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Final Steps in Transforming Historic Ottawa Beach Parks

At its meeting on November 1, the Ottawa County Parks and Recreation Commission will unveil preliminary plans for an upgraded marina facility and enhanced park land on Lake Macatawa at its Historic Ottawa Beach Parks site. The plans calls for replacement of the existing marina with 46 new boat slips (15 seasonal slips, 5 seasonal moorings, and 26 transient slips), extension of the public waterfront walkway, public restrooms, a universally-accessible kayak launch, and landscaped greenspace with seating along the waterfront for public use. The marina and waterfront plan represents the final step in renovating the Historic Ottawa Beach properties, the first phase of which was completed in 2006.

Park 12 History

Historic Ottawa Beach Parks, formerly known as Park 12, consists of 12 park parcels encompassing 58 acres that were platted as part of the West Michigan Park Association (WMPA) in 1886. Following decades of dispute over ownership of the park parcels, during which the park properties suffered from neglect, Ottawa County and the WMPA reached a court endorsed agreement in 2005, based on a park master plan developed the previous year with extensive public input. That plan called for improvements to enhance the area for public use, while also recognizing that WMPA cottagers have rights in the property beyond the general public.

Following the court settlement, Ottawa County Parks moved quickly to clean up the area and remove encroachments. One of the first improvement projects was a walkway, fishing dock and parking area east of the Coast Guard Station known as Black Lake Boardwalk East. “This is one of the most important recreation corridors in Michigan, with nearly 2 million visitors traveling along Ottawa Beach Road, so we made it a priority to begin improvements soon following the legal settlement,” said County Parks Director John Scholtz. A grant from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund helped with the next project, a dune stairway with overlook decks up the back side of Mt. Pisgah, the dune that towers over the channel. “The dune stairway protects the dune from erosion while also providing public access to one of the area’s more dramatic natural features,” said Scholtz.

Additional waterfront walkway and fishing docks followed in ensuing years with more help from the Trust Fund and a large grant from the Great Lakes Fishery Trust. The historic Pump House building was restored in 2015 as a partnership between Ottawa County Parks and the non-profit Historic Ottawa Beach Society (HOBS). The building, once housing electrical generating equipment and later water pumping equipment for the Hotel Ottawa, a huge 20th century resort hotel that burned in 1923, is envisioned as a future museum and learning center to be operated by HOBS. A restroom addition is currently underway which will make the building more functional and also serve the many users of the waterfront walkway.

In addition to park improvements, Park Township completed its Gateway Project in 2016 which greatly enhanced the Ottawa Beach Road corridor through landscape improvements, lighting, and special paving.

Final piece of the puzzle

The recently announced marina and waterfront improvement plans represent the County’s final steps in completing its vision for the Historic Ottawa Beach Parks. “We have been working on this plan for many, many years – debating on facility size, weighing operation costs, and searching for grant funding. It is still somewhat a work in progress, but we believe we have developed a plan that continues the boating tradition in the area, provides the most benefit to the public and complements private marinas in the area,” said President of the Ottawa County Parks Commission, David VanGinhoven. Park and greenspace improvements will be supported by Park Township which will invest $90,000 in the project to create a township plaza space for viewing the waterfront.

A large portion of the public waterfront has been leased to the privately-owned Parkside Marina for over 30 years, which has limited public use and enjoyment of the waterfront. The Parks Commission believes that providing better access to public land and providing transient slips fulfills their mission by offering a variety of recreational opportunities to residents and visitors of Ottawa County. “We are especially happy to focus on transient slips,” said Curt TerHaar, Coordinator of Park Planning and Development. “We’ll be giving boat owners, who perhaps couldn’t afford a seasonal slip on Lake Macatawa, a better chance to enjoy the area.” It also meets a need for public access along the developing Lake Michigan Water Trail for kayakers and other paddlers. “Most importantly, it allows the public to access public land. This waterfront has functioned as private property with minimal public benefit for too long. In addition, use of this land has never been bid in an open, competitive manner which is inconsistent with county policies.”

Even with all of these benefits, the path to the plan for the area was not an easy one.

The Parks Commission received a lot of push back on its marina plans when it first began to focus on the marina in 2011. “Parkside Marina has run a nice, friendly operation, so we understand why marina patrons are unhappy with change, but the current operation is not sustainable with docks and facilities that desperately need upgrading. The decision was made at that time to extend the private marina lease for 5 years as a transition period for the operator with the intent to go in a different direction after that time. Since 2011, attempts have been made to partner with the current operator on making necessary improvements to the facility and adding public amenities. When that did not progress, we opted for the current direction of a downsized facility that we hope to have in operation by 2019, after extending Parkside for a sixth year in 2018.” said Scholtz.

The smaller-scale marina also has cost benefits. It costs less to construct, and, because of the inclusion of more public recreational elements, a larger portion of the cost is eligible for grant funding. The Parks Commission is more comfortable with a lower-risk option.

“We’ve had people ask, ‘why have a marina at all?’” said Scholtz. “Our hands are tied here with the 2005 court agreement requiring a minimum of 15 seasonal slips. We could just offer those 15 slips, but we would not be consistent with the master plan and we’d be missing an opportunity to truly optimize use of this park land.”

There are 80 slips at the current marina facility. The new marina plan offers substantially fewer seasonal slips (15) plus 5 moorings. “We feel for the dedicated patrons of Parkside, but after reviewing the finances, we do not feel investment in a larger-scale marina would be a responsible investment of tax payer dollars, and there isn’t grant funding out there for seasonal slips,” said Scholtz. “We are making a manageable investment, while also opening up highly desirable land owned by the county that is not currently accessible to the public. There are thousands of residents and visitors who walk along the waterfront each year and currently get little or no benefit from this property.”

The improved public access along the waterfront is the final piece of the puzzle for the Historic Ottawa Beach parks. “We are confident that this transformation will be a positive one,” said TerHaar. “We’re proud of the work we’ve accomplished at the other properties including Mt. Pisgah and the Black Lake Boardwalk. This project will not be any different – we plan to construct and maintain an attractive facility for everyone to enjoy.”

Next steps

The next step is for the preliminary plans to be reviewed by the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners, followed by submittal to the Park Township Planning Commission. Park officials indicated they also plan to begin permitting work with the Corps of Engineers. “Changes are certainly possible and there are a number of issues yet to resolve, but we feel we are headed in the right direction” indicated Scholtz.