Michigan State Parks will receive some major improvements that have been shelved for years.
The Department of Natural Resources announced last week that nearly $16 million will be used to upgrade state park infrastructure in 10 counties.
It’s the first phase of funding stemming from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s “Building Michigan Together Plan” — a $4.8 billion infrastructure package signed in March. The package includes a record-breaking $250 million for state park improvements.
That funding came from the federal assistance program, the American Rescue Plan Act, in response to economic concerns caused by the pandemic.
Cheboygan State Park in Duncan Bay is one of the first parks to get a much-needed facelift.
Like most state parks, Cheboygan’s use increased dramatically during the pandemic. Overall, state parks have seen a 30 percent increase in visitors since 2020.
But the park’s aging infrastructure was barely holding up. Last month, just before Memorial Day weekend, the park’s decades-old water system finally gave way.
Park staffer Dave Merks said the waterline was likely punctured by a rock, creating a spring in the middle of the campground.
“With the vibration and plumbing over time, you can see how a stone has worn down,” Merks said. “Because it’s probably been underground since 1972.”
Merks said the waterline was repaired shortly after it ruptured, but it was clear the system had reached the end of its useful life. Now Cheboygan will use the incoming dollars to replace both its water and electrical systems.
It is one of 11 projects to be funded with the first round of funding.
Ron Olsen, head of the DNR’s parks and recreation division, said the money will make a big difference — it would save almost $300 million in deferred maintenance across all the state parks that had built up over the decades.
Olsen said state parks have struggled for years to get enough money to get around.
“We had many, many projects,” Olsen said. “The prioritization got to the point where the things that were almost doomed to fail were being fixed (instead of being replaced).”
And with increased usage during the pandemic, decades-old infrastructure has been used more than ever.
“We’ve gone from about 28 million visitors to about 35 million in those few years,” Olsen said. “That obviously puts a strain on older facilities.”
As campgrounds grew older, camping equipment was modernized. Merks said another issue at Cheboygan State Park is the 20-watt electrical system.
He said the park experiences frequent power outages due to modern RVs that require 30 to 50 watts to operate. Some of the RV hookups at the campsites are damaged and need to be replaced.
It’s another item on Cheboygan’s list of incoming repairs – along with repairs to his sewage system.
The infrastructure funding will support a wide range of projects, from basic system maintenance, like at Cheboygan, to smaller quality of life improvements, like at Straits State Park in Mackinac County.
It gets $2 million to replace old bathroom and shower buildings.
Eric Cowling, who oversees the park, said even these improvements will be important to the new generation of nature lovers who took off during the pandemic.
“There have been a lot of new users over the last few years,” Cowling said. “It will be good for them to see our facilities in the best possible shape.”
Some projects, such as that at Cheboygan, have already been designed and are awaiting bids from contractors. Others, officials said, have yet to obtain permits or pay for environmental assessments.
Richard Hill is District Manager for the Parks and Recreation Division in Gaylord. He says repairs at Cheboygan could begin as early as September, with other projects to follow.
“Speaking for myself, the park staff and a lot of the regular campers there, I think everyone is really excited and enthusiastic about getting these things going,” Hill said.
The DNR created an interactive map with proposed project locations, details and status of funded state park projects.