A unique collaboration of government agencies, non-profits and private interest groups has succeeded in making Manistee County a beacon for residents and visitors seeking access to Lake Michigan, as well as the county's many inland lakes and rivers.
Explore the Shores (ETS) is a program designed to connect people of all ages, needs and abilities with the county's plentiful water resources, fishing opportunities and other recreational pursuits tied to the water. In fact, by the year 2020, the folks at Explore the Shores are shooting to attract 1 million more people to Manistee County to enjoy a network of more than 50 fully accessible Explore the Shores destinations.
"It began with a countywide visioning project in 2006, the first ever for Manistee County," said Tim Ervin of the Alliance for Economic Success, one of the members of Explore the Shores' 22-group leadership team. "As the county attempted to establish blueprints for the future, one of the things that jumped out at us was that we were not doing a good job with our water resources."
To be sure, there are plenty of those resources to choose from: Manistee County boasts 276 miles of rivers and streams, a number of lakes - including three drowned river mouths - and 24 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline.
Getting from blueprint to that fully accessible reality was, and remains, a team effort.
The process of developing the ETS program involved some 700 people and took 16 months. Its completion coincided happily with a perfect funding opportunity: The Easter Seals organization was looking for places in non-urban environments to advance the cause of universal accessibility. Manistee County applied for and received a grant to incubate the project.
From the start, the concept has remained a constant. Just as the need for water is universal, Explore the Shores believes that access to water should be universal for everyone, too.
Many diverse organizations - from the National Association of the Physically Handicapped, to the Village of East Lake, to the Manistee Charter Boat Association - contribute to this mission. Because that broad perspective is partnered with a laser focus on boosting recreation accessibility county-wide, the growing network of Explore the Shores sites is incredibly inclusive.
"We solicit nominations for sites, places anyone might think would provide a great point of access," Ervin said. "We've got a real focus on fishing, but it could be anything - wildlife watching, swimming, anything.
"We go out and seek the funding to develop the sites. Since 2008, we've been successful in bringing close to $4 million to the county to develop about a dozen sites."
Development of the sites is coordinated by the Alliance for Economic Success and the Manistee County Community Foundation.
Every Explore the Shores site - ranging from barrier-free, floating fishing piers, to angler trails, to multipurpose areas accommodating fishing, swimming, picnicking and nature viewing - offers universal access to all facilities, a variety of recreation opportunities, and educational and interpretive signage that gives valuable information about the history and unique features of the site.
Mark Tonello, a fisheries biologist in the Department of Natural Resources' Cadillac office, is one of the folks representing the DNR on ETS leadership team. He plays a key role in determining the location and design of sites.
"I'm basically an advisor, helping identify areas that could use better fishing access and helping come up with ways to provide them," he said. "For example, we have two new fishing piers on Manistee Lake and a couple of handicap-accessible docks parallel to the river where anyone can go to fish."
Tonello works with Explore the Shores to ensure new sites will be situated in areas that will yield decent fishing opportunities. "You can go to Rainbow Bend, stand on the fishing platform, and catch steelhead," he said. "That's my role: to help identify the sites and what we should provide at those sites."
Tonello also contributed to the development of a new fishing/cleaning station at Manistee's popular 1st Street Beach, a renovation project anchored by $280,000 from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund.
Tonello described his work with Explore the Shores as relatively easy and rewarding.
"They've been a real dream to work with," Tonello said of his ETS colleagues. "They've gone out of their way to improve everyone's access to those resources. They've made a mark and have absolutely changed fishing in that area, providing access and amenities that were not there before."
The Alliance for Economic Success' Ervin said Explore the Shores is a great example of a partnership among organizations that simply want to expand access to quality recreation opportunities to everyone.
"What makes the program so strong is that every agency involved can take credit for its success," he said. "Explore the Shores was selected by the U.S. Forest Service for its excellence in collaboration on developing natural resources. Three years ago, the National Association of the Physically Handicapped held its annual convention in Manistee, just to understand and become familiar with the program."
Despite all that, it's important to point out that Explore the Shores is still building steam.
Explore the Shores has plans to build a facility below the weir on the Little Manistee River, including a viewing platform, interpretive trails and a visitors' center, to help make it easier for people to learn about and enjoy the salmon and steelhead runs. The DNR Fisheries Division collects Coho salmon eggs - and many Chinook salmon eggs - for its hatchery program at the Little Manistee Weir.
The site is already popular with visitors, including the youngsters who participate in the DNR's Salmon in the Classroom school program. Ervin predicts the new facility, bolstered by $300,000 in support from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, will only increase the site's appeal.
"There are tons of people who come from all over the United States to see what's going on at the Little Manistee," Ervin said. "It's going to give people a lot of opportunity to see things they've never seen before."
And that's the aim: to successfully outfit Manistee County with a creative, inclusive mix of resources - like hard-surfaced, movable walkways - that invite universal access to the area's rich water, fishing and recreation opportunities.
"If you're using a wheelchair - or even just someone pushing a stroller - you can get down to the beach," Ervin said. "We had 14 people in wheelchairs (at the NAPH convention) who, for the first time in their life, felt Lake Michigan water."
Building on the area's natural resources and working toward that accessibility has resulted in another benefit. Ervin said Explore the Shores is turning out to be one of the most important economic development efforts ever in Manistee County.
"By the year 2020, we want to have at least a million visitors come to Manistee County to visit at least 50 Explore the Shore sites," he said.
Plenty of opportunities are already available to everyone. You can:
- Fly-cast for trout at Spirit of the Woods on Bear Creek;
- Drift-spawn for salmon and steelhead on the Manistee River; or
- Bring the whole family to catch a mess of panfish at universally accessible piers Manistee Lake or Grebe Park on Lake Acadia.
With many more such accessibility enhancement projects on tap for 2013 and beyond, Ervin and the Explore the Shores team should be well on their way to meeting their 2020 goals for Manistee County.