Logjam at Mill Creek
How the Metroparks blocked Nate Pound's kayaks.
by Sally Mitani
From the July, 2017 issue
On May 22, Nate Pound's kayaks capsized. Not his kayak--his kayaks.
The Jackson dentist had been working since last year on plans for a Dexter watercraft livery that would send kayakers and canoers down Mill Creek to the Huron River. But on May 22, he emailed friends and allies, he was "in shock and searching for answers" after being told his customers wouldn't be allowed to land at Dexter-Huron and Delhi metroparks.
The two parks (as well as Hudson Mills a little upstream) are part of the five-county Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority (HCMA). Pound's lawyer had just received a letter from HCMA's lawyer terminating what Pound thought was a done deal to pay $3 for each watercraft from his Mill Creek Outdoor Adventure Center that he picked up at an HCMA park. On hearing the news, Pound emailed, he had "paused construction" on his new building. The news sent shock waves through the city.
Watercraft were the cornerstone of a vision that also included bicycle rentals and a beer garden/cafe on the site of the former Mill Creek Sports Center on N. Main opposite Dexter-Chelsea Rd. "The proposal they put in front of us was great and was well received," says Dexter mayor Shawn Keough. "We think it fits the character of the town very well."
Both Keough and Laura Rubin, director of the Huron River Watershed Council, were perplexed that the project had hit a snag. Pound had "reached out to us, asked us where the other liveries are, what [Mill Creek's] value would be," says Rubin. "He came to us because we're the lead agency" working on river cleanup and monitoring and "helping turn the face of communities toward the waterfront"--promoting exactly the kind of public-private partnerships that Pound was negotiating with the HCMA.
Until May 22, Pound had been feeling pretty proud of busting through administrative logjams. Since buying the property a year ago, he had it annexed to the city, was well into purchasing
one of the county's scarce liquor licenses, had cleaned up the lead from the shooting range in the back of the late Ray Kroske's old sports center, had gotten building plans approved, had leveled the old building, and had a construction crew staking out the foundation for its replacement. His main concern had been whether he could get everything up and running in time to catch some of the fall river traffic.
All along the Huron River, outfitters and liveries have arrangements with park systems to pick up and drop off canoers, kayakers, and inner-tubers upstream. In Pound's plan, kayakers would put in at Mill Creek, glide down to where it meets the Huron River a half mile away, and continue downstream to be picked up at one of the Metroparks.
Pound's lawyer, Rebecca McCluskey, says he's got a chain of emails beginning last summer with HCMA staffers Jerome Cyr (park operations manager for the Washtenaw County Metroparks) and Jeff Brown (western district Metroparks superintendent) and going all the way up to HCMA executive director George Phifer. "In October of last year, Jerry Cyr sent [Pound] a contract and said, 'There you go. It's the same contract we use for Skip's [Huron River Canoe Livery in Delhi Metropark.] Sign it and send it back.' If he had signed it, that would have been it." But before Pound got around to signing it, HCMA came back to him in January with another contract offering slightly different terms.
At that point he hired McCluskey, who suggested a couple of changes to the contract and sent it back. By then, she says, "they had decided on all the material terms, like the amount of money that Mill Creek would pay for watercraft."
The authority never replied to McCluskey's proposed revision. The lawyer says it took her three months and "many phone calls and many emails" before she finally "managed to catch Jeff Brown, who said they were repurposing the [Hudson Mills] golf course, and doing a livery themselves."
Brown also let it drop, according to McCluskey, that HCMA would not be renewing its contract with Skip's. It looked like both private liveries were being cut out, and HCMA had ambitions of its own.
As news rocketed around Dexter that construction at Mill Creek had halted, HCMA lips were sealed. Director Phifer said, "I'm not getting into any specifics. Our position is that we have no contract with them." No one on the lower rungs of the HCMA hierarchy even answered emails and phone calls. The Washtenaw County representative to HCMA's board of directors, Bob Marans, was happy to talk, but he had never heard of Pound or his project.
Pound says HCMA didn't just know that he wanted to open a livery. Sometime last fall, he says, he did "something I now regret:" he shared his business plan. He suspects the authority liked that plan so much it stole it.
"Have you seen the HCMA master plan?" he asks. Opening an HCMA-owned livery, he says, is "right there!" The draft isn't that detailed--but it does suggest closing Hudson Mills' money-losing golf course and diverting more resources to kayak and canoe activities.
The plan to close the golf course was itself a bombshell--Keough was still reeling from the news when I talked to him, because, he says, the course brings a lot of business to his city. (Though HCMA held two "public input sessions" on the draft plan last winter, it never announced that it was considering closing the course.)
Pound's plan "seems like a win/win scenario for everyone," Keough says. "I would like to see that business try to survive over something funded with [HCMA's] tax dollars." Dexter community development director Michelle Aniol seemed dumbstruck when I told her that work on the livery, which is practically outside her window, had halted. She was particularly surprised to hear Pound's theory that he was being cut out. "If it's as you say, why should a quasi-public body undermine something a private business is trying to do?" she asked. Marans, too, was puzzled. While unwilling to speculate on something he hadn't heard of, he admitted it didn't sound like good public policy and promised to take it up with Phifer.
Mark McDonald, owner of Skip's (started by his father Skip McDonald in 1973), is proud to be sole concessionaire at the three Dexter-area Metroparks. Silver-haired and taciturn, fifty-eight-year-old McDonald says his contract is up at the end of this year, but he has the option to renew it on a yearly basis for the next five years. That option requires agreement by both parties, though, so it seems that the authority could terminate Skip's if it chooses.
While McDonald scoffs at the idea that HCMA would start its own livery--"they don't spend a thing"--he says changes are coming at Skip's. He's trying to sell part or all of the business to one of his employees while planning on reopening a canoe livery his father once operated on his own river frontage at McGregor Rd., upriver from Hudson Mills--though he still wants to use the Metroparks to pick people up.
McDonald believes Pound's whole plan is ill-conceived. "It's an OK location, but he doesn't have a game plan. He's running downstream--it's the worst way to do it." Why? "Well picture it. Would you rather be dropping people off upstream" and wait for them to come to you, "or chasing them down at the other end?" where they may well be cold, wet, drunk, or off schedule.
Pound, meanwhile, is trying to locate some piece of private land along the Huron to use as a takeout point, and at press time the watershed council was helping him do that. But the HCMA's dealings with Pound had caused him and his lawyer to begin researching another angle: If the Metroparks are taxpayer-funded, and $70 buys a season pass to enter the park with a vehicle and boat trailer, they wonder, why do liveries need a contract with HCMA at all?
[Originally published in July, 2017.]
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