The Future of Mackinac Island, Michigan

Mackinac Island Future

& The Future of Mackinac Island Tourism

Visiting Mackinac Island is like going back in time to an era of horse-drawn carriages, Victorian architecture, unpolluted air and relaxation. While Mackinac is all of those things it’s also a contradiction. It’s one of very few places you can ride a horse-drawn carriage to buy a Starbucks Frappuccino. And the air may be fresh on the upper deck of a ferry, but once on the dock you’ll be instantly immersed in the Island’s signature scent: a heady top note of horse excrement that melts into an aromatic base of chocolate fudge and candy apples. But this is Mackinac Island 2103 – stuck somewhere between trying to maintain its historical charm and pleasing the almost 1 million tourists who visit each year – Mackinac Island Tourism.

mackinac island tourism travel budget

The McNally Cottage on Main Street

The Basics.

The allure and charm of Mackinac Island lies in its 200 year history, lack of motor vehicles and  largely original two storey Victorian buildings dating back to the 1800s. However, up until June 2013, these original buildings were not protected by any local preservation or historical legislation and could be demolished to make way for modern hotels or buildings.

The most recent example of a demolition on the Island was the 120 year old McNally Cottage which was replaced by The Bicycle Street Inn and Suites on Main Street. The demolition of the much-loved building (and one which contributed to Mackinac Island’s National Landmark status) reignited the debate of how to best keep the Island’s history while maintaining modern facilities to accommodate the island financial lifeline – tourism.

Mackinac Island is a National Historic Landmark but only 80% percent is a state park. The commercial areas of the island – namely Main and Market Street – are not designated areas of the National Park and commercial buildings and licenses have been traditionally bound only by the Mackinac City Council and it’s subsidies. However, due to the historical preservation issues cited by politicians, locals, historians and tourists alike since the demolition of McNally Cottage in November 2011, Mackinac City Council approved two new historical districts encompassing the downtown area on June 15, 2013. The district will be overseen by the Historic District Commission.

The McNally Cottage Legacy

The McNally Cottage was built for $500 in 1889, ($1000 including the porch) and purchased in 2009 by developers for $1.7 million so it could be demolished to make way for the Bicycle Inn and Suites. McNally Cottage has a long tradition on Mackinac Island. It’s been a residential property, bed and breakfast, employee housing and the first stop on the Ghost Tour. Generations of families recall fond memories of McNally Cottage but upon its destruction, the lasting legacy McNally Cottage will leave behind is the historical preservation debate which led to the implementation of the much-needed Historical Commission. McNally Cottage may never save Mackinac Island completely from becoming what some describe as a historical theme park but it has managed to put another barrier in place to delay the inevitable and protect the preservation interests in the meantime. The generations who have held McNally Cottage dear are now acutely aware of the preservation issues on the island and hopefully, will play an active role in keeping Mackinac Island what it is today.

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The Demolition of McNally Cottage

The demolition of McNally Cottage was a turning point in Mackinac Island history. During the 2011 excavation developers found a burial site of several hundred human and animal bones. The human bones belong to the ancestors of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. A volunteer who spoke with the Mackinac Island Town Crier said that almost three complete human skeletons were found at the site.

The members of the Sault Saint Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, the property owners and the City of Mackinac Island negotiated the removal and reburial of the remains at the City’s Catholic cemetery. Despite the fact there were no local historical or preservation laws in place, Peter Payette of Interlochen Radio reported more than 100 buildings were destroyed between 1970 and 2000. Almost every building along Main and Market Street is rich in history and often still at least partly original in design and architecture. The demolition of any of the buildings without archaeological or historical consideration is dangerous and of immediate cultural and historical importance. Each proposed demolition should have a written report detailing the proposal, history and photographs throughout the procedure or proposal so any archaeological or historical evidence can be preserved and articulated for future generations.

The Road to Demolition. Why wasn’t McNally Cottage saved?

Prior to the sale of McNally Cottage, the city attorney, Tom Evashevski, was asked by City officials to contact the McNally family on the selling price of the Cottage. The City initially considered buying the cottage or raising funds through investors to save it from commercial development. However, the McNally family wanted to sell both the Cottage and two waterfront properties across the street they owned as one transaction. The city was unable to afford the properties.

Mr. Green and his development partners then purchased the property. However, Mr. Green offered to sell the Cottage in two separate lots back to Mackinac Island for the price he paid for it. ($1.7 million). He explained the terms of sale were identical to the one offered to the City – a property deal including the two waterfront properties across the road from the Cottage. The Cottage was not his primary interest but a non negotiable part of the deal. The city was unsuccessful in attracting investors to purchase the property. The ‘Save Our Island‘ group even purchased a full page advertisement in the local newspaper Mackinac Island Town Crier asking for support in saving the Cottage which was also unsuccessful.

