Traverse City News and Events

Gold In The Water: Local Partners Band Together To Make Traverse City A Global Freshwater Leader

By Craig Manning | July 5, 2022

Fresh water is the new gold.

For years, experts have been predicting that eventually, clean, fresh water will take its place as the most valuable resource on the planet. Now a team of players from throughout and beyond the Grand Traverse region are banding together to pursue a shared mission: positioning Traverse City as the global epicenter for freshwater research. Those players – including Northwestern Michigan College (NMC), Discovery Center & Pier, Traverse Connect, 20Fathoms, and Michigan Technological University – have a grand vision of transforming Discovery Pier on West Grand Traverse Bay into an 85,000-square-foot, $60 million facility that would include not just a public pier, but also research labs, classroom and seminar space, a startup incubator, and more.

The new Freshwater Research Center would be “the hub for education, research, development, and commercialization of freshwater and marine technologies and their applications affecting the Great Lakes and similar freshwater systems throughout the world,” per an outline of the project compiled by the partners. One section of the facility would house multiple types of “high-tech lab space and equipment,” including wet labs and laboratories for computer research and simulation. Other parts of the building would be allocated for educational purposes, including classrooms, seminar space, and an auditorium – to support both NMC courses and “large-scale speaking and community engagement/learning events.” The facility would also incorporate administrative offices, a startup business incubation and accelerator space, a “maker/tinker” space for small business development and ongoing research support, and a “barrier-free” working pier space, similar to what currently exists at Discovery Pier (pictured).

Hans Van Sumeren, director NMC’s Great Lakes Water Studies Institute, admits that getting this multi-million-dollar project off the ground will be a massive lift, and that it won’t happen overnight. Right now, NMC and its partners have “several different requests that are out there” for project funding, both through the state and the federal government.

“I think it’s a $3 million request that Senator [Wayne] Schmidt is supporting [at the state level], which would be directly supporting the development of the Discovery Center Pier and all those ancillary pieces that are critical to the establishment of the center in that accessible space along the water,” Van Sumeren tells The Ticker. “And then there is a $40-$50 million request through federal channels, and that would be for the business facility development, and for that idea of actually creating the space.”

How those public funding efforts shake out will affect the design and vision for the Freshwater Research Center. The current concept, Van Sumeren says, is the result of each partner “putting together our wish lists” for what the center might include. 

“With any new development, we're going to have to tailor what our facility looks like based on the actual funding that we see,” Van Sumeren says. “And of course, beyond those federal and state dollars, there are also philanthropic opportunities and other investment opportunities that we’re going to be pursuing. So, nothing is definitive yet. We’re very early in this process. We're just trying to lay it out so that we are ready for when these opportunities come up.”

Van Sumeren has been talking for years about Traverse City’s potential to be a global leader in freshwater research, as have influential local leaders like Casey Cowell. But the actual partnership driving the visioning for a proper Freshwater Research Center is a newer development. As the different organizations involved began establishing other points of allyship – such as articulation agreements between Michigan Tech and NMC, or Michigan Tech’s move last fall to open an office in the Traverse Connect building – conversations about a broader all-hands-on-deck effort heated up. Those partnerships are making headway now in growing Traverse City’s profile as a hub of marine technology and freshwater research, even if it might be years before an actual headquarters for those efforts exists at the Discovery Pier site.

“We really can become the national center for freshwater expertise in technologies that are under development or being positioned for commercial distribution,” Van Sumeren says.

What would that look like? In essence, it would make Traverse City ground zero for the development, testing, and commercialization of technologies that prove be crucial for the future understanding and protection of freshwater ecosystems and resources. From sophisticated sensors to detect algae, E. coli, or other water contamination; to a deeper understanding of invasive species and their potential long-tail impacts on the Great Lakes, the possibilities for a locally-grounded freshwater research hub are, as Van Sumeren admits, “pretty broad.” Those outcomes would bring new economic opportunities and money to the region, but they also have the potential to be crucial gamechangers as the importance of freshwater resources continues to grow.

Van Sumeren sees the prospect of Traverse City becoming a global leader in freshwater research through the lens of a simple question: “If not us, who?”

“We have a lot of tangibles already in place that make us the ideal candidate to play this role,” Van Sumeren explains. “Number one, we are at the center of the Great Lakes, geographically speaking. That means we’re not at the outer fringes when it comes to access [to the water]. For instance, it’s not anyone’s fault that Michigan Tech is quite a ways away, but they readily say that it’s sometimes difficult for them to attract freshwater researchers or entrepreneurs [to Houghton]. Number two, we are an area where fresh water really defines us. I don't know that you could say Cleveland or Detroit are defined by fresh water, but we definitely are. Three, we're not a large metropolis, where things can get absorbed into the noise of everything else that's going on. I think of Chicago that way.

“Finally, we have the partnerships. We can attract people to come here for educational opportunities, but then also attract companion businesses to try out new ideas in an incubator space, or to work with the researchers at Michigan Tech on the development of sensors. With all these pieces, we think we can be the community that supports the technologies needed for the betterment of the Great Lakes and of freshwater bodies throughout the world...Traverse City is the ideal place to make it happen.”

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