Restoration work begins at Mill Lake.
by Jennifer Eberbach
On a brisk October day, more than 100 volunteers helped Waterloo Recreation Area staffers fill three enormous dumpsters with debris, old bunk beds, damaged wood, and overgrown vegetation and removed stacks of old windows--all before lunchtime. By afternoon, some of the buildings at the Mill Lake Outdoor Center had a fresh coat of stain.
Mill Lake was built by the federal WPA in 1936 as a place for schoolchildren from urban areas, like Detroit, to get out into nature. It was the best place in the recreation area for large groups, offering easy access to hiking trails and the nearby Gerald E. Eddy Discovery Center. But in 1981, with the state in recession, the Department of Natural Resources leased it to the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, and MUCC closed it in 2000. Since then, Mill Lake's lodge, infirmary, classrooms, staff quarters, and dozen cabins have stood like a ghost town in the heart of the Lower Peninsula's largest state park.
In 2007, South Bend native and NASCAR driver Ryan Newman announced plans to restore the center in collaboration with the DNR and Michigan International Speedway. Nothing came of it, but Newman's attention led, indirectly, to the this fall's project: when Patty Janes was looking for a site for Michigan Cares for Tourism's first cleanup, the DNR suggested the group take on Mill Lake.
Michigan Cares recruited tourism professionals from across the state as volunteers. With a $5,000 Pure Michigan grant and support from MIS, Chelsea Milling Co. (Jiffy Mix), and others, they did so much work in two days that park management is optimistic about reopening part of the camp as early as next year.
"It will be a huge and costly undertaking, so we'll have to bring the camp back in phases," says park manager Gary Jones. "Our short-term plan is to focus on the five B-unit cabins. Hopefully, by this time next year, at least some of those five will be restored to the point where we can
rent them out as rustic cabins" without water or power.
That work will likely cost "in the ballpark of $100K," Jones guesses, based on how much it cost for park staff to restore one cabin before the October cleanup. The goal is to finish the interiors of the cabins, fix up roofs, and furnish them next spring.
A complete restoration of the camp would take much more cash and likely another three to five years. "Ultimately, budget willing, the long-term goal would be to get the full facility restored and to get it back to its intended use as a way to get urban youth outdoors," says Jones. But to do that, "we need to bring water, sewer, and power back to the cabins."
Revenue generated from rustic cabin rentals would go into Waterloo's park budget. Potentially, some money could also come from the DNR Recreation Passport, which lets residents pay for parks access when they renew their vehicle registrations. "A percentage is dedicated to historical and cultural resources, so we are hoping some of that money will be used on Mill Lake," Jones says.
Patty Janes, director of Michigan Cares for Tourism and professor at Grand Valley State, has high hopes that the cleanup will lead to bigger things. "We came here to kick-start a wonderful, larger project," she says. "The thought was, if we could kick-start it, then the DNR could find and secure funding for more work. However, the DNR has 240 historic sites that need attention and a $350 million deficit. These places will never get reopened unless people in our state join forces and work together."
Newman's involvement also led, indirectly, to the formation of a new group promoting nearby "gateway" communities. In 2007, Chelsea Chamber of Commerce head Bob Pierce attended Newman's national fan club meeting at Mill Lake. Conversations he had there eventually led Pierce to organize a group of movers and shakers in Chelsea to attend a Conservation Fund training session focused on communities that are neighbors to public lands. After that, another session in Chelsea drew folks from a wider area, including Waterloo and Pinckney recreation areas, Stockbridge, Dexter, Manchester, and Jackson.
As the group, and the ideas, got bigger, they decided to become more formal. Because they were spread over an area of about 400 square miles, they called themselves the Big 400.
An estimated 650,000 visitors a year come to Waterloo, which makes the park a major asset in the Big 400. "We have this unique place and beautiful land here that we are not leveraging," says Pierce. "For me, Mill Lake is about bringing the kids back out into nature." And he thinks reopening the camp will benefit all of the "gateways" to Waterloo.
"This is much bigger than us," he says. "It's really about using tourism and recreation to create a sense of place in the Big 400, across geopolitical lines."
[Originally published in December, 2013.]