Mr. Green also proposed another solution – the relocation of McNally Cottage and additionally offered the first $10,000 in associated relocation costs. Structurally, McNally Cottage may have not been able to be moved. The Cottage had several additions to the original structure of the house and the limited space on Main Street was also a considerable barrier. Mr. Green explained in a Council Meeting that he did not want to demolish the building, but he needed “some help in where it is going to go.” Mayor Doud reiterated that “the McNally Cottage belongs where it is…that is where it has stood for eons and that is where it belongs.” The idea of incorporating the Cottage into the plans of the new hotel surfaced and were rejected by Mr. Green. (Small Point Cottage was a successful Island relocation).

On a National Public Radio programme with Peter Payette, Mr. Green said that if the McNally family were able to keep up the property they would have. He also stated that if people wish to keep up old buildings they need to buy them and do so. In this case, there was nobody that was willing to buy McNally Cottage in time.

travellingassassin.bicycleinn mackinac island tourism

The end product: Bicycle Street Inn and Suites on Main Street

Mackinac Island Tourism

Does Mackinac need another hotel?

Although Mr. Green and his developers are pushing for the development another $5 million property, their newly opened 3-story, 36-room Bicycle Street Inn & Suites is the first hotel development on the Island in over 10 years. The last recorded development was the Main Street Inn and Suites. From personal experience, the Island feels over built downtown as it is. The Grand Hotel alone has 385 rooms. Mark Alexander, the Bicycle Street Inn & Suites marketing and advertising manager answered the question himself when he said, “Mackinac Island is a very popular place, but the number of visitors doesn’t really change much year-to-year. It hasn’t in 30 years or longer.” And in the last 30 years there has never been a shortage of rooms. Is there demand for a brand new hotel downtown? Mr. Green has said there is a strong demand from tourists to offer and maintain accommodation to a higher and more modern standard with the use of elevators and modern up to date amenities often demanded by wealthier tourists.

Who are the developers and what do people think?

Melanie Libby and Ira Green manage the Lake View Hotel and the Lake View Bike rentals. (In front of the Lake View hotel and in front of the Arnold’s dock). Mackinac Island is a popular place to visit and in Mr. Green defence, he is a business person not a preservationist, archaeologist, historian or politician. He is in the business of making money and to make money you need to give people what they want. In this light, it is not solely Mr. Greens or Ms Libby’s fault the McNally Cottage is no longer here. The consumers who want a brand new hotel, current amenities and a modern experience in a historical city should visit New Orleans instead.

Ms Libby and Mr. Green believe certain structures on the Island need to be demolished to accommodate structurally sound buildings demanded by tourists. The preservation planner for Michigan’s State Historic Preservation Office, Amy Arnold, felt like a genuine historic building was demolished to make way for a fake historical building. Bob Benser Jr who is the president of the Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau admitted that some of the buildings along Main Street are not structurally sound and there would come a point where the downtown area – if left as is – could become “junky.”

Mayor Doud, who was opposed to the demolition of the Cottage, has said that tourists are “not coming here for retail, retail, retail, retail, store after store after store. They are coming here to see something new, different, and unique. If we have a cookie cutter main street, we might just as well pack it up. We are all done.”

Mrs. Lenfesty at a council meeting asked “how in the world you can call it preservation when you build another look-alike, cookie cutter, three-tiered, balcony hotel on the street of this beautiful old Island that depends on its historic status to bring people here, when tourism is the lifeblood of this Island, just goes against everything that seems to me the Island stands for and ought to be working for.”

What’s next?

For some, this question is more controversial than the demolition of McNally Cottage. The development will start on the 13-room Bicycle Inn across the road from the Bicycle Inn and Suites. The completion is expected by 2015. However, the greater concern lies in Mr Green’s new $5 million property purchased from the Arnold Transit Ferry Line. The proposal includes a three-story hotel, Main Dock Inn, spanning the entire Arnold Ferry Line dock entryway, with a 15-foot-high passageways on both sides for entrance to the docks. The plan calls for the demolition of two existing buildings – one of which has historical significance.  The developers may be able to get around this if they can prove financial hardship by demonstrating they purchased the property before the Council enacted the downtown historic district and they did so in the belief the $5 million purchase price was paid under the assumption they would be able to tear down the historic building. Although the developers claimed financial hardship, the Historic District Commission denied their plea but were open to negotiations. The developers can appeal.

travellingassassin.maindockinn mackinac island tourism

The future? (Roger Priebe, Mackinac Island Dockporter Association)

Mackinac Island Tourism

Hopefully, the legacy of McNally Cottage which lives on through the Historical District Commission can allow us to make better economic and commercial decisions for the future of Mackinac Island. If McNally’s legacy is only to get more people aware of the preservation issue and act and attending meetings, its demolition may serve generations to come. If you would like to get more involved Council Meetings are open to the public. For more information contact the Mayor’s Assistant, at assistant@cityofmi.org or 906-847-6556.

Have you been to Mackinac Island lately and stayed at the Bicycle Inn and Suites on Main Street? What did you think?

Mackinac Island Tourism

Also check: Travel to Mackinac Island and Save Money – 2013 Season

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8 comments

  1. Great article. I’m part of the family that sold McNally, and feel we really let down our ancestors and the island. I worry that the island business community doesn’t understand that they can sell off what makes it special – regardless if it results in less tourists or not.

