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Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s plan—a one-time infusion to upgrade and repair infrastructure in the state’s 103 parks—would require approval from lawmakers.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer hopes to use $250 million in federal coronavirus relief funding to upgrade and repair the state’s parks, addressing maintenance requests and projects she said have languished for decades.
“These projects include things like upgrading water and sanitary systems, preserving historic systems, and installing and improving vital park infrastructure,” Whitmer said last week at a news conference at Straits State Park in northern Michigan. “Parks are also critical pillars of the local economy. Tourism to these parks generates value for the surrounding communities, creating jobs and sustaining small businesses.”
The proposal, a one-time investment, would be funded from Michigan’s $6.5 billion share of the American Rescue Plan. The money would be earmarked to address a $264 million backlog of maintenance requests across the state’s 103 parks, which saw a surge of visitors last year amid nationwide business closures during the height of the pandemic.
“Last year, we welcomed over 35 million visitors into our parks, a 30% increase over 2019,” Dan Eichinger, director of the state Department of Natural Resources, said at the event. “By any measure, that’s a lot of people.”
If those 35 million visitors were evenly spread throughout 2020, Eichinger said, the population in the state’s parks on any given day would have been equal to the eighth-largest city in Michigan. Parks aren’t cities, but “confront many of the same challenges,” he said, including maintaining and upgrading utilities, roads, bridges and public safety measures, among other things.
The uptick in visitors highlights “just how essential parks are to our physical and mental well-being,” Whitmer said. “Michiganders and people from out of state flocked here to take advantage of these beautiful public spaces...we need our parks more than ever, and that’s why right now is the time to make this historic investment.”
Specific spending proposals include $1.6 million to replace water and sewer distribution and campground electrical systems at Cheboygan State Park and roughly $4 million to complete the restoration of a trail destroyed by a 2018 flood in Houghton County.
The proposal would require approval from the state legislature, a process Whitmer said she would prefer include a “bipartisan long-term investment” to prevent similar maintenance backlogs in the future.
“Although $250 million is a significant investment, it will not completely address the backlog,” she said. “We need to have a sustainable solution that helps the department handle maintenance requests going forward.”
Parks in general became a popular destination during the pandemic. Two-thirds of local parks and recreation officials reported increases in parks usage in May 2020, a 25% increase from the same time period in 2019, according to a snapshot survey from the National Recreation and Park Association. Several states, including Maryland, Maine and New York, reported record attendance levels at state-owned properties in 2020. National parks hosted 237 million visitors in 2020, a 28% decline from 2019 that the agency attributed to temporary closures of at least 66 of the country’s 423 public spaces.
Michigan is the first state to announce plans to use federal funding for specific park updates, though officials in other states, including Virginia, have mentioned it as a possibility.
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.