John McGarry, executive director of the Lakeshore Museum Center in Muskegon, unveiled the latest plans for the Michigan Heritage Park at Hilt’s Landing in Whitehall Township. Construction of the main buildings - the visitor center and 1880s farmhouse/mana
WHITEHALL TWP – Plenty of behind the scenes work on development of the Michigan Heritage Park at Hilt’s Landing the past two years is soon to come to fruition with construction of the major historical tourist and education attraction expected to begin this summer.
John McGarry, executive director of the Lakeshore Museum Center, which is leasing 18 acres of Whitehall Township’s 230 acres of natural Hilt’s Landing property, made a presentation on the Michigan Heritage Park development before are government leaders, tourism officials and citizens interested in the project Thursday night at Whitehall Township Hall.
The historical piece of property owned from many years by the John R. Hilt family, fronts the White River, and is located on Durham Rd., just north of Holton-Whitehall Road,
“As you will see there’s been a lot of behind the scenes work going on the last two to three years,” McGarry started his presentation. “We’ve just had a thousand and one details, about 60 which I will go over with you this evening. A lot has happened and we’re excited about it,” he added.
McGarry said the project has really come together the past two months, and he has recently signed contracts with an architect and engineer on the project.
McGarry said the Muskegon firm Hooker/De Jong will be the project architects. The company has already provided preliminary drawings for the park’s visitor center and 1880s farmhouse/manager’s residence.
Michigan Heritage Park will give tourists and school groups an entertaining and educational look at the state’s and this area’s history through a “series of experiences.”
Tours of the park will begin at the visitors center which will include an auditorium a gift shop, and will continue along a path which will have several interactive interpretive stops beginning with an archeological dig site in which children can dig for reproduced mastodon bones, an Indian burial ground, a Odawa Indian village, a fur trader’s cabin, a Civil War camp, a logging shanty, an 1880s farmhouse and a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp.
Each site along the trail will have an informational sign and a bench for resting. There will also be activities offered.
The site, which includes a woods and fields, will have a large activity field for special programs like pow wows, Civil War reenactments, antique cars shows. In 2010, the Lakeshore Museum Center hosted a Civil War reenactment at the site.
McGarry said the park, which will only be located three and a half blocks off the US-31 interchange at Colby Road, is a perfect location for attracting families heading to northern Michigan from Chicago. “For a couple of hours they can let the kids run in the woods,” and experience history,” he said.
The executive director called the park an economic development project which can help provide additional business for area motels, restaurants and tourism-related businesses. It is also expected to employ two full-time staff members - a manager and maintenance worker - and 10-20 seasonal part-time employees. McGarry said plans are to have the park open five days a week, beginning in April with school tours only and moving into the summer with public tours through October.
McGarry said the over 4,000 square foot visitors center and the two-story farmhouse will be built this summer with bids expected to be let in May or June. Those major facilities will provide the support for workers who will develop the sites along the trails.
McGarry said much of the planning over the past two years has included decisions on the style of the programs, and the design of the structures, including period and reproduction materials.
He said visitors will enter the tourist center from the parking area where they will immediately purchase their tickets. McGarry said they anticipate an $8 entrance fee. The visitors will then move to a holding area which will include restrooms, An auditorium will be used for programs and concerts. The center will also have a small office area and locker rooms for employees.
Visitors will enter the trail system from the tourist center. The trail ends back at the tourist center where visitors will pass through the gift shop before exiting the park.
Some development has already taken place. In 2010, over 125 Alcoa Power and Propulsion managers in the Whitehall facilities had an community action day in which they volunteered to clear brush and trees from the trail, plant apple trees for a small orchard and build a wooden platform for a CCC tent.
McGarry said they hope to begin offering special events at the park in the summer of 2014, and have a grand opening in the summer of 2015.
The project has a $1.6 million price tag, and McGarry said the museum center has all but $234,000 in the bank. He is currently raising the needed funds.
“I’m confident we can close the funding gap.”
McGarry said the community has been supportive of the museum center and this project. In 2011, voters approved a .325 mill renewal for the next 10 years to support museum operations.
The executive director said the museum center projects the Michigan Heritage Park operations will be revenue neutral for the first couple of years, and then begin to make money.
“What an asset for the community,” McGarry said. “This could bring as much as $3 million to the community in a year.”
McGarry thanked Whitehall Township officials, especially zoning administrator Val Jensen, Muskegon County Commission, the White Lake Area Chamber of Commerce and the Hilt family for their support of the project.
The John R. Hilt family purchased the property in 1905 for a family hunting and fishing retreat, McGarry said. In 1979 the Hilt family sold it to Muskegon County for public use.
In 2009, the Hilt family helped Whitehall Township to buy the property from the county, and an endowment was given the to the museum to develop the Michigan Heritage Park.
The township has plans to develop the rest of Hilt’s Landing for recreational use, such as hiking, cross country skiing and fishing.