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Bringing Home the Gold: Michigan State Park System Best in Nation

By Caroline Weber Kennedystate park

Michigan received the National Recreation and Park Association Gold Medal for the top state park system in the nation in 2011. Michigan’s 99 state park and recreation areas host 22 million annual visitors, providing access to more than 13,000 campsites, trails, inland lakes, rivers, and the Great Lakes. The state system is a key partner in the Pure Michigan tourism effort that generated $17.2 billion and created an estimated 152,600 jobs—so the gold is more than honorary, it’s monetary. The award recognizes Michigan’s innovative Recreation Passport Program and the state’s strategic planning that delivers a high quality customer experience to every state park visitor.

Governor Rick Snyder appointed a Blue Ribbon Panel on Michigan State Parks and Outdoor Recreation to guide the system into the future. Snyder said, “This award is a credit to the people of Michigan. For more than 90 years Michiganders have realized these unique areas are an integral part of the cultural enhancement, economic enrichment, and overall quality of life that we value. Our parks are what we make of them and the people of this state clearly prize these treasures. I commend the DNR for its outstanding stewardship of these resources and look forward to working with all stakeholders so that we have a parks system that serves our state and its visitors for generations to come.”

Local governments are the key stakeholders the governor is referring to. Tourism is on the uptick in Michigan. You can help position your community to be attractive and inviting for this economic base. Are local businesses catering to this target market? Are your way-finding signs user-friendly and effective? Do local ordinances allow for recreational and ORV access to downtown amenities such as restaurants and entertainment venues, and are the access routes clear and welcoming? Are trailheads within walking distance to your downtown? And, don’t forget that cultural heritage tourists stay longer and spend more than the average tourist, so what can visitors learn about your history and your heritage while there? Following are some exciting projects underway that can be emulated.

#1 Trail State in America

According to the Trails and Greenway Alliance, popularity for trails has skyrocketed, as people embrace trails for fitness, reconnecting with nature, commuting, and for Pure Michigan fun. Did you know that with 2,478 miles of non-motorized trails, we lead the country as the # 1 trails state in America? We connect downtowns, schools, neighborhoods, shopping and cultural destinations and natural wonders.

The Up North Trails Initiative

The Up North Trails Initiative, a collaboration of nonprofit organizations, local governments, state agencies, trail user groups, private businesses, and private citizens in northern Michigan is forging ahead toward its goal of collaboratively marketing the 22-county “Up North” region as one of the pre-mier trail destinations in the country. The collaborative has collected more than $11,000 in donations and has begun their marketing efforts by creating a “one stop shop” interactive website providing detailed information about all types of trail systems in northern Michigan as well as the crucial economic maximizing factors of public and private points of interest near those trail systems. This unique public-private partnership will utilize the model of the award-winning US 23 Heritage Route program to collectively market public and private recreational assets with the goal of applying that model across the state in partnership with the Pure Michigan program.

Says Denise Cline, GIS specialist and community planner at the Northeast Michigan Council of Governments, “We know Michigan’s extensive trail systems rival any in the nation and are excited by the level of interest and participation in this initiative.

Collaborative marketing and data centralization is an idea whose time has come! This initiative leverages our region’s fantastic trail systems to support new opportunities for community and economic development and also fits nicely into the initiative in Michigan to eliminate the silos of economic development, recreation, and tourism.”

St. Ignace Events Committee

The St. Ignace Events Committee is a loose-knit group consisting of representatives from the Visitor’s Bureau, Chamber of Commerce, and city along with business owners and community members with a passion for creating and sustaining events and activities in St. Ignace. A Visitor’s Bureau Board brainstorming session several years ago cited the #1 need in this tourist community as events and activities. In February 2007, U.P. Pond Hockey started it all—an event that drew less than 30 six-member teams—five years later had to be capped at 160 teams. In July of 2007, the Fish Feast was introduced at the beautiful, new downtown marina. Several local restaurants cook and sell their Great Lakes fish specialties on-site, with spirits, live music, and kid’s activities.

Citizens Keep Neighborhood Parks Going

clark park
roosevelt park

When the city of Detroit determined that it no longer had the budget to operate Clark Park, citizens came together and refused to allow it to be closed. They took over programming and operations while the city agreed to mow and provide lights. It is now bustling with youth soccer, baseball, tennis, hockey, and many other programs. It would have joined the numerous ranks of abandoned land had citizens not stood up and taken responsibility for such an incredible asset.

Another city park, Roosevelt Park, lies in the shadow of the historically brilliant and infamously abandoned Michigan Central Station. Members of the community reached out to others for program ideas after Daimler Financial generously offered to bring sixty volunteers and $20,000 to do a project in the park. Each year, the budget, number of volunteers, and their impact has grown. Following the city’s master plan, community members have started to plan and design phases of the park based on community needs. The plan is to remain flexible and organic in order to adapt to the changing needs of the community. Over $600,000 of private dollars and in-kind donations has been dedicated to the park with more coming in.


Caroline Weber Kennedy is manager of field operations for the League. You may contact her at 906-428-0100 or



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