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State parks to fix aging infrastructure with ARPA dollars

Cheboygan State Park will receive $750,000 to construct upgraded electrical and water distribution systems.
Michael Livingston
Cheboygan State Park will receive $750,000 to construct upgraded electrical and water distribution systems.

Michigan state parks will get some major upgrades that were on the back-burner for years.

The Department of Natural Resources announced last week that nearly $16 million will go toward infrastructure upgrades for state parks in ten counties.

It’s the first phase of funding that’s coming from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s “Building Michigan Together Plan” - a $4.8 billion infrastructure package signed in March. The package includes a record-setting $250 million toward state park improvements.

That funding stemmed from the federal relief program, the “American Rescue Plan Act” in response to the economic concerns brought on by the pandemic.

Cheboygan State Park in Duncan Bay is one of the first parks getting a much-needed facelift.

Like most state parks, Cheboygan’s usage increased dramatically during the pandemic. In total, state parks experienced a 30 percent increase in visitation since 2020.

But the park’s aging infrastructure was barely hanging on. Last month, just before Memorial Day weekend, the park’s decades-old water system finally gave in.

Park staff member Dave Merks said the waterline had been punctured, likely by a rock, creating a spring in the center of the campground.

“With the vibration and the plumbing over time, you can see a rock wore through,” Merks said. “Because it’s probably been underground since maybe 1972.”

Merks said the waterline got patched up not too long after it ruptured but it was clear the system was reaching the end of its life. Now, Cheboygan will use the incoming dollars to replace both its water and electrical systems.

It’s one of 11 projects being financed with the first round of funds.

Ron Olsen, chief of the Parks and Recreation division at the DNR, said the money will make a huge difference - cutting into nearly $300 million in deferred maintenance at all the state parks that had built up over the decades.

For years, Olsen said state parks struggled to get enough funding to go around.

“We had lots and lots of projects,” Olsen said. “Priority setting got to the point where the things that were almost to the point of failing, were getting repaired (instead of replaced).”

And with increased usage over the pandemic, the decades-old infrastructure was seeing more use than ever before.

“We went from about 28 million visitors to up in the neighborhood of 35 million in that couple year period,” Olsen said. “So that obviously puts strain and stress on older facilities.”

While campgrounds continued to age, camping gear got modernized. Merks said another problem at Cheboygan State Park is its 20-watt electrical system.

He said the park gets frequent brown-outs due to modern RVs requiring 30 to 50 watts to operate. Some of the RV hookups on the campsites are damaged and need replacing.

It’s another thing on Cheboygan’s list of incoming repairs – along with repairs to its sewage system.

Infrastructure funding will support a wide range of projects - from essential system maintenance like in Cheboygan to smaller quality-of-life improvements like in Straits State Park in Mackinac County.

It’s getting $2 million to replace old bathroom and shower buildings.

Eric Cowling, who oversees the park, said even these improvements will be important for the new generation of nature enthusiasts that began during the pandemic.

“There are a lot of new users the last couple of years,” Cowling said. “It will be good for them to see our facilities in the best shape possible.”

Some projects, like the ones in Cheboygan have already been designed and are awaiting bids from contractors. Others, officials said, still need to acquire permits or pay for environmental assessments.

Richard Hill is the district supervisor of Parks and Recreation Division in Gaylord. He says repairs in Cheboygan may begin as early as September with more projects to follow.

“Speaking for myself, the park staff and a lot of the regular campers there, I think everyone's just really excited enthusiastic to get these things started,” Hill said.

The DNR created an interactive map of proposed project locations, details and status of funded state park projects.

Michael Livingston covers the area around the Straits of Mackinac - including Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties as a Report for America corps member.