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Tawas City Transforms its Waterfront to Mixed-Use Development and Boat/Kayak Launch
By Danna White
Location: Tawas City
Tawas City sits on the shoreline of Lake Huron and is symbolic of a small town steeped in the rich history of the state of Michigan. It is surrounded by many natural resources, including Tawas Bay, Tawas River, and Huron National Forest. Tawas City is proud of its many beautiful parks, beaches, and a newly completed fishing pier at Gateway Park—all in all, the city contains nearly 1,500 linear feet of uninterrupted shoreline. There is a variety of motels, unique resort cabins, and nearby camping. In the summer season, the population nearly doubles.
Not everything in the city was idyllic, however. The 500 block area of the old downtown district had four vacant buildings that were deteriorated and the area was considered blighted. There was also an abandoned gas station with contaminated soil from leaking underground storage tanks, as well as contamination from a former dry cleaner. Since there was no stormwater collection system, the Tawas River, running behind all of these buildings, was receiving runoff whenever it rained.
On January 16, 2007, city officials invited residents to participate in a visioning session to discuss the future plans of Tawas City. The number one goal was to redevelop the downtown district on US 23—the main commercial corridor of the community. First things first—City Councilman Dave Dickman led the council in forming a Brownfield Redevelopment Authority, and City Manager Mark Moers applied for (and received!) a $60,000 Waterfront Redevelopment Grant. The city purchased the old gas station from the state of Michigan in a tax foreclosure sale and also purchased the dry cleaner and an abandoned house. The grant provided the funds for the demolition of the buildings and the cleanup of the property. A new paved parking facility was put in, along with decorative lighting. “The DEQ led the way for us to form the Brownfield Redevelopment Authority and to apply for a grant that fit our needs,” said Councilman Dickman.
At the river bank, a 100-foot walkway with a pedestrian walkout into the river was installed. The walkway also serves as a kayak/canoe launch. To protect the environment, natural river rock was placed to stabilize the shore and a stormwater collection system was installed. This eliminates the possibility of contaminated surface water runoff into the river. A Veteran’s Memorial Park area was established, and the next stage of the development will include a recognition plaza for all veterans of Iosco County.
The city is very proud of the fact that it tapped talent from its own backyard to transform the waterfront. A local developer, Town Square LLC, purchased the 500 block across the street and demolished the vacant buildings. A mixed-use development was constructed, consisting of four commercial units on the first floor and eight residential units on the second and third floor. Again using a local contractor—Schaaf and Associates Construction—the city contributed an additional $1.5 million to purchase a third of an acre in the 500 block to construct a new city hall. Believe it or not, the city council had been meeting in the city’s library, and city hall was conducting business in a former railroad office building. The new facility features traditional architectural design, incorporating a clock tower and observation room that overlooks Tawas Bay. A 100-foot riverwalk trail was built on the bank of the Tawas River behind city hall, which connects to a new 400-foot trail behind the Towne Square development.
The city’s fire station, which sits behind the new city hall, was a very small facility that left only inches between the parked fire trucks and was considered a safety hazard. City Manager Moers knew that there was material for a steel manufactured building that had been purchased years before and never used. The city again had local contractor Schaaf and Associates redesign the building materials and construct a new building connecting it to the existing fire house, nearly doubling its size. Tawas City Fire Chief Steve Masich said, “Now the fire equipment and trucks have space to maneuver and there is room for future growth.” There was even room to bring back an old 1939 International fire truck that had been part of Tawas City’s fire department years ago.
The city has also been able to make major improvements to Gateway Park with a new handicap accessible fishing pier and boat launch. In addition, the park has new sidewalks, lighting, benches, two viewing scopes, and an extended parking area. This was made possible through a $134,000 grant from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund and $110,000 from the city. Mayor Duane Walters said “It has been a challenge but a privilege to keep the city moving in a positive direction.”
Demolition of blighted structures, a stormwater collection system, and Tawas River access has been a vast aesthetic and environmental improvement for the city. Construction of a new city hall, Veterans Memorial Park, and the mixed-use development in the downtown area of Tawas City is a focal point for future businesses and has brought a vibrant new beginning to the once dilapidated downtown area.
City Manager Moers noted that “The project was a total facelift of the city, revitalizing the blighted and contaminated downtown area into something the citizens of Tawas City can be proud of. The transformation of the waterfront area for recreational use will have long-term benefits for Tawas City. This merging of public and private investments in our city is a rare opportunity that we have taken full advantage of. The city was proud that it was able to use local companies to work on these redevelopment projects. We felt it was important to our local economy to support local businesses.”
Danna White is a councilmember in the city of Tawas City. You may reach her at city hall, 989-362-8688.