2017-10-07 / Top News

Great Lakes Islands To Work Together on Common Goals

Diverse Island Communities Find a Lot in Common, and a Lot To Learn From Each Other
By Stephanie Fortino


Seen from the air Tuesday, September 26, the Beaver Island Boat Company’s Emerald Isle (left) and Beaver Islander are moored in Saint James Harbor. Participants in the 2017 Great Lakes Islands Summit were treated to a tour of the Emerald Isle, which can haul as many as 294 passengers, 20 cars, and two semi-trailer trucks. The boat is operated by a transit authority that was formed in 1993. Transportation to the mainland was a hot topic at the Great Lakes Islands Summit gathering. Seen from the air Tuesday, September 26, the Beaver Island Boat Company’s Emerald Isle (left) and Beaver Islander are moored in Saint James Harbor. Participants in the 2017 Great Lakes Islands Summit were treated to a tour of the Emerald Isle, which can haul as many as 294 passengers, 20 cars, and two semi-trailer trucks. The boat is operated by a transit authority that was formed in 1993. Transportation to the mainland was a hot topic at the Great Lakes Islands Summit gathering. The seeds for a new coalition of Great Lakes islands were sown in late September as representatives from a dozen island communities gathered for the first Great Lakes Islands Summit on Beaver Island.

Eastern Upper Peninsula representatives from Mackinac Island, Les Cheneaux Islands, Drummond Island, and Neebish Island were among municipalities from three states and the province of Ontario engaged in two days of collaboration and discussion, hoping to address common challenges involving everything from waste management to tourism. Next year, the summit will be held on Madeline Island, Wisconsin, in Lake Superior, and the tentative goal is to have the yet-to-be-named Great Lakes islands coalition ready to be formalized.


Department of Public Works Director Mike Olson (from left), city treasurer and paramedic Rick Linn, and city councilman and fire marshal Dennis Bradley represented Mackinac Island at the Great Lakes Islands Summit, which was held on Beaver Island September 25 and September 26. Mayor Margaret Doud attended the first day of the conference. Department of Public Works Director Mike Olson (from left), city treasurer and paramedic Rick Linn, and city councilman and fire marshal Dennis Bradley represented Mackinac Island at the Great Lakes Islands Summit, which was held on Beaver Island September 25 and September 26. Mayor Margaret Doud attended the first day of the conference. An island coalition is somewhat counterintuitive, said Kevin Boyle of Beaver Island during one discussion, because islanders are known for being independent. Yet the vastly different communities from Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Ontario, he said, actually have many shared experiences.

“We’re a community of islanders,” he said. “We’re a family of islanders.”

The two-day summit was held Monday, September 25, and Tuesday, September 26, after more than a year of planning. The Island Institute of Maine provided expert guidance for the Great Lakes representatives and the Lansing-based Michigan Office of the Great Lakes, the real driver of the initiative, provided administrative and organizational support. Northland College, a small liberal arts school in Ashland, Wisconsin, is compiling information about the islands, including demographics, which will be made available in the coming months.

Having spent his childhoods visiting islands off the coast of Maine, Jon Allen, the director of the Michigan Office of the Great Lakes, sought help from the Islands Institute and wanted to use it as a model for the Great Lakes coalition that will take shape over the next year. Matt Preisser of the Office of the Great Lakes is working to coordinate what the coalition will look like and what membership will offer.

By the time the next gathering rolls around in 2018 (that summit will occur later in the year, after the tourist season has drawn to a close), documents formalizing the coalition will be ready to be signed.

It became clear that island communities face many of the same concerns rural communities face, but with added challenges brought on by their isolation from the mainland. Transportation, housing, waste management, Internet access, medical services, and schools were all cited by the representatives.

Mr. Allen wants to focus on how to maintain the health of the human communities of islands and such a gathering offers opportunities for them to learn from each other. For example, many representatives were interested in learning how Mackinac Island is addressing its year-around housing needs for young families, a widespread challenge for these communities, while others were interested in how Madeline Island was able to get fiber optic Internet service.

Such a sharing of ideas will be applicable to mainland communities, too, Mr. Allen said, because islands often have to tackle problems in innovative ways, owing to their limited space and resources. And he wants to look to island communities when managing the Great Lakes.

“We should learn how to manage 20% of the world’s freshwater from the people who have chosen to live in the middle of that water,” Mr. Allen said.

Island Institute of Maine: An Example

Karen Burns and Kate Tagai of the Island Institute in Maine led the participants through a series of workshops Tuesday to identify commonalities among the Great Lakes islands and determine how to continue working together to find solutions.

