There needs to be a better balance between development and preservation in places like Mackinac. It's not just about new hotels but about having an environment where infrastructure keeps pace with the times instead of staying in the past.
The future of the past is in dispute at one of Michigan’s most famous tourist destinations.
Two developers who just opened the Bicycle Street Inn & Suites on Main Street have plans to erect two more hotels downtown on two waterfront sites — and historic preservationists are fuming.
One structure in the way? A former Ryba’s Fudge shop.
This spring, the city, armed with strict new historic preservation district laws passed in January, blocked one of the planned hotels, the three-story Main Dock Inn near the Arnold ferry dock.
It cited the need to make sure open space, light and water views remained on Main Street.
So developers Ira Green and Melanie Libby made an offer: They would shrink the hotel size to 13 rooms and not block the whole dock — in exchange for 100 bicycle licenses and a hardship waiver to tear down two buildings, including the Ryba’s shop. The city had until last Wednesday to act.
Last Monday, however, the Historic District Commission denied the demolitions. Then the City Council asked for more time. Developers said no. The offer expired. Now, all parties say the situation is fragile and delicate, sensitive and unresolved.
At its heart, it’s a case of competing visions for Mackinac Island.
“When you actually look at the plans, it’s shocking. Do they want to be Mackinaw City or Mackinac Island?” said Amy Arnold, preservation planner for Michigan’s State Historic Preservation Office. “We feel they are undermining the historic district by creating fake historic buildings that look like Disneyland.”
Mackinac resident Nancy May, agreed, saying: “I can tell you that no one on Mackinac wants to see another hotel there.”
But Libby says she and Green are trying to offer Mackinac visitors a high-quality addition.
“It is for us a legacy project,” she said. “We looked at it and truly believe it will enhance the Mackinac experience. … We are trying to work out a compromise that gives a balance between a number of visions for that area.”
And Andrew Doud, chairman of the Historic District Commission, said he hopes a solution is found: “We denied it on the grounds of economic hardship, but we were open to accepting it if council thought it was for the greater good.”
At one time, lodging on Mackinac Island was as simple and as old-fashioned as the birds in the trees.
On an island that allows no motorized vehicles, visitors did not expect their quaint hotels to have air conditioning, big showers, flat-screen TVs, or even TV at all. Now they do. That’s hard to do within the confines of old buildings, developers say.
Libby and Green — who has had business interests on the island for 20 years, including management of the historic Lake View Hotel and bicycle rentals — say that decrepit structures on Mackinac Island need to be torn down and replaced by sounder buildings that contain modern amenities demanded by upscale tourists — or those tourists will go elsewhere.
They point to the abandoned 125-year-old McNally Cottage they demolished two years ago on Main Street to make way for the Bicycle Street Inn & Suites, which opened May 5. McNally Cottage had to go, they say. The town is better off for it, they say, and the new neoclassic inn with the mansard roof blends so seamlessly with neighboring property that tourists won’t realize it is modern until they walk inside and see the elevator and posh shops.
That’s not the point, preservationists say. People don’t come to see new buildings on the island, they come to see history. Even the most flimsy structure, if historical, should be saved to preserve the island’s character, they say. They point to the Silver Birches, a rambling and crumbling Adirondack-style mansion on the island’s northeast shore. The 1906 building looks about one cinder-block support away from tumbling into Lake Huron. It is far off the beaten path for tourists. Yet this month, a Chicago woman announced ambitious plans to restore it to its former glory as a resort.
The whole island has been a National Historic Landmark since 1960. Its current status? It’s on a watch level for “inappropriate construction/alterations.”
‘It will be built’
To outsiders, the arguments raging on the 3.8-square-mile island may seem esoteric. Islanders are debating about cornices and clapboards, tin facades and ferries rather than issues that other communities face, such as crime and traffic.
But Mackinac Island, at least the roughly 80% of it that is a state park, belongs to Michiganders. State taxpayers, not just business owners or the 900,000 tourists who visit each summer, have a stake in the island’s future.
In the fall, Green and Libby will start building their other approved hotel, the 13-room Bicycle Inn, on Green’s bicycle lot across the street from the new Bicycle Street Inn & Suites. It will be completed by 2015, Libby said.
As for the controversial Main Dock Inn project, Libby says she and Green will not let last week’s denial of a hardship waiver of historic preservation rulesderail the project.
“We are moving toward a hotel there, either smaller or larger,” she said. “We may have to amend the plan, but it will be built, one way or another.”
They have a lot invested because they paid $5 million for the property Jan. 8, exactly one day before the new regulations were adopted by the city. They bought the property from the financially troubled Arnold Transit ferry line, which last month got slapped with a creditor’s federal lawsuit claiming, among other things, that the property was sold without its knowledge.
The historic district regulations that now cover most of Main and Market streets and the West End are so strict, they “virtually eliminate the demolition of properties,” Green said.
But state preservation planner Amy Arnold says that the precious island should have had historic districts all along. Buildings from 1960 and before — all part of Mackinac Island’s history from the 17th Century to its days as a tourist attraction when the Mackinac Bridge first opened — are important.
The former Ryba’s Fudge shop the developers want to tear down? It was built by Selma Dufina, the first female fudge shop owner on Mackinac Island.
“We look not just at a building’s age, but also its context,” she said. “Buildings like the fudge shops are important. They were built in a period of historical significance.”
Seeing both sides
Business owner Bob Benser Jr., who wears many hats on the island, including owner of Murdick’s Fudge, president of the Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau and co-owner of the Lilac Tree Inn and Chippewa Hotel, is conflicted. He sees both visions.
“Buildings that are structurally sound, we should renovate, but some of the buildings downtown are not,” he said. For him, the overall look of the downtown is most crucial to attracting tourists. Preservation is fine, but not if old buildings sag or sit empty.
“To me, there was a time when the town was a little bit junky,” he said. “For the most part, the island looks as good as it ever has.”
On the other hand, he can brag that his 19th-Cenutry fudge shop is the original, with its slightly tilting floors and narrow white clapboard paneling, and visitors crowding in to feel the history and smell the fudge. You can buy Murdick’s Fudge at other spots. But you can’t go to another original Murdick’s No. 1 store.
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Photo credit: A vintage-style carriage adds to the heritage and charm of Mackinac Island. Myscha Theriault / MCT