Leelanau News and Events

Public Restrooms In Paradise: Leelanau Villages Seeking Urgent Solutions With Tourist Season Here

By Craig Manning | April 26, 2021

Where to find a public restroom in paradise? It’s a big question as Leelanau County approaches what could be the busiest summer tourist season in recent memory, with extra travelers coming at the same time locals are readying for a return to regular life. With so many people out and about this summer – likely before COVID-19 risks disappear entirely – restrooms could prove to be the complicating factor.

Already, the pandemic has exposed long-ignored shortcomings with public restroom infrastructure. In big cities, closed public restrooms – along with access restrictions at common restroom pitstops  – have made life more difficult for delivery workers, taxi or rideshare drivers, and the homeless population. In areas like Leelanau, the challenges apply to tourists, cyclists, day-trippers, and others who might not have the option of returning “home” every time they need to go.

One hot issue in Leland: an earlier tourist season. According to Mark Morton, director of the Leland Library and the president of the Leland Michigan Chamber of Commerce, this spring has brought a “definite uptick in the number of visitors to Leland in what is normally a very slow season” – trends he attributes to “unseasonably warm weather” and pent-up travel demand caused by COVID-19. “Businesses in Leland are preparing for what is expected to be a very busy summer season, possibly record-breaking,” he says.

The problem? Leland’s public restrooms – located at Leland Harbor – were not open during the rush of visitors to the village and Fishtown for opening day at Village Cheese Shanty, for example, leading to what local sources called “some disaster elements” over that weekend. The restrooms were still not open as of April 20.

So far, Morton says the library has been serving as a stand-in, with “more people than normal” coming in just to use the restroom.

Once restrooms open, the big hurdle becomes cleaning. More frequent sanitization of restrooms has become an obligation for both private businesses and public facilities alike. For public restrooms, the question of who shoulders responsibility for maintenance and oversight is already a contentious debate.

In Leland Township, responsibility of maintaining the public restrooms at the harbor falls to the Parks and Recreation department. Even pre-COVID, Township Supervisor Susan Och says cleaning the restrooms costs approximately $16,000 per year – “over 10 percent of our parks and rec budget.” Last year, the restrooms didn’t even open until after Memorial Day due to COVID shutdowns, but the cleaning budget for the season still increased to $21,000 due to more frequent cleanings.

This year, Och says Leland will resume cleaning the facilities just once a day, a decision some have criticized. But Och argues that, since COVID-19 has been proven to spread more through the air than via surfaces, it doesn’t make sense for Leland Township to devote even more of its parks and rec budget to the restrooms.

Similarly, Och identifies budgetary concerns as the main barrier to keeping restrooms open for more of the year – something else businesses in Leland want.

“In October 2021, downtown Leland was as busy as July 4 usually is,” Och tells the Leelanau Ticker. “People were coming up north much later in the season. So, we had appeals from the merchants to keep the restrooms open even to Christmas, which we found that we couldn’t do because of the costs. Now I’m hearing that the merchants would like us to keep [them] open year-round. And that involves worrying about pipes freezing, it involves paying the heating bill, it involves shoveling snow so people could get to the restroom.”

In Och’s opinion, it’s the local businesses that benefit most from a year-round public restroom, so the costs should be shared by them.

“Years ago…store owners were pledging to pay a certain amount every year to help with the cleaning of the restrooms,” Och recalls. “And that’s when we had much smaller crowds. Now, the crowds are coming earlier, they’re staying later, and they’re bigger. Everybody loves the business, but it comes with a cost. You can’t host people without taking care of their bathroom needs.”

Morton says the business community is, indeed, willing to chip in: In 2020, he says the chamber made a donation to Leland Parks and Rec specifically to help with restroom costs. The chamber also provided a portable toilet downtown during the Christmas season last year.

So how are other villages bracing for bathroom needs? Alacia Acton, deputy clerk for the Village of Empire, says this summer there will be an extra portable toilet for the Empire village beach overflow parking lot at Lions Park. Typically, for beachgoers, the only public restroom is located at the beach (pictured); there are also bathrooms at the National Lakeshore visitor’s center, and the Glen Lake Public Library.

She says the Empire Chamber of Commerce does not help fund the restroom(s); rather, the $1 per hour parking fee at the beach offsets bathroom maintenance costs and park ambassador wages. 

Cindy Edmondson, village of Northport community liaison, explains that the public South Beach (pictured) and the Haserot Park bathrooms are maintained by the village’s harbormaster and his staff, noting that the cost of upkeep “is solely supported by the Village Marina funds.” (There is also a third, separate facility, for use by anyone docking at the marina slips.)

And in Glen Arbor, the township maintains a public restroom facility at the Glen Arbor Garden (between Art’s Tavern and The Cottage Book Shop) and at Township Park. Glen Lake Chamber of Commerce makes a yearly $2,000 contribution to the garden restroom upkeep. Otherwise, the township foots the bill, says Pam Laureto, Glen Arbor township clerk. “Costs went up $10,560 last fiscal year for extra COVID-19 related cleaning and an extra $988 was spent on cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer.”

Laureto submitted these extra COVID-related expenses to Leelanau County — which had submitted a C.A.R.E.S. Act Community Development Block Grant — and has been notified that reimbursement is on its way. For extra cleaning expenses anticipated this summer, “I am keeping track of all COVID-related expenses in case additional reimbursement funds become available,” she says.

Going forward, Morton hopes the townships, villages, and businesses of Leelanau will be able to work more in tandem to find solutions.

“There has always been a problem in the villages in our region of wanting tourists to visit but not giving them a most basic service that is required by literally everyone,” Morton says. “There is a continuing demand…that will only get worse as more and more tourists come to visit – not only in the summer months but year-round. There are a lot of really smart people in business and government in our area, and if this particular problem is given the priority it should be, I believe we will be able to work it out.”

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