Looking down from Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island with a view of rolling grassy hill to the port at the Straits of Mackinac between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. Photo via Getty.
Looking down from Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island with a view of rolling grassy hill to the port at the Straits of Mackinac between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.

In communities like St. Clair Shores, the outdoors are a way of life and a source of income for many. A historic investment would put money back into local parks to invest in communities and support jobs. 

ST. CLAIR SHORES, Mich.—What lies beneath the surface of Lake St. Clair is a treasure too rich to keep a secret. 

“This has a reputation for the greatest bass fishing in the world,” lifelong St. Clair Shores resident and business owner Donna Flaherty said. 

A quick Google search reveals that experts regard Lake St. Clair in such high esteem, too: Bass Resource ranks Lake St. Clair 10th for best bass fishing in lakes and rivers in the world; Bassmaster pegs it as the seventh-best bass fishing lake of 2021. 

Where the smallmouth bass swim, the tourists flock. The Pro Bass Fishing Tournament will come to St. Clair Shores in early September. 

“This past summer, I’ve had them from Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, from all over,” Flaherty said.

Flaherty runs Gifts Afloat, an eclectic nautical novelty shop that she describes as “everything but a marine store related to the water.” She’s owned and operated it in St. Clair Shores since 1976, after she quit her job as a schoolteacher to join her late husband in establishing a highly successful boat surveying business.

Gifts Afloat sits on Jefferson Avenue, which runs up from Detroit adjacent to Lake St. Clair, serving as an entryway to the city’s three boat launches, two harbors and five marinas. 

Being a major fishing attraction means water-based businesses like Flaherty’s — and boating and fishing stores — thrive. And residents love the area’s many parks, as well.

St. Clair Shores will soon break ground on an $8-million project that will elongate an old pier 400 feet further into the lake and develop the area as a community gathering place. Bids opened yesterday.

“We’ve got a really active community that just wants more and more and more,” said Henry Bowman, director of parks and recreation for the city of St. Clair Shores.

NEXT: 18 Things You Didn’t Know About Michigan’s Public Parks

From Bathhouse to Beach House

Sitting on the southwest mouth of the 430-square mile lake, St. Clair Shores wasn’t always such a boomtown. Flaherty remembers Jefferson Avenue in “dire need” of a facelift, from storefronts to sidewalks.

But the establishment of a special tax zone that put business revenue into community projects, like turning a lakefront bath house into a popular community center, transformed the city into a destination.

In 1993, Flaherty and two others founded the business owners’ association, leading to the establishment of the Nautical Mile. The Nautical Mile runs from 9 Mile Road just past 10 Mile Road, and boasts businesses, restaurants and marinas. It’s become the place to be in St. Clair Shores.

Along the Nautical Mile this summer, you’ll find a variety of events hosted primarily in the city’s major parks. Wahby Park, home to the summer concert series and just a block away from Gifts Afloat, is maintained by the business owners’ association. Sitting right below it, Blossom Heath Park will be the host of Bass, Brews & BBQ, the Pro Bass Fishing Tournament event.

These parks and the events they hold are critical to the success of the Nautical Mile and nearby businesses. Most of Flaherty’s business comes from visitors and tourists, who these events attract. Public boat launches also lure those far away to come try the waters on any given day.

“We’re at an advantage because we have the parks to be a tremendous setting for all our events,” Flaherty said.

RELATED: Wolf Populations Rebounding on Michigan’s Isle Royale

Outdoor Recreation: Michigan’s Growing Industry 

Across the state, efforts are underway to reinvest in local and state parks. The Michigan government has laid out a plan to invest $400 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds in parks infrastructure, development and upgrades. 

Plans are still in the early phases, and those funds are subject to approval by the state legislature. If approved, $250 million would be allocated to state parks, and $150 million would be distributed as grants to local governments for park improvements. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was in St. Clair Shores in July to stump for the local funds.

“It could be any number of those infrastructure needs that local parks have,” said Ed Golder, public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. 

What that looks like on the ground is game-changing news for local communities. 

Under the proposal, Flint will be the home of a state park—Genesee County’s first. Anchored by the old Chevy Commons site, the state park will connect waterfront trails, feature a boat launch and raise an amphitheater. 

“Through spurring job creation and offering new recreational opportunities for residents and families, this park will surely contribute to a higher quality of life for our community,” Kimberly Leverette, executive director of Flint & Genesee Education & Talent, said at the announcement for the new state park.

CHECK OUT: Walkers Can Rediscover Mackinac With This Returning Tradition

Leaders believe that these new and improved parks and trails aren’t just quality-of-life boosters, though they are that. The expectation is that these park investments will create jobs, increase tourism and enhance the economy.

The outdoor recreation industry in Michigan sustains 126,000 jobs and provides for more than $4.7 billion in income, according to the state. 

Communities have been asking for these funds too. A backlog of infrastructure projects has stacked up, as the state could not fund almost half of local parks’ grant requests.

Federal funds have given the state a rare opportunity to reinvest in public amenities. 

In St. Clair Shores, turning a bathhouse into a beach house community center has been an investment that’s paid dividends, attracting families and keeping businesses like Flaherty’s afloat.

“These people that find me, once they come in, they return,” Flaherty said.