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An Old Port’s New Day

Proposed Frankfort art center reflects rural county’s changing economy

July 23, 2006 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Jim Dulzo/MLUI

Susan Burks (left), president of the Crystal Lake Art Center, Lee Harper, its director, and Dick Bayer, Frankfort’s mayor, await word from Congress on a request for federal funds supporting a $2 million renovation of the Coast Guard station behind them into a cultural, educational, and community center.

FRANKFORT—In 2004, after 70 years of continuous duty, the United States Coast Guard closed its two-story, red-roofed, stout-as-a-wooden ship search and rescue station along the ship channel in this small Great Lakes city, and moved the crew and operations to a modern concrete and steel building next door.

The old building, which ties Benzie County’s gale-lashed maritime past to the more genteel, recreational, resource-conserving economy of the present, is not likely to remain empty much longer. Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a $250,000 appropriation to convert the building, one of the signature historic structures along the northern Lake Michigan coast, into a center for the arts.

The House appropriation, which came in response to a proposal by Republican Representative Pete Hoekstra, would be the first significant investment in the Crystal Lake Art Center’s capital campaign to renovate the building. The Senate is considering the measure and is expected to give it final approval, perhaps this month. If the Senate concurs, the art center’s project would be the largest historic renovation in the county’s history.

On the sunny morning last month that Lee Harper, the Art Center’s director, learned about the House appropriation, her response veered from bridled calm to wide-eyed glee. “It makes it so real,” she said to a visitor. “It’s happening. It really is.”

For the Coast Guard, which has operated in Frankfort’s Betsie Bay since 1886, the move two years ago to a modern search and rescue station represented the turning of a new page in the long history it has written with the people, vessels, deep waters, and windy northern coast of Lake Michigan.

But the closing of the old search and rescue building also reflected the evolution of Frankfort and Benzie County, which struggled for decades after the end of this region’s hard-muscle era of timber men, ship’s captains, fishermen, and railroad agents, emerging in the 1990s as a much gentler place set amid a landscape of green forests and blue waters so spectacular that it attracted scores of visitors, many of whom decided to stay.

It is against this backdrop of economic and cultural transition that the Crystal Lake Art Center launched the capital campaign to restore the historic Coast Guard Station and convert it to public use as one of northern Michigan’s foremost centers of art education, exhibitions, forums, and events. The House appropriation was secured with the help of the City of Frankfort.

Building a New Economy
The $2 million project to renovate the station is firmly based in the desire of a thriving community and its most prominent arts organization to gain more space to meet an expanding mission to educate, train, and exhibit the work of adults and school age students for public enjoyment. But it will also provide a further boost to a city that is working hard to make its downtown as vibrant as possible and boost a new economy that protects and reflects, rather than exploits, the beauty of the natural resources that surround it.

“It will be wonderful for downtown Frankfort to bring in more artists and students to take classes,” said Alice Fewins, the 53-year-old director of the Frankfort-Elberta Chamber of Commerce, who was raised in the city. “It will be on the waterfront and attract visitors. It will be another destination to bring people here.”

The Crystal Lake Art Center has contracted Quinn Evans Architects, an Ann Arbor-based firm that specializes in restoring and transforming historic properties to new uses, to turn what is essentially a large boathouse and crew quarters into a showcase of art education and exhibition. Michael Quinn’s design calls for building two galleries in what is now the boat storage area, carving teaching classrooms from dormitories, studios from dispatch rooms, all of it overlooking some of the rarest and most beautiful freshwater landscapes in the nation—Betsie Bay, the Elberta Dunes, and the Lake Michigan shore.

Ms. Harper and Susan Burks, an artist and the Art Center’s president, said the new center is intended to be a year-round educational and cultural resource for area residents and a distinctive cultural destination for tourists.

Along with galleries, classrooms, and studios the center, which has yet to be named, will have space for a gift shop, a snack area, airy porches, and sunny patios blocks from Frankfort’s marinas and active main business district, a very pleasant shoreline stroll away. Cultural tourists who stay overnight have a choice of more than 100 first-class motel, hotel, and bed and breakfast rooms, five restaurants, a bakery, and several taverns, all an easy walk away. The Quinn Evans design also provides ample flexibility and space so that the center can host weddings, social events, and community meetings.

“We were talking the other day about the demographic that is coming to the area that appreciates what we are doing in our store, and would seek out an art center,” said Michele Fulkerson, a 38-year-old entrepreneur who along with her 39-year-old partner, Lisa Schroeder-Confer, opened the Blue Door, a gourmet food and wine shop on Frankfort’s Main Street that celebrates its first anniversary in September.

