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Harbor Beach Michigan’s Maritime Festival Riding Wave of Success

By Elizabeth Shaw

21c3 Asset: Cultural Economic Development

Location: Eastern Michigan
Population: 1,837

Harbor Beach

The festival started from a shared vision to create a true 'sense of place' for the small city, by building on the strength of what was already there.

It could have been just another jet-ski race. Instead, the Harbor Beach Maritime Festival has swelled far beyond the Lake Huron waves in its 10-year history, and now includes everything from bocce ball tournaments on the beach to pet parades, car shows, and a 5k run. In the process, the local economy has reaped the benefits brought by thousands of visitors flocking to Michigan’s Thumb each year for the five-day family event.

The positive effects aren’t confined to the bottom line from a single week’s investment of time and money. Events like these can draw a community together, creating an image and identity that really puts a place “on the map” for tourists and prospective residents alike. It’s a great example of how cultural economic development works to help build strong, vibrant communities—one of the guiding principles of the League’s Center for 21st Century Communities.

“Because we’ve been working at this for 10 years now, people from all over now mark us on their calendars for the second full week in July,” said Mayor Thomas Wood. “They make Harbor Beach a destination because they’ve come to understand this is the place to be on that weekend.”


It all started from a shared vision to create a true “sense of place” for the small city, by building on the strength of what was already there. They didn’t have to look any further than the community’s own namesake: a beautiful harbor three miles wide, overlooked by a picturesque historic lighthouse on the harbor entrance’s great wall.

“It was a few people having an idea that we have a body of water here that has been seen for years as the greatest community harbor…that it just is a natural resource that we need to share,” said Maritime Festival Committee member Pam Semp.


Harbor Beach

Jet ski racing made Harbor Beach a destination; but creative and hard-working residents created the small city’s sense of place.

It made perfect sense to build the free celebration around that resource, centered on the popular water sport of jet-ski racing. But the festival committee knew even world-class jet-ski racing wasn’t enough for what they had in mind. “Right at the beginning, we knew we needed something to entertain everyone, so we on the Maritime Festival Committee raised some funds and bought a stage and placed it down on the beach, and said this is where all our bands will be,” said Mayor Pro Tem Al Kleinknecht, another of the festival’s founders.

After adding live music, the planning expanded to include a wide range of family-friendly activities: arts and crafts, car shows, food vendors, raffles, contests, displays, and fireworks. The list grows each year; the only limit is the creativity and energy of the participants themselves.

“If the weather’s good, you’ve got people dancing in the sand, people hanging out talking on the pier,” said Semp. “The fireworks are amazing. People are scattered all over town. Whether at the marina to the north or on the wastewater retention basin or down on the beach, the viewing is unbelievable.”

Now billed as “one of the world’s largest personal watercraft events in the world’s greatest manmade harbor,” the festival has actually boosted the jet-ski competition itself to a scale typically only seen in bigger venues.

“You’ve got world-class jet-ski racing going on in Parker, Arizona; Myrtle Beach; Nashville, Tennessee…and Harbor Beach, Michigan is the premium site on their tour,” said Kleinknecht. “We have the biggest attendance, more races, racers from all over the country and Canada. We even have them from Australia.”

From gift shops to the local pizzeria, nearly every business in town has climbed on board the festival bandwagon, promoting and participating in a myriad of ways.


“When you do something in your community, you’d like to have it affect not only yourself positively. When we contribute, it contributes to the whole,” said Semp, herself a local businesswoman who owns the Corner Store. “And when you give, you get it back and you get it back tenfold. It helps the merchants and gives them something to look forward to, because the town is packed with people who come from all over and get to see Harbor Beach and how great it is.”

In fact, none of it would be possible without the sponsors, who pick up the brunt of the annual $25,000 price tag—from local businesses to nonprofits including the Lions Club, Knights of Columbus, American Legion and the local athletic association, fire department and hospital auxiliary.

The community found a new reason to celebrate this past year, when it was finally able to take possession of the local historic landmark that is the visual embodiment of the lakefront community’s identity: the Harbor Beach Lighthouse.


Harbor Beach

Built in 1885, the beacon stands 54 feet above the waves of Lake Huron, placed on the northern side of the harbor entrance to guide ships safely home. In 2004, the lighthouse was deemed excess by the U.S. Coast Guard and offered at no cost to eligible entities under the provisions of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. After years of negotiations, an acceptable agreement was finally worked out between the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment and the Michigan Lighthouse Alliance. In June of 2010, the Harbor Beach Lighthouse was formally transferred to the city of Harbor Beach during ceremonies at the Great Lakes Lighthouse Preservation Conference.

But some might say the Harbor Beach Maritime Festival is just as bright a beacon, lighting the way to this vibrant community on Lake Huron’s shore.

“It really is a community event. Participation is the only thing that makes it go, and it just goes on and on and on, but it won’t go without all those entities,” said Semp. “In doing that, it exposes our area to more people to possibly invest, to come live here, to bring business and to bring jobs here. It makes us thrive.”


Harbor Beach Maritime Festival website

Harbor Beach Maritime Festival Facebook page

Harbor Beach Maritime Festival video


Harbor Beach's Maritime Festival was the 2010 Region 5 Winner in the Community Excellence Award “Race for the Cup.” The CEAs are the League’s most prestigious community awards. They are decided upon by peers both at the regional level and at the Convention, where one of seven finalists is selected as the Cup winner.

To find out more about the CEAs, go to

Elizabeth Shaw is communications coordinator for the League. You may reach her at 734-669-6318 or



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