Traverse City News and Events

Northern Michigan Sports Commission Gets Started, Aims High

By Ross Boissoneau | Dec. 11, 2019

When former Governor Rick Snyder signed two supplemental spending bills late in his term totaling $1.3 billion for numerous projects throughout the state, they included funding for road upgrades, contamination cleanup, education initiatives – and $10 million to establish the Northern Michigan Regional Tourism and Sports Fund and create a Great Lakes Sports Commission.

The commission’s interim executive director Kevin Korpi says the funding was released in September and the group is getting underway, its goal to promote northern Michigan as a premier destination for outdoor recreation and youth, amateur and professional athletic competition, enhancing the economy and quality of life in the region – and the eventual output of the group’s efforts could bring world-class events like ski jumping or a new indoor sports complex to the region.

“We want to build it to make it sustainable,” says Korpi of the $10 million. He believes the bulk of the money will be disbursed in loans rather than grants, with repayment helping the fund remain intact. “Large (disbursements), like over $1 million, will be structured as loans; smaller amounts could be grants,” he says.

Korpi says the group is expecting to look at funding projects that will not only ultimately generate enough income to become self-sustaining, but become economic drivers. “We want to promote or preserve sports-related development and tourism. What’s often needed is critical infrastructure and facilities.”

For the purposes of the Sports Commission, “northern Michigan” encompasses the Upper Peninsula and all of the lower peninsula north of the southern county lines of Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw and Iosco Counties -- 36 total counties.

The board is made up of Doug Luciani, principal at ExSapien and former CEO of Traverse Connect; Dr. Fritz Erickson, president of Northern Michigan University; Gina Jacquart-Thorsen, president of outdoor clothing company Jacquart Fabric Products of Ironwood; Dennis West, CEO of Northern Initiatives; Billy Demong, executive director of USA Nordic, the ski jumping and Nordic skiing organization; John Madigan, the owner of Pictured Rocks Kayaking of Munising; and Steve Verrette, president of Champion, Inc. in Ironwood.

Luciani championed the concept of the commission while leading Traverse Connect. “In my previous perspective I saw the potential right away. Kent Wood [Director of Government Relations] really pushed it. We saw multiple opportunities for events,” he says, mentioning the Ironman competition, the VASA, and Olympic training opportunities in the UP as examples.

When the funding announcement was made, there was immediate speculation that some of that money could be used to fund a sports complex in the Traverse City area. Korpi said nothing is off the table, but it’s too early to determine what projects might be funded. Luciani says he anticipates projects built around Traverse City and Marquette – “They are both economic engines driving northern Michigan,” he says – but he also sees opportunities for rural areas as well.

Kent Wood agrees that Traverse City could be a beneficiary of the funding, but says the commission’s mandate to look at championship-level facilities that attract visitors from around the world suggest that a community sports complex might not make the cut. He points to things like expanding the Great Lakes Equestrian Festival or even creating world-class cross-country ski trails at Hickory Hills as potential projects instead.

One concept Korpi says will be under early discussion is attracting FIS World Cup Ski Jumping, one of the most popular European sports – and FIS is looking for a U.S. market. North America has not hosted such an event in 20 years. Korpi says the regional economic impact could be over $25 million and would showcase Michigan as a global recreation destination.

Luciani says he anticipates various projects to apply to the fund, and he hopes for at least one project to be funded in 2020. “If we haven’t funded ten in five years I’ll be disappointed,” he says.

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