The park system on Old Mission Peninsula is among our township’s most treasured resources. With beaches, boat launches, playgrounds, many hundreds of acres of hiking trails, ballfields, and even our own lighthouse, few rural communities are as fortunate as Peninsula Township to have such an array of public parks.
But it’s time for an important change with how our parks are managed.
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Park System Growth
In recent years, our Peninsula Township parks have grown on many levels: we have new parks, additions and improvements to existing parks, more residents and significantly more tourists using them. As a consequence of this growth and usage, there are considerably more management challenges than in the past.
Here are examples of changes to our parks in recent years:
In 2008, the lighthouse went from a largely dormant property to a heavily utilized visitor destination with guest tours and a gift shop requiring staffing. The gift shop is seasonal with limited hours, but still had more than 46,000 signatures to its guest book last year, with likely tens of thousands of additional visitors. The Lighthouse Park’s beaches and hiking trails are similarly more heavily used.
Adjacent to the Lighthouse Park is the 600-acre Old Mission Point Park. Once a mostly unknown resource, it’s receiving much higher usage as residents and tourists discover its beautiful trails and features.
Haserot Beach was another hidden gem that’s increasingly crowded during the summer season, causing neighborhood parking issues. Nearby Kelley Park is a DNR property but is managed by the township park system and still under development with the hope of easing pressure at Haserot.
Bowers Harbor Park has gradually added amenities through the years, most recently a little league ballpark. The “Bowers Harbor Park expansion” added 60 acres to this already heavily utilized park, nearly tripling its size. The expansion was a collaboration largely led by residents and involving the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, as well as private donations and grants sources.
In 2008, township residents passed a millage to create Pelizzari Natural Area (PNA). Hundreds of thousands of additional dollars were privately raised, led by residents and the Conservancy. PNA is 63 acres of “nearby nature” in the most densely developed part of the township, sparing countless users long drives to north-end parks. Many thousands of hours of volunteer time have accomplished nearly all of the work at PNA.
Stating the obvious, this is a radically different park system than just a few years ago.
Many residents are surprised to learn that we have an elected Park Commission in Peninsula Township. In fact, it’s highly unusual for any unit of government – federal, state or local – to have an elected board to manage parks. The Michigan Township Association recently stated that we’re among a tiny handful of townships in the state to have such an elected body.
We’ve been fortunate to have many outstanding citizens serve on our Park Commission. But as the management challenges have grown, it’s become clear to many residents, as well as some former and current parks commissioners who deeply value our parks, that an elected board is an unnecessary and cumbersome layer of bureaucracy.
This is absolutely not a criticism of individuals who have served or are serving on the Park Commission. Our community owes a debt of gratitude to all those who’ve helped guide our parks through the years. But it is accurate to say that there’s a structural problem with our township government that needs correction.
Peninsula Township is in the rare position of having two elected boards: a seven-person Township Board and a five-person Park Commission. The Township Board meets as a whole at least twice monthly with various study groups and other special meetings routinely scheduled. Three members of the Township Board are full-time, salaried employees: supervisor, treasurer and clerk. A staff of other full-time and part-time employees support the work of the Township Board, as does the appointed Planning Commission and a contractual attorney.
The Park Commission members function much like a volunteer group, receiving per diems for attending meetings but not a salary and do not have support staff. They have a regularly scheduled monthly meeting and have needed to call more special meetings in recent years due to the increasing demands of the parks.
On a day-to-day basis, the township supervisor and staff field most of the calls related to the parks. The Park Commission must have its annual budget approved by the Township Board. If there are any significant changes to expenditures, again, the Park Commission must return to the Township Board for approval. When any new needs or requests arise within the parks, whether it’s expanded uses or land acquisitions, it’s always the Township Board that leads the efforts. Most of the changes noted above about our parks were led by citizens or the Township Board, not the Park Commission.
Bottom Line: Vote Yes
The bottom line is that having two elected boards involving a total of twelve officials with back-and-forth interactions to manage our parks is unwieldy. Decisions are delayed and inefficiencies are obvious. As day-to-day demands increase, the problems are exasperated. Turnover among park commissioners is high and results in a lack of continuity for an elected and part-time body that’s already overwhelmed.
More than 20 residents worked to gather signatures over the summer calling for a change. Their work resulted in the Township Board unanimously authorizing ballot language for the November 6 election. If passed, responsibility for the parks will be transferred to the elected Township Board.
Because Park Commission meetings are so sparsely attended, many of us feel that this change will certainly make management decisions happen more efficiently as well as put more focus on the parks. Because our elected Township Board will have responsibility, we will maintain our right to vote for candidates who make their views known on park issues.
We enthusiastically urge Peninsula Township residents to vote “Yes” on the parks proposal on November 6 to improve the effectiveness of our parks system by eliminating unnecessary bureaucracy.