  2. We were at Mackinac Island last week (for an entire week). While we did not “stay” in the Bicycle Inn, we did visit it and the shops below. In our opinion, the shopping area below is WAY too MODERN and CONTEMPORARY for Mackinac. It saddened me to hear that they demolished McNally Cottage. Actually demolishing ANY piece of history is always sad to me. I wish they could have preserved it. We visit Mackinac Island 3-4 times a year and I really hope it doesn’t continue to keep getting any more “touristy” and “modern” than it already is.

  3. If someone mentioned here that they were part of the family that sold McNally Cottage – for $1.7 MILLION – how can those same people be critical of the man who paid fairly for it and offered to sell it back? I am NOT in favor of wholesale overdevelopment of my home; I spoke at the meetings in favor of the historic districts – but to have previously destroyed 100 buildings, and then jump on this one individual? Selling the rights to destroy the building for $1.7 million, keeping the money and then trying to keep him from utilizing what he bought? That is utter hypocrisy. So typical of the same mentality of the supporters of the current in-vogue political party who favor “green energy” (pun intended?) – but then immediately voted to block some of us from trying to put in windmills on the island! What do you think people used for energy 200 years ago? Hypocrisy again, in a secret meeting of the city council no less.
    These processes need to be open, fair, intelligent, try to promote the well being of Mackinac Island – instead of the petty, mindless, non-functional political correctness that now characterizes our media and political system. We cannot accomplish important goals that have many facets (many locals make a living off the tourism trade and depend on it, too, is that forgotten? Do we put them on welfare?) – in order to preserve this wonderful gem of Mackinac without some careful rational thought.

  4. I am critical of us for selling, not Ira for buying. Of course, the tasteless, overkill, make every dollar possible monstrosity he built is all on him. We do not have to do everything we have the right to do.

    Also to say that we can not stop a process when we have realized it is going too far is specious reasoning. My hope is that the Cottage being gone would help preserve what is left. That the loss of the last open space is some kind of landmark at which a change can be made. I could be wrong, but I think the Island’s main value as a tourist destination is what the Island preserved, not in room capacity. It will always be a beautiful spot in the lake, but it need not always be a historical treasure and great state park unless we – now you – keep it so.

    • Thank you for your honest, open comment. It may be the first one I have heard in the couple of years of this debate. The real issue is a bit complex. I am critics of Ira for his excessive approach to things and do not agree with it – but nothing is 100% black and white. He did offer to sell the property back. There is excessive overdevelopment occurring. I absolutely agree. But I would like to point out that in years of what has gone on within the old boys (and gals) network on the island, this sudden change may, in my opinion, have really also had something to do with Ira’s ethnic background. This is a very sudden, dramatic reversal of longstanding habit and policy on the island. May I quote Shakespeare regarding Shylock? Furthermore, I believe therefore actually the entire island actually owes Ira for forcing the issue and bringing about the historic districts. Had it not been for this dramatic chain of events, this might not have happened until too late.
      When I spoke up in support of the historic districts, I pointed out using examples of my travels to Quebec City and Prague and Paris and Firenze (Florence) and numerous other sites around the world – people seek out and pay top prices to visit, stay at and shop at original historic areas. It is good for business. Yet it was the old guard business people who stood against the historic districts – yet they stand to benefit from them in the long run.
      There are many who care for the island but the groups on the island comprise multiple special interests that must learn to work together – something that has not happened in the past. I have tried at times to help bridge some of those chasms. I won’t go into details here. BTW, there is still a plan to massively overdevelop Stonecliffe. And the local politics is enough to wear anyone down. Look at the fiasco regarding the boat lines.
      I can’t tell which is the more accurate: “non illigitimi caborundum” or “it is hard to remember you came to drain the swamp when you are up to you a&& in alligators”.

  5. Pingback: A Backstage Pass to the Sydney Opera House | Travelling Assassin

  6. This place is screwed if they build anything bigger than a single story near the ferry landing. It will completely cover up the amazing view.

  7. I fell in love with Mackinac Island in my early 20s just after “Somewhere In Time” was released, and as an avid bicyclist and frequent solo traveler was thrilled to discover the best deal on the Island in the early ’80s: a modest-but-clean-and-comfortable room with a twin bed at McNally Cottage for the unbelievable price of $22 per night. Loved the location, on Main Street diagonally across from Shepler’s dock, with an open patch of green preserving an incredible view of the Straits and the ferries from McNally’s glorious screened-in, wicker-chaired front porch. Loved the proprieters, the Golden family, loved my fellow regular guests, loved playing Smashball in Marquette Park with John, loved having breakfast with “The Perfesser” at Jessie’s next door — loved the whole Island and McNally experience. It was my affordable home away from home four or five times every summer,
    and very, very special to me.

    And now, like my youth, it is gone — and the modern monstrosity that has gone up in its place ain’t gonna take its place in my heart.

    Long live McNally Cottage — in the memories of everyone who held it dear.

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