“To me it seems like we have a lot more weekend destination traffic, not just from Detroit, but also from Traverse City,” Ms. Fulkerson added. “People come here to walk through our town. The new art center can only help. It will give our city an artistic identity.”


Tight Space Collides with Expanding Program
The Crystal Lake Art Center, founded in 1948, manages an all-season program of teaching, hands-on instruction, studios, exhibitions, interpretation, and outreach to adults and school-age students. The center’s development as a community organization accelerated in 2000 when board members voted to move from the original home on Sutter Road, near Crystal Lake, to a former NAPA auto parts store in Frankfort.

The same year, the center hired Ms. Harper as director. Under her oversight, and with the help of an active board, the Art Center grew into one of Benzie County’s most visible civic organizations. This summer, for instance, the Art Center offers 29 art instruction classes for adults, many of them multi-day, in oil, acrylic, and watercolor, ceramics, kiln fused glass, landscape, wire wrap, paper folding, framing, and fabric dyeing. Nine more classes are aimed at kids, including calligraphy, painting, nautical folk art, and a four-day art camp for school-age students.

Along with a prominent faculty, the center has attracted more than 600 members—six times the number in 2000—and it’s built an operational budget that this year totals $117,000, enough to provide Ms. Harper with an assistant. 

Like half of the people that now live in Benzie County, Ms. Harper, who is 39, comes from someplace else. In her case, all the way from Tarboro, in the tobacco belt of eastern North Carolina, where she was raised, and near where she earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in English at East Carolina University.

In an interview, Ms. Harper said that one of the reasons she was drawn to Benzie County was its maritime history. She helped preserve the SS City of Milwaukee, one of the car ferries that operated between Elberta and Wisconsin, as a floating museum in Manistee. Renovating the Coast Guard station is another good psychic fit.

“It’s kind of full circle for me,” she said. “When I moved up here I was fascinated by the history. It’s so much a part of the culture. It’s why we have a Coast Guard building that size. That’s how important the maritime work was here.”

Even as late as 1993, when she arrived, the county had just12,000 residents, was emerging from recession, and seemed so small and wild and distant that newcomers sometimes remarked that it felt like the closest thing to the Oregon Trail that still existed in America. That was the image the county was intent on portraying in the published histories and promotional literature: a resolute place built by the leathery hands of loggers, fishermen, ferry hands, and farmers.

Not nearly enough has been written about the county’s modern era: The swift population increases of the 1990s, the development of the 21st-century resort economy, the young entrepreneurs in the retail and building trades, and the countless Internet-based electronic cottages full of software developers, brokers, writers, and consultants tied digitally to the world. Benzie County, like so many other clean, green, small-town regions across America, has developed a bona fide knowledge-based creative culture and economy.

A Convergence of Art, History, and Promise
The plan to convert the old Coast Guard station to an art center, the largest historic renovation in the county’s history, fits into this transition. Of all the stretches of sand and water, sun and wind that define Frankfort and Benzie County, none describes this region’s rugged past or displays its new economic future better than the land that lies along the ship channel at the mouth of Betsie Bay.

To the east, in the place where the dawn sun comes over the ridge, blue herons and osprey rise out of fresh water marshes that once were choked with logs floated to mills and an iron smelter that operated along the shore.

Maple, hemlock, cedar, and pine now cloak the rounded hills of Elberta, across the bay, where home values and job prospects are rising. Pleasure boats tie up in a harbor once crowded by a succession of schooners, steamships, coal-fueled railcar ferries, and commercial fishing tugs. Children play at the edge of Lake Michigan, on the very same beach that at the turn of the 20th century briefly supported a passenger rail depot and one of the Midwest’s largest and most luxurious summer hotels.

This stretch of land is also the place where the United States Coast Guard built a 9,600-square-foot station on the channel’s north side, room enough to house a crew of 12 men and their rescue boats, and soon to hold classes and art galleries. A study in Depression-era utility and efficiency, the old station has served as a kind of cultural sentinel. It is a seven-decade participant in the remarkable evolution that turned a busy industrial and commercial fishing port into a new economy city.

Keith Schneider, a writer and editor, is the director of program development at the Michigan Land Use Institute in Beulah. This article is based on a fundraising case statement that Keith prepared under contract to the Crystal Lake Art Center. Reach him at keith@mlui.org.

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