Strapped Times at Sleeping Bear
Visitor numbers are way up. The park’s budget is not.
By Patrick Sullivan | June 23, 2018
Next time you visit Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, you probably won’t notice that park officials and volunteers are scrambling behind the scenes to accommodate skyrocketing numbers of guests with a budget that’s flat or in decline.
Stagnant operational budgets allocated by Congress in recent years have left officials at Sleeping Bear — and at national parks across the country — putting off maintenance and handing off projects to volunteer groups like Friends of Sleeping Bear and Historic Sleeping Bear (which recently dropped “Preserve” from its name).
The Friends were the primary drivers behind fundraising and construction of the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail, but today they are called upon for less lofty concerns. Kerry Kelly, Friends’ chairman, said his group was recently asked to purchase some tools for the park, stuff you wouldn’t think a national park would go begging for.
“We’re getting more and more visitors, and the budget stays the same,” Kelly said. “They are coming to us for things that are somewhat mundane, just because they don’t have money in the budget.”
THE MOST BEAUTIFUL PLACE
Kelly isn’t complaining, though, and he touts how well park officials and the volunteer groups work together. The Friends’ mission is to support the park, after all, and park officials aren’t to blame for the stagnate budgets.
“We want to make sure the normal operation of the park gets taken care of,” Kelly said.
The tight bottom line at Sleeping Bear is being felt more severely, perhaps, because of the unexpected surge in visitors. The number of annual visitors exploded from 1.1 million in 2007 to 1.7 million last year.
Many observers believe the visitor increase can be traced back to exposure on a major television network seven years ago.
“The thing that really kicked it off was that Good Morning America ‘Most Beautiful Place in America’ deal,” Kelly said. “I don’t think anybody saw that coming.”
Park Superintendent Scott Tucker, who took over in 2016, doesn’t think all the credit should go to the television show, because visitor numbers are up at parks across the country.
“I think it’s a lot of things,” he said. “I think it’s Good Morning America. I think it’s the Pure Michigan campaign. I think it’s social media. I think it’s an increase in interest in national park nationwide.”
Tucker said it’s been a challenge to accommodate increasing numbers of guests with a budget that stays flat. Parking, restroom facilities, and campgrounds have gotten crowded. Amid those challenges, funding levels remain uncertain.
“We haven’t even received a budget for 2018 yet, and 2018 started last October,” Tucker said.
REGULAR MAINTENANCE SUFFERS
Lee Jameson started at Sleeping Bear in 1978, stationed as a laborer at South Manitou Island, and he moved around the park service, staying within the Midwest, until he landed back at Sleeping Bear in 1999. He’s been facility manager ever since.
“My wife and I always wanted to return here,” Jameson said.
Since Jameson’s been in his position, he’s watched maintenance go from 55 percent of the operational budget to 33 percent. Jameson said that’s been a problem across the National Park Service, but that doesn’t make it any less challenging as park officials have to decide to buy supplies over, say, maintain their vehicle fleet.
“If you go from one million to 1.5 million visitors, you need more toilet paper, you need more custodial effort,” he said. “Things just wear out quicker, yet those dollars are declining, not growing. That’s a problem.”
Regular maintenance comes from the park’s operational budget, Jameson said, and that’s what’s wrong. Because that budget has stayed the same or declined in recent years as guest numbers have gone up, that’s meant that there is less money for ordinary maintenance every year.
“The trend line for operating funds has been flat at best and, in real dollars, declining steadily, and that’s where, in my opinion, the heart of the problem is,” he said. “Those are the funds to do the day-to-day operations which, ideally would allow you to provide a level of maintenance to keep things in a good condition.”
That means that little problems are put off until they are big problems. A coat of paint that’s needed on a building gets canceled. They forgo exercising valves in water systems.
“There is very little funding available to provide to support, so I have a vehicle fleet, an equipment fleet, a boat fleet, that is in rough shape,” Jameson said. “We live on surplus equipment. We live on equipment that dates back to the ’80s.”
In addition to a long list of maintenance projects that have piled up year after year, park infrastructure struggles to keep up with the surge in visitors.
“We need more restroom facilities, so we put in a vault toilet down at Platte Point to supplement the comfort station that was there, simply because the line at the comfort station was so long, our staff couldn’t even get in to clean it without causing considerable frustration to the visitors,” Jameson said.
$18 MILLION BEHIND IN MAINTENANCE
Deferred maintenance has piled up year after year. At the end of 2017, Sleeping Bear had nearly $18 million in deferred maintenance projects outstanding.
Tucker said visitors are likely to notice that some projects have been put off.
“Yeah, definitely, if they go to the Maritime Museum (pictured) in Glen Haven, they are going to see a half-dozen structures with peeling paint,” Tucker said.
Tucker said everything that happens in the park is a matter of priorities and choices. This year, for example, the park will spend over a million dollars for a shoreline stabilization project on South Manitou Island because that was determined to be a critical need.