The Island Institute was formed by Peter Ralston and Philip Conkling 34 years ago as a nonprofit organization. The two discovered there was little work being done to protect the viability of island communities, which had decreased significantly throughout Maine in the 20th Century.

In 1900, there were 300 yeararound island communities in the state but, by 1983, there were only 15. She likened year-around island communities to an endangered species and the institute began working in earnest to give these communities a unified voice.

Now, the institute provides a wealth of resources and information, including the Island Fellows program, which places recent college graduates in communities for one to two years to work on projects identified by the islands. The fellowship program was expanded to the Great Lakes this year. Fellow Stefanie Burchill of Windham, Maine is working on Beaver Island for the next year and is addressing a need in the community by handling communications at the privately funded Community Center. She writes stories and promotes the island through social media. In May, she was graduated from Unity College, an environmental college in Unity, Maine, with a degree in environmental writing and media studies.

Most fellows have recently finished undergraduate or graduate degrees, Ms. Burchill told the Town Crier, and work on projects that closely relate to their expertise. Many of the Great Lakes island communities were interested in participating in the fellowship program next year.

When forming the Island Institute, the Maine island communities quickly learned that they shared common experiences.

“Their uniqueness didn’t separate them,” Ms. Burns said. “It bound them together.”

And the institute seeks to provide a framework and structure for maintaining dialogues and organizing gatherings to address the most-pressing issues. The organization is a connector, she said, working to strengthen economies, enhance the workforce, and deliver and share solutions.

The Island Institute is a large nonprofit, boasting 50 employees and an annual budget of $4 million to $6 million. Among its many tasks is an online “Impact Dashboard” that provides case studies from its communities, with challenges and solutions. The communities from the Great Lakes can contribute to this dashboard, helping further understanding of addressing challenges in unique ways.

No matter their size or number of inhabitants, island communities share fundamental similarities. Being surrounded by water inherently presents transportation challenges, as island residents must rely on government-operated or privately-owned ferries and airlines to get to the mainland (although Manitoulin Island, Ontario, in Lake Huron, the largest freshwater island in the world, also has a bridge to the mainland). Many have highly seasonal tourist economies that bring an influx of visitors and summer residents, which contrasts their shrinking, aging, year-around populations.

During the first day of the summit, representatives from each of the communities shared a quick snapshot of what life is like in their slice of the Great Lakes. The islands ranged from large tourist destinations like Mackinac Island and South Bass Island, also known as Put-In-Bay, Ohio, to the small community on Neebish Island in Chippewa County, where folks like their slow pace of life, but are challenged by a lack of medical services for an aging population. On Pelee Island, Ontario, in Lake Erie, which is about twice the size of Mackinac Island, the agricultural industry is most prominent. Most of the island is farmed, but representatives were interested in ways to bolster its tourism.

As the host for the summit, the community of Beaver Island was on display. Attendees were treated to tours of its infrastructure, history and culture, and natural resources. The beautiful library that was funded by the owner of the Lands End clothing brand, the school where the starting wage for teachers is about $85,000 a year, and the car ferry operated by the local transportation authority (it takes about 2.5 hours to travel from Charlevoix) were highlights of the tours. Participants asked questions and compared Beaver Island to their communities.

Because the Great Lakes islands span several states and two nations, a partnership of the diverse communities is an unprecedented opportunity for collaboration, Ms. Burns said.

An Emerging Great Lakes Coalition

A Great Lakes Islands Coalition will not only provide a strong network to share ideas, but, perhaps more importantly, a formalized, unified voice. To the Mackinac Island contingent, it became apparent that not all the communities are as connected to their state governments as they are, the others often relying on friends and lobbyists in Lansing to combat state legislation that poses concerns and hosting politicians at conferences.

And not all islands are as connected to their county governments as Washington Island, Wisconsin, in Lake Michigan, where island resident Joel Gunnlaugsson serves on the county board, ensuring the island receives attention and funding. An island coalition will give many of the smaller communities political clout they’ve never experienced before.

While the group expressed interest in hosting a Great Lakes summit each year at a different island location, other, smaller workshops and webinars will be available periodically throughout the year. The workshops would tackle topics such as how to improve recycling, grant funding opportunities, or how to address limited car or golf cart parking.

There’s also an interest in starting a communications and joint tourism effort, promoting all the islands of the Great Lakes through an advertising campaign or a joint publication, such as a magazine.

As the two-day seminar came to a close, the conference room at the Central Michigan University Biological Station, where the meeting was held, buzzed with excitement. With notepads, papers, and business cards in hand, the participants shared contact information and made plans to visit their fellow islanders to learn more. The networking possibilities seemed endless, and the overwhelming sense of optimism highlighted their willingness to get to work and create a better future for all islanders.

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