Gateway Community Initiative In Michigan: Waterloo Recreation Area
Downtown Chelsea, Michigan.
Photo by Kendra Briechle/The Conservation Fund
At A Glance
"We are deep in the throes of our first Gateway project: Rails-to-Trails Shared-Use Path Conversion of the former NYCRR railbed from the Leonard Preserve to Village Hall through the center of Manchester. There have been two Council meetings and a large public input session. The project is receiving overwhelming community support." — Raymond Berg, President, Manchester Area Chamber of Commerce
Waterloo Recreation Area in Michigan is a little-known treasure. About a one-hour drive from Ann Arbor, this 20,000-acre park is the largest in the lower peninsula and shares a 36-mile hiking trail with the Pinckney State Recreation Area. Yet there wasn’t much to entice visitors or local residents to explore this pristine wilderness and all of the recreational opportunities it offers. Only one exit from the highway leads to the park, and the local communities had virtually no relationship with the vast wilderness at their border.
One exception was in Chelsea where a painted wooden sign in the town center declares it is “The Gateway to the Waterloo-Pinckney Recreation Area” (see image below). Bob Pierce, a Chelsea community leader, knew most people wouldn’t think of his community as a gateway to these recreation areas. The challenge was how to make it one.
It was a chance encounter with Fund staff at a local event that led Bob and a few of his colleagues to attend the Conservation Leadership Network’s Balancing Commerce and Nature course at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. The course, designed to bring community leaders and public land managers together, teaches communities to make the most of their proximity to public lands while also protecting the natural resources of the area and the character of the community.
Bob and his colleagues left the course inspired and with an action plan to create the Gateway Communities Initiative: An ongoing series of meetings with leaders from the communities bordering the Waterloo Recreation Area and other local public lands as well as the towns of Chelsea, Manchester, Dexter, Pinckney, and Stockbridge and Washtenaw and eastern Jackson counties.
Our Conservation Leadership Network Travels To Michigan
The Gateway Communities Initiative invited the Conservation Leadership Network to Michigan to kick off the initiative with a three-day Balancing Commerce and Nature workshop. Led by the Fund’s Kendra Briechle, the workshop was tailored to the specific needs of the communities and the Waterloo-Pinckney recreation areas. Attendees learned about the value of conservation; the benefits and opportunities from fostering sustainable tourism; and the prospect of enhanced place-based education for the area’s young people.
The workshop also provided local leaders with an opportunity to develop action plans for making the most of the relationship between the communities and the neighboring recreation areas. The course has had a real impact in the area. Every month for one year, community leaders, including the Fund’s Ann Arbor-based Ginny Trocchio, met to discuss how to develop a better infrastructure and identify opportunities that would enhance both the public lands and their communities.
Manchester is developing a historical tour as a model for other themed tours that Manchester and other communities can use, Dexter has proposed building an information center at the east entrance to the park, and Chelsea has pledged to create better signs to direct visitors to the park.
Another great result of the Gateway Communities Initiative is the appreciation residents now have for the surrounding public lands. There is greater awareness that public lands can be a source of economic development as well as community pride.
The Balancing Commerce and Nature course has sparked a true partnership between Chelsea and the other communities bordering the Waterloo-Pinckney park lands. We have no doubt that these Michigan communities will be models of how to balance nature with development for other towns that border public lands in the state.
UPDATE: Big Things from The Big 400 in Michigan!
Following the Balancing Nature and Commerce workshop, the partners surrounding the Waterloo and Pinckney Recreation Areas embraced a branding effort and launched The Big 400 brand, so called because the landscape covers a 20 mile by 20 mile area. The community, private, and public leaders are committed to using the public lands to stimulate commerce across the Big 400 range, while ensuring they are the best stewards of the landscape.
Recent success came back-to-back in the form of two statewide innovative tourism awards. In February, The Big 400 won the “Partners in Conservation Award,” and in March 2014, The Big 400 partners were recognized with the Governor’s Award for Innovative Tourism Collaboration, in conjunction with the Tourism Industry Coalition of Michigan (TICM). The Big 400 earned the Governor’s Award for hosting the first event of the Michigan Cares for Tourism effort to engage tourism professionals statewide in giving back through a volunteer event. Together, the Big 400 and the TICM rallied volunteers in a daylong cleanup of the historic Mill Lake, a 1934 cabin community that welcomed urban youth and others to their first travel and outdoor recreation experience.