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New Law Aims to Support Michigan’s Maritime Economy and Coastal Communities

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Maritime Bill
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Governor Whitmer has signed new legislation aimed at expanding Michigan’s maritime economy. It would help award grants to owners of port facilities and expand Michigan’s commercial maritime ports.

Together, Senate Bill 744 and House Bill 5291 establish the Maritime and Port Facility Assistance Grant Program Act. The House Bill was sponsored by Republican Jack O’Malley of Lake Ann in Benzie County.  “The whole goal is to diversify our economy. Michigan is a Great Lakes state and yet when it comes to shipping in the Great Lakes, we’re last,” O’Malley says. “This would allow these ports to expand if they wanted to.”

As one of Michigan’s newest laws, it will create a new office within MDOT specifically designed to address the needs of port cities and coastal communities. Ludington City Manager Mitch Foster is excited about it. “I’m glad that after a couple of years of hard work that Rep. O’Malley and the Governor were able to recognize this and put this in place at this point in time.”

Foster says several years ago when the S.S. Badger Lake Michigan Car Ferry renovated its docks in Ludington, the Wisconsin-side of the service in Manitowoc received a matching grant for their portion of the work. It was a missed opportunity for Michigan, he says. But he hopes the new law will help communities like his. “I think that marriage between tourism, a cruise ship economy as well as a shipping and logistical economy can happen. I don’t think that’s out of the question. I think it is, how we tie it all together and how do we have a strategy?”

“If you come to Ludington, half the excitement of being on the waterfront is watching the ships come in and out,” Foster says. That includes the Lake Michigan car ferry. That includes our aggregate docks, the aggregate vessels that come in. it’s also just watching the ships out in the big lake.” He adds, “I think what you’ll see is a reinvestment in these ports. In places that have seen private investment for decades that has dwindled as those resources have done. But now public investment will start helping rejuvenate these areas.”

But Foster says it could not only mean good things for his city, but others along the shoreline, like Muskegon, Manistee, Traverse City, and beyond. “Hopefully in the long run we’ll be able to see more deep water ports utilized for shipping. Or on the other end for tourism-based economies to continue to thrive. I think Michigan is poised to help alleviate some of our shipping issues and transportation issues that the United States is seeing. It’s just that Michigan needed to figure out a way to help invest in those areas and now we’ve at least got that started.”

The law also creates a fund to help with matching grants from federal dollars or other sources. O’Malley credits Democrat Sen. Stephanie Chang from Detroit for supporting the bipartisan bills, and is glad people are realizing it’s an issue that should be addressed.  “Ships are quietly out there in the Great Lakes and people aren’t paying attention. The shipping industry has been neglected,” he says. “We’re shipping iron ore, we’re shipping agricultural products. We are the heart of the country using things that we use in everyday life.”

O’Malley chairs the House Transportation Committee. He says transportation is about more than roads – it’s about rail, aviation, and maritime. “MDOT has even said, you know, they’re not wrong. We really have neglected them. So MDOT got on board with this.”

O’Malley adds Cheboygan, Alpena, and the U-P to the list of places that could benefit by having an advocate for port issues and grant funding. “It establishes and office of Maritime in MDOT. And what that will mean is when the ports, anybody with shipping has a question, now they know who to go to.” We asked O’Malley about “growing government” by creating a new office. “I wouldn’t say we’re growing government, we’re focusing government. For how many years has MDOT been around, and they’ve never done this?”

“The whole goal is to diversify our economy. Michigan is a Great Lakes state and yet when it comes to shipping in the Great Lakes, we’re last,” O’Malley says. He argues that the legislation and the changes to state government are long overdue. He believes that Michigan lags behind its neighboring states in the Great Lakes, like Ohio and Illinois. “My favorite example is Illinois: 81 miles of shoreline and they do more for their ports than Michigan does as a state. So this is an opportunity.”

Frankfort City Superintendent Josh Mills sees the opportunity, too. “It is a long overdue initiative from the state level and even at the federal level. Communities like Frankfort – Frankfort has a long-standing history of being an industrial harbor. We were the birthplace of the modern car ferry. The first car ferry to ever sail on the Great Lakes and across the Great Lakes occurred here in Frankfort.”

But Mills says it’s been 40 years since Frankfort had a car ferry, and with new support from the state – the maritime industry could grow once again.  “To be in a position to reinvest in that maritime opportunity is going to evolve into job opportunities, and enhance economic and social development within our community.”

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