Traverse City News and Events

GT County Eyes The Future of Medalie, Civic Center Parks

By Beth Milligan | Feb. 16, 2020

The planned upcoming construction of a FishPass system at the Union Street Dam is having ripple effects on the rest of the Boardman River, with paddling companies turning their attention further up the river to Medalie Park as a potential launch site for kayak tours during construction. Grand Traverse County Parks and Recreation commissioners Thursday discussed the implications of the possible influx in park traffic – from parking to liability to vendor competition concerns – and will consider a new policy requiring commercial entities to obtain permission to conduct business in any county parks. Parks and Recreation commissioners Thursday also hired a firm to create a new master plan for the Civic Center, a process that calls for extensive public input in the coming months.

Medalie Park
The looming closure of the Union Street Dam for up to two years for FishPass construction will require river users to exit at a new temporary portage spot at American Legion Park. The move will make it difficult – if not impossible – for most river users to continue down to Clinch Park, requiring tour operators to reconfigure their routes. Those groups have approached Grand Traverse County Parks and Recreation seeking permission to launch at Medalie Park, creating a longer paddling route than that offered by the traditionally used Hull Park. The requests – and opposition to the move by The River Outfitters, which has a contract through 2020 with the county to run a livery business at Medalie Park – are prompting Parks and Recreation commissioners to consider a new county-wide policy regulating commercial activity in all parks.

Jeff Bensley of Paddle TC and Troy Daily of Paddle for Pints are both seeking permission to drop tour groups at Medalie Park during FishPass construction. Bensley – who says he dropped 200-300 participants at Medalie Park last year to paddle down to his business at Clinch Park – estimates he would drop roughly the same number of individuals this year, though those patrons will now have to get out at American Legion Park. Daily, meanwhile, could drop up to 3,200 paddlers at Medalie Park over the course of 16 summer tour dates.

Tawny Hammond, owner of The River Outfitters, says opening the park up to other vendors would hurt her business and go against her contract with the county, which was “never intended to allow for other commercial use related to kayak, stand-up paddleboard and bike rentals.” She says her business will already be negatively impacted by FishPass’ construction – “river paddles are a big part of what people choose to do with the rented kayaks and stand-up paddleboards,” she says – and that “allowing additional vendors to use Medalie Park will significantly increase the negative impact on The River Outfitters’ daily business.”

Parks and Recreation commissioners noted Hammond’s contract doesn’t grant her exclusive rights to all commercial activity at Medalie Park, and that other tour operators would not be directly competing by renting out equipment or selling tours at the park – just using it as a drop-off point. But commissioners also acknowledged that the spirit of the agreement was to make The River Outfitters the sole vendor at the park, and that when they approved the agreement, they never envisioned a scenario in which multiple other tour operators descended on Medalie. “This FishPass thing just brought up a whole new can of worms,” said Parks and Recreation President Alisa Korn.

Commissioners discussed other challenges with a large influx of park activity at Medalie, which has limited parking and only one dock available for launching watercraft. That dock is privately owned by Traverse City Tritons Rowing, which allows the public and The River Outfitters to use it. Club Head Coach Chris Bott worried about the wear-and-tear that thousands more summer users could put on the dock, as well as tour groups monopolizing the dock for long stretches of time and preventing other river users from launching. “Our primary concern is liability,” Bott told commissioners. “Commercial entities on the dock are not covered without a special rider…we want to make sure our program is not at risk if someone slips and falls from a commercial entity being on the dock.”

The county could consider constructing a second dock on the property at some point, as Medalie Park traffic is expected to increase – regardless of FishPass – once the Boardman Lake Trail loop is completed. “That puts Medalie Park as our trailhead park too, so that’s going to obviously we hope bring more people in the park,” said Korn. But commissioners agreed the immediate concern was addressing the tour groups’ requests and Hammond’s objections. The Parks and Recreation commission’s business development team will meet Tuesday at 5:30pm at the Governmental Center to talk through the issues with the involved parties and any interested members of the public, eventually bringing a recommendation back to the board for approval. Commissioners also directed staff to work with county legal counsel to draft a rule stating that any commercial operators need to obtain permission to conduct business in county parks before doing so.

“That would cover the paddlers…but there could be other instances like the ice cream guy who drives through the Civic Center,” said Parks and Recreation Director Kristine Erickson. Korn agreed that a “permitting process” was needed to better control commercial activity, particularly along the Boardman River. Parks and Recreation Commissioner Jalen Provo added that board members needed to keep in mind that commercial entities help users enjoy the Boardman, offering benefits as well as potential impacts. “People are choosing to still engage on our river and enjoy the resources we have, they’re just choosing to do that through a commercial entity,” he said.

Civic Center
Also at Thursday’s meeting, Parks and Recreation commissioners voted to hire consulting firm Beckett & Raeder to lead the process of creating a master plan for the Civic Center. The firm was one of two that submitted bids for the project, along with Gosling Czubak.

Commissioners praised the reputations and bid packages for both firms, but chose Beckett & Raeder based on the strength of the company’s public engagement plan, which detailed steps to meet with a wide variety of community stakeholders to solicit their input on a long-term vision for the Civic Center – ranging as young as elementary school students up to seniors. “Getting real community engagement, substantive community engagement, is very important to me,” said County Commissioner Betsy Coffia, who sits on the Parks and Recreation commission. “I was impressed by how much very delineated community engagement was laid out in the Beckett & Raeder (proposal).”

According to the project timeline, consultants will start public input sessions this spring, creating a draft plan to present to the Parks and Recreation commission in June. Following several weeks of revisions based on commission and public input, a final master plan for the Civic Center is expected to be presented to the board in August. Beckett & Raeder’s contract is for just over $34,000, with $10,000 coming from a Rotary Charities seed grant and the remaining funds covered by Parks and Recreation.

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