By Ian Kullgren
A yearlong economic study funded by the federal government will help Michigan’s Great Lakes coastal communities capitalize on the growing recreational boating market.
The federal government awarded $471,000 to Michigan Sea Grant that includes a portion to help communities come up with ways to draw more tourists to their local harbors.
Sea Grant will choose four coastal communities around the state, including at least one on Lake St. Clair, to participate in the study over the next year.
The findings will be published to give other cities and towns ideas on how to maximize the advantages of their harbors.
The need, water resource officials say, comes in part from a shift from solely fishing boats in the harbors to large, expensive recreational boats now frequenting the harbors.
“All over the map, we see some huge boats,” said Mark Breederland, Sea Grant Extension educator based in Traverse City.
“It’s a different crop of boats than it was 20 years ago,” said Breederland, who works in Emmet, Charlevoix, Antrim, Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Benzie and Manistee counties.
That’s changing the kind of services harbors need to offer, including larger slips, different kinds of dock rentals and better electrical outlets.
Alpena, for example, recently began offering month-to-month slip rentals to attract more boat-cruising tourists. Slip occupancy last summer was up 8 percent compared to the previous year, and diesel sales increased by 35 percent, City Manager Greg Sundin said.
Along the Lake Huron coast, that’s been an important economic replacement for disappearing salmon fishing, he said.
“Fishing is still there, but I think a lot of it is just recreational boating, and that’s important,” Sundin said. “Even if it’s a short stay, we have a lot of things near the marina for them to do and spend money on.”
Accommodating recreational boaters is something state officials look for as well when communities apply for grants, said Bill Boik, programs and grants unit manager for the Department of Natural Resources Waterways Commission. That can include larger slips, sometimes up to 100 feet, and electrical fixtures with greater capacity.
“By percentage, there have been more larger boats purchased,” Boik said. “We make sure communities can accommodate what’s out there.”