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Waterfront Communities Enhance Our State’s Economy


By Daniel P. Gilmartin

Imagine a spaceship full of aliens on a flyover tour of Planet Earth. If an extraterrestrial realtor asked them to point out the best spots to land, I’m betting a lifetime supply of Reese’s Pieces that Michigan would rank right near the top of the list.

No, it’s not because the bottom half of our state looks like a giant hand waving “hello” from outer space. It’s the stuff surrounding that giant mitt: nearly one-fifth of the world’s fresh surface water supply and a mind-boggling 90 percent of the entire U.S. supply, according to the Great Lakes Information Network. But are we really using that asset to its full advantage? All ­­­kidding aside now, that is exactly the question we’re asking in this issue. We Michiganders often lose sight of the fact that the Great Lakes truly define our state, both in a very real geographic sense and as a fundamental aspect of our history, culture, and economy. Without our lakes, Michigan would quite literally and figuratively cease to be. The trouble is, we’re so used to thinking of ourselves as the Great Lakes State that we take the whole concept for granted. It’s a classic example of not seeing the forest for the trees.

We can turn that tide around. Right now we are at a key point in history where we are redefining our entire state and its communities. If we’re going to thrive in the 21st century, we must reshape our economy, rebuild our communities, repurpose our resources, and rethink our priorities. Michigan’s municipalities can play a strategic role in leading the way—and our waterfront communities are one great place to start.

You’ve heard us say how crucial our urban centers are to revitalizing our state’s economy. Our coastal communities should be no less important in shaping what Michigan is and what it has to offer to residents and visitors alike. Michigan’s 3,000-plus miles of shoreline are more than any other state in the nation except Alaska. In fact, with more than 11,000 inland lakes, one is never more than six miles from an inland lake or more than 85 miles from a Great Lake. It’s time we started riding that wave. In this issue you’ll find great examples of communities using their waterfronts as a valuable tool for economic development and as a unique asset for creating a sense of place and enhancing the quality of life. Whether it’s Alpena’s maritime museum creating a focus for tourism and local identity, the transformation of St. Joseph’s Silver Beach into a popular waterfront destination, or
Sault Ste. Marie’s strategic role as a gateway for international shipping…it’s all about the power of water to play a transformative role in the future of Michigan communities.

But let’s not forget it’s also an irreplaceable natural resource that we as municipal leaders must work to restore and protect. In our lifetimes, we’ve seen our fisheries devastated by invasive species, our wetlands threatened by careless encroachment, and our waterways impacted by toxic contaminants and outdated sewage infrastructure. Our municipalities can and should be a powerful force for positive change. Both as an organization and through individual members, the League is involved in a wide array of environmental initiatives—from League President and Alpena Mayor Carol Shafto’s role on the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council to the League’s Lansing staff’s work in championing legislation that would assist municipalities in brownfield clean-up, sewer infrastructure improvements, and other clean water related projects.

Not in a shoreline community? I’m betting that same supply of Reese’s Pieces you’ll still find something within these pages that applies, even if it just inspires you to think about the unique assets your own community can use to develop a unique identity and sense of place. So turn the page and jump in. The water’s fine.

If you missed the Regional Meetings this year, there were stellar presentations and timely updates on what’s coming at us from Lansing. The Regionals set the stage for this year’s Community Excellence Awards “Race for the Cup” and we had great participation—see the list of entrants on page 37.



Daniel P. Gilmartin is executive director and CEO of the League. You may contact him at 734-669-6302 or



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