months out of the year. Abundant snow, ice, and extended periods of darkness are some of the unique winter conditions that are a part of life in Houghton. These conditions make walking difficult. Walkway maintenance becomes expensive and ineffective.

In order to improve the general quality of life for residents, the Houghton Planning Commission carried out a study to determine how pedestrian conditions could be improved in the city. There was growing interest by residents to walk to their destination, for going to Michigan Technological University (MTU) and/or work, to the downtown area or the city’s waterfront recreational attractions. People also desire to walk and/or run for health and recreation purposes.

Specifics of the plan include:

  • Implementing “raised crosswalks” for easier pedestrian crossings

  • Ensuring public ramps and stairs are all-season accessible by being gradual covered where appropriate and designed as integral parts of the landscape

  • Increasing surface traction with textured paving surfaces for safer pedestrian use

  • Preventing or managing snow and ice buildup on sidewalks (canopies, enforcement, shared clearing machines)

Quality of life is recognized today as one of the most important factors in a community’s image, business climate and economic vitality. This is even more important for Houghton, due to the city’s remote location. The overall environment for pedestrians, or walkability, is one of the quality of life indicators in the 21st century. Creating good walking conditions in Houghton presents challenges due to topography and the winter climate. Investment in pedestrian improvements will result in long-term benefits to the community, primarily in health, less dependence on the automobile, and reduced traffic volume.

Winter Fun

The winter planning workshop resulted in a recommendation requiring immediate attention—creating winter activities that are expressive of winter’s unique attributes. The city has responded remarkably well, with a snow house built in conjunction with MTU for the winter carnival, creating a luge track for sledding down a street right in the downtown, and the Jibba Jabba Rail Jam (see below) winter festival, for instance. The city has worked hard on developing high quality year-round living. The result is a more economically healthy and socially vital city, building on an improved sense of place.


By Garrett Neese, Daily Mining Gazette, January 27, 2009

The Jibba Jabba Rail Jam Snowboard & Ski Competition earlier this month drew a sizable crowd both to the event and to downtown businesses, Houghton City Council members said at Monday’s meeting.

Sean Vestula does a grind on a rail in front of the huge crowd during Saturday’s Jibba Jabba Rail Jam on Huron Street in Houghton. He took first in the advanced division. Photo by David Archambeau. Article reprinted with permission by the Daily Mining Gazette.

The competition, organized by the owners of Rhythm, was held on Jan. 17 on a course set up on Huron Street.

Mark Zenner, director of the Department of Public Works, said work on the course took 10 hours, and many volunteers came out to help with the course. “It’s nice to know there are kids who like to shovel,” he said.

Mayor Pro Tem Robert Megowen said people had come in from Marquette and Sault Ste. Marie for the event. He said there was an uptick at business at Armando’s Restaurant that day; other businesses, such as the Lunch Bag, saw even more.

“Rhythm really had a good day, and The Bike Shop and everyone else,” said City Manager Scott MacInnes.

Megowen predicted, “If they do it again, it’ll have twice as many people.”

Scott MacInnes is the manager of the city of Houghton.
You may reach him at 906-483-4647 or



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