April 17, 2024

What's Next for the Five Nonprofits on the Site of the Future Freshwater Research & Innovation Center?

Making moves, switching gears, and leveling up
By Art Bukowski | March 23, 2024

Change is coming to a small but busy corner of Elmwood Township that will soon house the Traverse City Freshwater Research & Innovation Center.

The project—a collaboration between Discovery Center & Pier, 20Fathoms, Traverse Connect, Northwestern Michigan College, and Michigan Technological University—aims to build a world-class facility that will help establish the Grand Traverse Region as “the hub for education, research, development, and commercialization of freshwater and marine technologies and their applications affecting the Great Lakes and similar freshwater systems.”

The $27 million first phase of the project, expected to break ground in late 2025, includes a 35,000-square-foot building with research, lab, classroom, and business incubation space. This facility will augment the Discovery Pier directly across M-22, which also is undergoing a transformation from a blighted former coal dock into a new community space.

And while there’s plenty of excitement around the new project, it will disrupt the operations of several nonprofits that have long occupied the site, including some that will have to move to make way for the new facility. Northern Express checked in with those organizations to find out what’s next.

Great Lakes Children’s Museum

The Children’s Museum and Maritime Heritage Alliance (MHA) are feeling the largest impact, as both groups have almost all of their operations at the current site and will no longer have space there once the innovation center breaks ground.

Children’s Museum Executive Director Tracie MacPherson says the museum has not yet found a permanent home. Barring the perfect location materializing within the next several months, an interim home is likely, MacPherson says.

“I feel like we’re going to end up going into a temporary space for a little bit so we can get our feet under us and really be strategic and thoughtful about what our permanent location looks like and who our community partners could be,” she says. “All of those things take time and discussion.”

Along with a new home will likely come new programming, MacPherson says. The organization will take the time to reset and potentially add more components, including a science center and a flexible gallery space for traveling exhibits. MacPherson says she’d also like to engage older children up to age 13 at the new space.

Children’s Museum Board Chairman Mel Drumm previously told Northern Express sister publication The Ticker that building a new museum might be in the cards if leaders are able to find a quality site and conduct a capital campaign. Like MacPherson, he says a temporary home will be needed should that path be pursued.

Maritime Heritage Alliance

The MHA has a small fleet—including the stately schooner Madeline, often spotted on the bay—along with more than 7,000 square feet of workshop space on the site used for restorations, maintenance, and more. The group has volunteers that restore boats and teach classes, and they’ve been doing so in their current environs for the last 20 years.

While Madeline and another smaller boat will continue to have a spot on the pier, all of MHA’s land-based operations at the site will cease. MHA Executive Coordinator Heather Jankens says they still have not yet found a new home.

“Currently we have a facilities committee that’s been meeting weekly,” she says. “We’ve looked at a couple of different properties, but there’s been no good news.”

The group is trying hard to find a workable shop space relatively close to the pier where the boats will remain, but it’s a tall order. The further the distance from the pier, the more strain on volunteers who work on the boats, Jankens says. A dedicated space must be located if the group is to carry on with its mission.

“Wooden ships are very much living, breathing things. The reason we are fortunate enough to have the two we do in such amazing condition is because we are on top of our maintenance. We are on top of it all, all the time,” she says. “I am incredibly concerned about what will happen if we don’t have a fully set up wood shop to do just reasonable maintenance.”

Like the Children’s Museum, MHA folks plan to keep pounding the pavement until something turns up.

“We’re still looking, we’re still here,” Jankens says. “We’ll find a path. It might be an 11th hour Hail Mary pass, but we’ll find it.”

Inland Seas Education Association

Inland Seas has its main offices and much of its programming in Suttons Bay. It docks the schooner Alliance at the Discovery Pier and also conducts some programming from the pier. They use limited space across the street for maintenance and storage.

“Our ship maintenance facility is currently located there,” says Executive Director Fred Sitkins. “We’ve got a few things in the works. I’m feeling confident that we’re going to be able to relocate those functions relatively easily.”

As with the MHA’s ships, the plan is for Alliance to remain at the Discovery Pier. Sitkins is glad to continue to have a presence at what will become a “very exciting” space with development of the innovation center.

“What’s being planned there is in really nice alignment with our work. We were founded under the idea that we could play an important role in inspiring students to consider or pursue careers in the STEM arena,” he says. “We’ve always aspired to have a place to be able to direct our students’ attention to what Great Lakes scientists are doing and have them check out these amazing careers that are available.”

Traverse Area Community Sailing

TACS, which primarily offers sailing lessons, has most of its operations on the north end of Boardman Lake. As of now, it also has some storage space at the Elmwood Township location, though TACS should be able to replace the storage space, Board President Tom Roop says.

Like Sitkins, Roop is eager to see the innovation center developed, which he believes will be a boon to the entire region.

“What they’re doing there is going to have a huge impact not only on that neighborhood, but on the whole community,” he tells us. “I’m very confident that in five years, you won’t even recognize that corridor. It will be very similar to what happened on the North Boardman area.”

(Roop is referring to a once-blighted Traverse City area brought back to life by TACS activities, a wonderful and busy library, the completed Boardman Lake Loop Trail, new businesses, and more.)

Discovery Center & Pier

As one of the lead partners in the new innovation center, few could be more excited than the folks at the Discovery Center & Pier.

CEO Matt McDonough is hard at work fundraising for the project, which received $15 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. He says about $9 million still must be raised.
McDonough is particularly enthusiastic about engaging the public in the innovation center, which will be built with public access in mind.

“If you go to a university setting and see a research facility, more often than not there’s no public interface. You don’t know what’s going on behind those doors and windows,” he says. “When this new center is built, we’re going to be a conduit between the community and the research that’s happening here.”

What will that look like? “Imagine 3,000 square feet of public interface space for you to look at marine technology on display or interact with hands-on exhibits, where people can come in and learn about micro sensors to detect PFAS, or see a filter for microplastics and find out why that’s important,” McDonough continued. “Or lake bed mapping. Or real-time weather buoy data with a high-tech buoy on display and computer screens showing real-time data coming in.”

McDonough hopes this hands-on engagement will spur urgency and action on issues related to the Great Lakes.

“At the end of the day, you want the Great Lakes resources to be as healthy as they can be. So that starts with you and me, and with people caring,” McDonough said. “And in order for somebody to care about something, they have to feel a connection to it.”

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