12 July 2010

Lighthouses for Sale

The Detroit Free Press

For sale: historic waterfront property with unusual winding staircase and a great view of Lake Michigan or Lake Huron. May need work.

The public may get a chance to buy a Michigan lighthouse if no government or nonprofit organization steps forward to preserve three that the U.S. Coast Guard no longer needs:

The Frankfort North Breakwater Lighthouse; the Middle Island Lighthouse, across Thunder Bay from Alpena, and the South Haven South Pierhead Lighthouse.

Eight others are for sale across the country.

The first crack at owning one will go to communities, museums or nonprofit groups with a commitment -- and the means -- to maintain them.

But if no suitable local group is found, the lighthouse will go up for auction, possibly by spring. What could it be sold for? The Granite Island Lighthouse in Lake Superior sold for $86,000 in 1999.

"These lighthouses are still an important part of our heritage," said Jennifer Radcliff, president of the Michigan Lighthouse Fund. "These lighthouses will tell us to remember that the lakes are still an important part of our economy."
Owners will need cash, dedication

Lighthouses were once a sailor's only assurance against disaster, their lights guiding many a Great Lakes ship home safely from the strongest storms.

Michigan's most famous wreck, the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975, may have been helped to its watery grave because the Whitefish Point Lighthouse on Lake Superior was blacked out by a power failure.

With GPS and modern navigation, lighthouses are no longer needed to guide ships. Their value now lies in the role they played shaping maritime history, and in their significance as a historic symbol of their community.

"They draw tourism and economic development to the community, so they have a broader importance than just being historic monuments," said Martha MacFarlane Faes, Michigan Lighthouse project manager with the State Historic Preservation Office.

Eleven lighthouses were just made available to communities or the public through the National Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, which allows lighthouses to be transferred from the U.S. Coast Guard to new parties with the means and commitment to maintain them.

Preference is given to public bodies and nonprofit groups and these organizations have to maintain them for educational, park, recreation, cultural or historic preservation uses.

The latest round of excess lighthouses includes 11 around the country, three of them in Michigan: The Frankfort North Breakwater Lighthouse, the Middle Island Lighthouse, across Thunder Bay from Alpena, and the South Haven South Pierhead Lighthouse.

Lighthouses can come in all shapes and sizes, but these three are all more traditional looking towers.

"I knew this day was coming," said Josh Mills, Frankfort's city superintendent. "Obviously, this structure means a lot to this community. It's a signature structure in our community and we'll do whatever is necessary to keep it."

Mills already has talked to the Friends of the Point Betsie Lighthouse, near Frankfort, about taking the breakwater lighthouse under their wings, but hadn't pressed for a commitment. He will now.

Lighthouse ownership is not an inexpensive proposition. The Frankfort lighthouse needs about $1 million in upgrades to make it a top-notch city attraction, Mills estimated, including restoring a catwalk on the breakwater, out to the lighthouse. The Point Betsie Light preservation group has so far raised $1 million for that structure's maintenance.

Grants are available for nonprofit and government-run lighthouses.

In Michigan, profits from special lighthouse license plates go to provide $40,000 grants to these groups for lighthouse preservation, as long as they have $20,000 to match the grant. So far, the state has awarded $1.5 million of these grants since 2000.

Privately owned lighthouses don't fare as well when it comes to grants.

The Granite Island Lighthouse in Lake Superior was the last privately purchased Michigan lighthouse, bought in 1999 for $86,000. The new owners won't say how much they spent to restore the lighthouse, only that it was well into six figures.

They not only had to repair a gaping hole in the roof and plenty of ruined plaster and woodwork, they also had to convince workers to live on the island in tents while the restoration was in process.

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