Leelanau News and Events

After Years Of Adversity, Leland's Fishtown Finds Brighter Days In 2022

By Craig Manning | Dec. 21, 2022

As the sun sets on 2022, all is well in Fishtown.

For Amanda Holmes, who serves as executive director of the Fishtown Preservation Society, ending a year on that note is the most pleasant of surprises. For years, Leland’s iconic fishing village has faced one existential threat after another – from rising water levels in Lake Michigan to fraught times for Michigan’s fishing industry. This year has brought better fortunes, including momentous generosity from the public and a much-needed assist from Mother Nature. The result, for Holmes, is maybe the first opportunity in years to breathe a true sigh of relief.

In the wake of a triumphant Giving Tuesday – where Fishtown netted “over $56,000” in community donations – the Leelanau Ticker sat down with Holmes for a report on Fishtown’s 2022 and a look toward 2023. Here are five things we learned.

1. 2022 saw the successful completion of Fishtown’s biggest-ever capital campaign
The big headline this year, Holmes says, is the completion of a sprawling five-year capital campaign – a fundraising effort that began as one thing and transformed into another as water levels rose and wreaked havoc on buildings and infrastructure.

“It’s a campaign that started in 2017 with a few little things [that we needed to do around Fishtown],” Holmes tells the Leelanau Ticker. “And then, because of the high water and all the problems that caused, we went from it being a $1.7 million project to an overall campaign of nearly $5.5 million. And it was challenging, having to keep our heads steady with all of those changes, and to communicate that to everyone. But I'm just so pleased to say that we completed that campaign this year and we're all set with funding for all the projects that we have ahead that were campaign-related.”

2. Some of the highest-priority projects are already done
With significant capital funds in place, Holmes says Fishtown was able to complete some of its most urgently-needed projects this year – namely the replacement of the north docks and a full demolition and rebuild of the historic Carlson’s Fishery building. The former, Holmes notes, is crucial for making sure Fishtown remains safe for visitors, while the latter is paramount to Fishtown’s continued status as a village with ties to the fishing industry.

“Carlson’s Fishery has needed a new building for most of the time that I've been here,” says Holmes, who celebrated her own 15-year anniversary with the Fishtown Preservation Society this year. “So the fact that it finally actually happened is huge, and I think the guys down there are just ecstatic that they no longer have to worry about being up to code. They can be open and deal with things. What was there before was a charming building, but it was literally being held together by moss. Having it fixed up means that the fishing industry can keep going here, which is what's most important to me. We want the boats to be able to keep going out fishing.”

3. Many other big projects remain on the agenda for the future
Despite big progress in 2022, the work isn't done: Major projects remain for the 2023 season and beyond. One priority is lowering the dock piles now that water levels have significantly declined. “Right now, if you go down to the docks and you stand a certain way, you almost can’t see the river,” she says.

Also still on the to-do list is a major reconstruction of Fishtown’s main entrance, which will address a failing retaining wall, drainage and water flow issues, and more. That project was initially supposed to proceed this fall, but Holmes says problems with contractor availability have delayed it into 2023. Despite the wait, Holmes is particularly excited for that improvement, which she says will make Fishtown ADA accessible. “This time last year, I had a broken foot, and I discovered how scary it was to actually enter Fishtown,” she says. “So, that gave me a new appreciation for the plans that we have and for the opportunity to make Fishtown actually accessible to people without them getting hurt.”

Other big priorities still to come include repairs to Fishtown’s welcome center, seasonal vacation rental building, Ice House, and Dam Candy Store. Those buildings, Holmes says, were all “undermined very seriously with water,” some to a greater extent than originally thought. “With the Dam Candy Store, there were a lot more issues than we realized,” she notes. “It wasn’t until we were redoing the docks that a lot of that was exposed.” Plans on these projects are still being finalized, but will likely proceed sometime in the New Year.

4. Holmes wants Fishtown to play a bigger role in preserving Michigan commercial fishing 
“One of the things that's so important about getting these projects done and in having the campaign wrapped is there are so many opportunities to do more in Fishtown with education,” Holmes says. “One of the challenges of commercial fishermen around the Great Lakes is that you don't have enough people who know how to do the work. So I’m actually working with Michigan Sea Grant to develop an apprenticeship program, which would take a handful of people each year. And they could end up doing anything from hands-on stuff like learning how to weld and repair engines, to doing fisheries management and getting a better understanding of why this industry works the way it does. So, my board is working on updating our strategic plan and building a bigger focus on education into our organization.”

5. Fishtown is already thinking about the next cycle of high water
While the existential threat of high water is gone for now, Holmes says that she and the Fishtown team understand it will be back again eventually – perhaps sooner than expected, given that cycles of high and low water seem to be speeding up in the Great Lakes.

“All the work we’re doing now is in response to that future high water,” Holmes assures. “I feel that, when the water does come up next time, our dock piles and buildings will be such that they can withstand the water. Everything we’re doing right now – the Morris Shanty, Village Cheese, Carlson’s, and even our vacation rental – we’re doing them in such a way that if everything gets wet, it can dry out. It’s not going to become a mold problem, or a rotting problem. So, choice of materials and things like that, we’ve had to think about those factors with each and every building we’ve been working on.”

Holmes continues: “My goal is that, for whoever follows me in this job, when the water comes up, they’ll be able to look back and be grateful to our organization for the work we did to preserve Fishtown long-term. We want there to be payoff on this investment for the next 50-100 years.”

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