A wide range of ideas was shared during the first meeting of the St Marys Cement Company land swap proposal community advisory committee on Wednesday July 16.
The day after the meeting, Professional Meeting Facilitator Bill McGinnis of Milwaukee, Wisc., opened up about the process for forming the group, topics discussed, and what is next for the committee.
“We were all over the board at last night’s meeting,” McGinnis said. “The committee discussed environmental issues, park usage issues, economic impact, jobs, tourism, access to the park, health and safety issues like traffic and sharing roads with large trucks.”
He added, “We’re not only looking at concerns, we’re also looking at opportunities. There are two sides to every coin and we’re thoroughly exploring risks and opportunities … so we didn’t really discuss details about much of anything. What we did was to understand what the community advisory committee is interested in talking about and in moving forward last night creating a very large list of those items so we can pull them together and make a logical progression in exploring them in future meetings.”
The committee was formed to consider the Charlevoix-based cement producer’s proposal to swap a nearly 220-acre parcel of its land with 190 acres of Fisherman’s Island State Park.
According to McGinnis, there will be a total of three to five meetings of the 20-member group.
Two of those chosen to sit on the committee did not attend Wednesday’s meeting at Stafford’s Weathervane Restaurant of Charlevoix.
The members of the committee are Ray Bier, Dave Juilleret, Alec Amstutz, Douglas Bergmann, Bill Crook, Nancy Ferguson, Bill Gnodtke, Bob Klein, Luther Kurtz, Jonathon Mauchmar, Dan Myers and Greneta Thomassey, Nancy Rajewski, Patrick Rajewski, Marc Seelye, David Skeel, Larry Sullivan, Pat Whitley and Anne Zukowski. McGinnis’ co-facilitator is Ann Chastain.
Committee meeting observers, who are allowed to offer input if asked for such by McGinnis, include Fisherman’s Island State Park Supervisor Tom Copenhaver, DNR Parks and Recreation Division Gaylord District Supervisor Richard Hill, DNR Forest Resources Division Forest Land Administrator Kerry Wieber, St Marys Cement Operations Manager Dirk Cox and St Marys Cement Environmental Manager Cortney Schmidt.
St Marys Cement Company representatives reached out to various governmental boards as it was presenting its land swap concept over the last few months, asking members of the public and public officials interested in sitting on the advisory committee to contact them.
“If we want to know the opinion of the community—and not just somebody who’s a supporter or somebody who’s against it—you need a wide range of people,” said Cox. “It just seems to be the right thing to do. If you’re going to be in the community a long long time, why not take a couple extra steps and see if this is valid? And, the best way to do that is to get an opinion from a diverse group of people.”
According to McGinnis, only one of the 21 people who applied to be on the committee were rejected.
Long-time environmental activist JoAnne Beemon of Charlevoix, who has worked on community advisory boards for both Big Rock nuclear power facility and the Bay Harbor clean-up effort, was not chosen.
“From the beginning, our goal was to have a broadly diverse group of people,” McGinnis said. “The one person who wasn’t selected happened to be involved as a member of an organization that a person already selected for the group was also in and we didn’t want overlapping interests.”
Beemon said she was saddened at the decision not to include her.
“I’ve studied the law and history and I’ve become an expert on the park,” Beemon said. “They’re trying to appeal to people to compromise … but people love our state park because it’s a globally rare and diverse ecosystem. We want to keep that treasure.”
Beemon said she was concerned that the advisory committee meetings were not open to the general public or the press.
“If we want to educate the public and have all voices heard, they need to be open and transparent,” she said. “Bureaucracy loves secrecy. If you want to have a democratic discussion, the meetings need to be open.”
McGinnis said the committee is not trying to be secretive.
“It’s only closed to the public so members of the committee can stay focused and not be distracted by … people in the room watching,” he said. “And, we want them to have the opportunity to freely express their opinions without thinking reporters are quoting them verbatim… We just want very open and honest dialogue.”
According to McGinnis, advisory committee members are allowed to discuss meetings with the press, but they have been discouraged from stating that their opinions are representative of the group.
Why use a facilitator?
Cox said the decision to hire a professional facilitator was simply the right thing to do in this situation.
“Professional meeting facilitators get them talking in an organized fashion, keep them on track, make sure people are being heard and stay on theme,” Cox said. “And, after looking at some examples of more successful companies, it just seemed like the right thing to do to bring in people who do this for a living.”
The hope is that providing a structured environment free of rumor and emotion will help committee members focus on determining whether the proposed option—or any other option, for that matter—is worth pursuing.
“It seems there has been a great deal of misinformation in the community,” McGinnis said. “St Marys doesn’t have a specific plan in mind. They proposed an option … but they remain flexible on what the boundaries are and what the structure might be.”
While St Marys will not be bound by any recommendations which may be made by the committee, the cement company does plan to weigh the advisory board’s findings.
“The company has turned this entire process over to us—from determining how the committee would be constructed to running meetings, to selecting community members, to what goes in the report,” said McGinnis. “They put all that under our control because they want quality impartial meetings to take place.”
the committee’s stance?
When asked how the committee members fall in terms of supporting or opposing the proposed land swap, McGinnis said the matter is not that black and white.
“I actually don’t know who is for and who is against,” he said. “I have not heard anyone say this is great and that we should just do it. I can assure you all 20 are highly concerned about the park and want to thoroughly explore what the impact of such a transaction might be.”
The end game
McGinnis said the goal is not to reach a consensus but to gauge the community’s overall feelings on the proposed land swap concept.
“The objective of the committee is to decide whether and, if so, how an application by us to the state would be an overall benefit to the communities, the plant, employees, the environment,” Cox said. “That’s the objective, to kick that around. And, I think they did very well last night pointing stuff out that I never would have thought of.”
The report could be ready by fall.
“One thing I promised the group is that the report will summarize the major issues and how the committee felt about them—positive or negative,” McGinnis said. “The report will express the minority views as well as the majority.”
He added, “The company has been quite clear: if the community advisory committee feels the land swap would not be in the community’s best interest, they won’t move forward with it … and that’s why it was important to have a fairly large group of people discussing these rather sensitive topics.”
According to St Marys Cement’s tentative proposal:
• Some rezoning and changes to Charlevoix Township’s Master Plan would be necessary to make the swap legal;
• None of Fisherman’s Island State Park’s shoreline would be affected;
• The contact boundary between the park and St Marys would be reduced from 3.8 miles to 2.2 miles;
• There are no archaeologically sensitive sites on the property St Marys seeks to utilize;
• The swap would add 4,000 feet of McGeach Creek;
• There would be no abandoned mine on the property given to the park;
• And, there would be no negative tax impacts on Charlevoix Township.
• According to St Marys’ plan, there would be no reduction in the number of campsites in Fisherman’s Island State Park; a new road, welcome station, turnaround and parking area would be erected at St Marys’ cost—and with no interruptions of service to park users.
St Marys would benefit from the land swap by decreasing fuel costs, since part of their mine is in Norwood Township, on the other side of Fisherman’s Island State Park, and by eliminating the mine’s operational exposure to residential neighbors.
Where things stand now
There are at least two more three-hour citizens advisory committee meetings planned. One is set for July 30 and one for Aug. 13, with an optional additional meeting tentatively slated for Wednesday Aug. 27.
St Marys has not applied for the proposed land swap with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. It has, however, completed phase two of an archaeological study related to the proposal.
The biodiversity index study—which looks at plants and animals in the proposed swap location—is ongoing and could be completed as early as this fall.