“Our challenges haven’t changed; the pressure on visitor facilities has increased,” Tucker said.
There is a silver lining to all those extra visitors, however: 80 percent of visitor pass fees come back to the park and can be used for deferred maintenance (though a lot of the money is used merely to pay for the staff and infrastructure used to collect the fees). Fee money can be used for deferred maintenance as long as it’s for projects that directly impact visitors’ experience. The money cannot be used for operations or regular maintenance.
Jameson said that’s kind of a backward way to keep up the park, but it’s the system they’ve got to work with.
“If you aren’t providing just the routine maintenance, that’s what’s going to lead to these other deficiencies,” he said. “And if you’re just creating a fund stream to address things once they get to a certain condition, then you are going to be constantly feeding that cycle rather than correcting it in a sustainable way.”
And it’s not just upkeep that’s fallen behind. The park’s infrastructure has not kept up with visitor growth.
For example, the restroom facilities at the Lake Michigan Overlook stop on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive feature vault toilets with no running water. Tucker said he’s visited there with his family on a weekend and had 28 people ahead of him in line.
That place probably needs a real restroom facility with rows of stalls, but that would mean drilling a well, building construction, and hiring custodians. Tucker said his team has to be creative to find funding for something like that amid these days of tight budgets, because new construction is another category that can’t come from fee dollars.
“It’s not like a $50,000 question, it’s like a million-dollar question,” Tucker said. “We’re looking at every option right now.”
DISTRACTINGLY GOOD VIEWS
It seems, however, that visitors haven’t noticed the crowds or the problems caused by the deferred maintenance backlog. Over the past two years, virtually every Yelp! review of Sleeping Bear features five stars and a glowing account of the park’s beauty.
Perhaps there isn’t a clamor for more funds to be allocated to the park because visitors are too enraptured by the views to take notice of the decay or lack of restrooms.
Jameson isn’t surprised most visitors have no idea of the budget shortfalls.
“We try to prioritize where our work effort goes, so some of our more highly visible areas receive attention,” he said. “So what doesn’t get attention are things like the trails on Manitou Islands.”
That means Glen Haven gets a lot of attention; the historic resort structures on North Manitou see a lot less. The Life Saving Station at Sleeping Bear Point, for instance, is to be painted this summer, because that’s a high-visibility area.
Fortunately for the historic structures at some of the less visited spots in the park, like on North Manitou or inside the Port Oneida Historic District, the group Historic Sleeping Bear has stepped in.
“Volunteers fill the gap there,” Jameson said. “Those folks came into existence out of recognition of this need.”
Susan Pocklington, Historic director, said she’s noticed the park’s tight budget but that her nonprofit group has been willing to pitch in.
“The park puts a wish list out to its partner groups and this year, for example, we did fund the purchase of a miter saw, which we have not done before,” Pocklington said.
Historic has evolved in its 20 years from a pesky outsider that lobbied park officials to save historic buildings to working with the park as partners to preserve historic structures.
Today, Historic embarks on projects with the support of the park that the park would not otherwise have the resources to handle, like the restoration of the Katie Shepard Inn on North Manitou Island. At Port Oneida, they’ve embarked on a project to plant 200 antique apple trees over five years to replicate century-old orchards, part of a project to preserve Port Oneida’s “cultural landscape.”
In 20 years, Pocklington said Preserve has donated the equivalent of three-quarters of a million dollars to the park.
“Basically, we are here to fill that gap, and that’s volunteer labor, that’s cash, and that’s cash-in-kind,” she said.
MEANWHILE, IN THE VILLAGES
It’s not just the park’s infrastructure that’s strained. The two villages within the park, Glen Arbor and Empire, have also experienced and been strained by the surge in the park’s popularity.
At the same time, neither village has much room for growth because neither has a wastewater treatment facility, which means new businesses have to rely on septic systems. That is a serious impediment to development.
That means, at peak times, those towns get packed.
“If it rains, you cannot find a parking spot in Glen Arbor today,” Kelly said. “If you want to go out for a burger, good luck with that.”
Paul Skinner, chairman of the Empire Chamber of Commerce and owner of The Miser’s Hoard, an antique and gift shop, said he likes to see Empire get crowded on a rainy day.
“I’m in retail, so occasionally I don’t particularly mind,” he said. “If people won’t be at the beach, they’ll be in my store.”
Skinner wishes there was willingness in the village to build a sewer to enable growth. Likewise, he would like to see the budget for Sleeping Bear increased so that the park could get up-to-date on maintenance.
Skinner doesn’t want to see a strained budget start to affect people’s experience in the park. He wants the large numbers of annual visitors to keep coming.
“The actual visiting experience isn’t as good it might be,” said Skinner, who also lives in Empire. “Anything that impacts people’s experience of the park reflects on the area.”