Monday, August 6, 2018

Heather Shumaker Speaks at the Library

By Frank Boles

On July 10, Heather Shumaker, author of Saving Arcadia: A Story of Conservation and Community in the Great Lakes (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2017), spoke on how one of Lake Michigan’s treasured perched sand dunes became open to the public, and how she came to write a book using the techniques of a fictional novel writer to tell the story.

Arcadia Dunes, located on Lake Michigan south of Frankfort, is one of the many beautiful sand dunes that sit perched along Lake Michigan’s eastern shoreline. In 1969 representatives of a previously unknown real estate company began to knock on the doors of people who lived on or near the dunes, making very generous offers for their property. Eventually Viking Land Company assembled an approximately 4,100 acre tract, and in 1971 Consumers Power revealed that it had purchased the dune to construct a pumped storage power plant similar to one it was constructing near Ludington. A pumped power storage plant used excess electrical capacity available during non-peak demand hours to pump water “uphill” into a large storage reservoir.  At times of peak electrical demand, the water was released and power was created by hydro-electric generators, creating needed additional power.
Map of the Arcadia Dunes. 
Although the Arcadia hydro plant was never constructed Consumers retained the property it had purchased, and continued for the next two decades to add new land to its holdings, eventually amassing around 6,000 acres. In the late 1980s Consumers went on another land-buying spree, this time with the hopes of developing a large resort. That plan too failed, in part because of stout local resistance. One of the more interesting ploys used to stop the resort was the realization that any high end hotel or golf course would need a liquor license to be profitable. The township that encompassed the dunes was authorized to issue only one liquor license. The license was applied for an awarded to a local, family owned resort, which actually didn’t want it very much but very much did not want Consumer’s to get it. (although serving wine at wedding receptions they catered developed into an unanticipated, but profitable, sideline).

In 1991 the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy was incorporated with a staff of one to place in trust the natural beauty of the region.. In the late 1990s the Conservancy, now with a staff of five that included Ms. Shumaker, developed the audacious idea of preserving the property. The only problems standing in their way were that they had no money to make the purchase and Consumer’s wasn’t interested in selling the land. Eventually Consumers consented to discuss selling the land, but the company did nothing more than talk, and for long periods of time chose to not even do that.

But this became a story of friends, connections, and hard work. One example makes this point. Consumer’s at the beginning of the 21st century found itself involved in a financial scandal. It was suffering from terrible public relations, and a very immediate need for cash. Consumers wanted a rate increase, and its senior officers went to newly elected Governor Jennifer Granholm to seek her support for it.

Friends of the Conservancy knew, Granholm, new Consumers was coming hat in hand to ask her help in getting a rate increase. They explained the situation to Granholm, suggesting she might be able to persuade Consumers to seriously consider transferring ownership of the dunes to the Conservancy.  At the meeting between the governor and the senior management of the company held March 12, 2003  Granholm listened to their tale of woe, and shocked the Consumer’s representatives by suggesting if they needed cash so badly why didn’t they just sell the Arcadia Dunes to the Conservancy? Rumor was, she noted, they could get $18 million for the land. Arcadia Dunes were not something management had expected would come up in their conversation with the governor, but making her happy was clearly on the agenda. Suddenly Consumers placed the Dunes on the market, and proved a very motivated seller Finding the money wasn’t easy, but the Mott Foundation had the money to purchase much of the land at once, and then agreed to sell it to the Conservancy over time and at a steep discount, effectively both financing the much of the purchase and making a large contribution toward the project. Eventually the Conservancy owned the Dunes. There was still fundraising to do to cover those portions of the Dune land Mott did not subsidize, but with the Mott money available, the wind was at the Conservancy’s back.
Arcadia Dunes from a distance.
If Shumaker’s story is compelling, her choice of writing it in the style of a novel was equally interesting. Her point was simply; she wanted to convey to readers the drama and energy that occurred in ways that traditionally written non-fiction did not do. And she had an unusual mentor who helped her in her work. Shumaker, who lives in Traverse City, resided close to another writer, Doug Stanton, a New York Times best-selling author of non-fiction.  Stanton liked her, liked her writing, liked the project, and became the coach any other author would envy having. Using techniques drawn from fiction, and allowing herself license to place herself in rooms and share conversations and details actually unheard and unobserved, gives the book a directness otherwise unobtainable. And a good deal of talent at writing also came into play.

As one person told Shumaker, “you’re the only person who can pen a chapter about grant writing and make it sound interesting.” Shumaker and her colleagues had to write a lot of grants, as well as engage in other forms of fundraising, to find the difference between what the Mott Foundation generously donated to the Conservancy by discounting the price of the property, and the money the Foundation really did expect to get back over time.

Personally, I’ve written a few grants. I’ve taught workshops on the subject. Nobody has ever talked about my description of grant writing as being interesting. Informative, yes. But those workshops were always long afternoons, even for me. Anyone who can keep an audience awake describing grant writing has a gift.  After listening to her presentation about saving Arcadia, I have to admit being really excited about that grant writing chapter.  But then, that’s me. Most people will just find the story itself a page turner, even if they kind of skim the part about grants.