A New Harbor: To Build or Not to Build?
During an era beset with budget problems, it should have come as no surprise that the no-build option was deemed the most appropriate for the long smoldering controversy over a site for the lakeshore’s ferry service. The single-most expensive recommendation of the General Management Plan had been to build a new harbor within the boundaries of the lakeshore. In 1981 a $309,000 congressional appropriation funded a study of five potential harbor sites. The project was directed by the National Park Service’s Denver Service Center with engineering services contracted from the Ann Arbor firm of McNamee, Porter and Seeley, Inc. The goal was to provide a docking facility for the Manitou islands ferry and to provide recreational boaters with access to the Sleeping Bear shoreline. Such a harbor had long been part of the National Park Service’s long-range plans for the lakeshore. Loud and persistent complaints from the village of Leland, the site of the Grosvenors’ ferry dock, pushed the harbor study to the front burner. The Sleeping Bear ferry, in the minds of many village residents, contributed to traffic congestion in their scenic community. Five possible sites were part of the initial investigation: Glen Haven, Port Oneida, North Bar Lake, South Bar Lake—Empire, and Leland. The inclusion of the latter was simply as a part of a “no build” option, typical in planning documents. Nonetheless, the park service was excoriated in public for including Leland in the study at all. “I am shocked that this is being considered,” complained a member of the advisory commission. “The people of Leland don’t want it. Take the proposal back to Denver and tell them that.” The Leelanau planning commission and its board of commissioners quickly went on record in opposition of Leland be included in the study in any way.
The harbor study also drew flak as a fiscal “boondoggle.” The Traverse City Record-Eagle called for federal budget director David Stockman to investigate it as a waste of taxpayer dollars. “If the National Park Service wants to give me that $309,000 for the study I’ll take it and retire on what is left over,” commented Keith Wilson of the Michigan Waterways Commission. The park service had once sunk his harbor plan for the Platte and now he was quite willing to deride their planning process. “Everything the NPS wants to know about the harbor sites being discussed is already in the files of the Department of Natural Resources in Lansing. All they have to do is ask for it.” Benzie County officials also took their shots at the study. Each of the five study sites was located in Leelanau County, which clearly did not want the harbor. Although Benzie County was further from the Manitou islands it wanted ferry docks badly and had the advantage of being able to offer two fully functioning harbors at Frankfurt and Elberta. For years Elberta had been the site of the Ann Arbor Railway’s car ferryboats. The demise of that business left officials there anxious to bring another tourist business into the Frankfurt area. Spurned by the Denver Service Center study the Michigan legislature appropriated money for their own study of converting the state-owned car-ferry docks at Elberta to a park service docking site. 
Between 1982 and 1984 the separate components of the harbor study, engineering, visitor use, and environmental, were completed. The lakeshore presented the results to the public in a series of public meetings. The study results were sobering, with each potential site carrying a heavy price tag or considerable resource management burdens. South Bar Lake and Leland were not addressed in the final report as neither was in the lakeshore proper. Of the remaining sites Glen Haven was determined the best location from an economic point-of-view. A harbor there was projected to cost $3.4 million, although it was the intrusion of a great breakwater wall in the middle of one of the finest beaches in mid-America that was the true cost of the building at the site. The need to provide parking for several hundred cars and trailers, a ticketing facility, site administration, toilets, and fire protection to support the harbor would also have blighted the historic charm of the hamlet of Glen Haven. The two Port Oneida sites investigated would have had less secondary impacts, but the shallow water of the area would have required higher initial construction costs, between $4.3 and $6.8 million. The North Bar Lake site had little to recommend it as it carried the hefty price tag of Port Oneida with environmental damage as bad as Glen Haven. For a park unit charged by Congress to protect the Sleeping Bear area “from developments and uses which would destroy the scenic beauty and natural character of the area,” a new harbor proved hard to justify.
The National Park Service had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and four years of planning to reach a pretty bad set of alternatives. But it was time and money well-spent if only because during the course of those studies and deliberations public sentiment shifted. The image of a five hundred-foot breakwater wall jutting into Sleeping Bear Bay and a five hundred-car parking lot in Glen Haven was more than most Leelanau County residents could abide. Glen Arbor townsfolk railed against the docking facility plan. Their strongest argument, made by an advisory commission member was: “The Park cannot, lawfully or in good conscience, purposefully destroy what it is charged to protect.” The environmental argument joined neatly with the community’s frugal Republicanism. “We can’t understand,” editorialized the Traverse City Record-Eagle, “how the Park Service can seriously consider building a new $4 million harbor……when good service is already provided from a good harbor just a short distance from the islands.” The very people who in 1981 had criticized the park service for even including Leland as a “no-build” option were by 1984 clamoring, “leave it in Leland.” The Detroit Free Press logically reasoned: “If the ferry slip is being moved because the town found it a nuisance, what impact does the Park Service suppose it is going to have on the dunes?” A new facility within the park the editors argued would be “a real failure of imagination.”
Even within the town of Leland sentiment began to shift in favor of retaining the docking facility. Michael Grosvenor, owner of Mantou Island Transit had worked hard over the years to manage the surge in ferry customers. He developed a series of remote parking lots and connected them to the dock via a shuttle service. The historic Fishtown area still thronged with people just before or after a ferry docking, but the bustling maritime scene was in keeping with the threshold experience of a genuine harbor. Leland merchants were uncomfortable with the sentiment that the docking should be removed because of traffic congestion. If Grosvenor, one of the few merchants to provide parking for his customers was driven from the town, what could other businesses expect in the future? Restaurants in particular were loath to see the ferry relocated from the town. Breakfast at the Bluebird had long been a tradition among visitors waiting to go over to the Manitous. “Like it or not,” a town resident concluded, “Leland cannot and will not be excluded from Michigan's No.1 industry, tourism." In the end that was the conclusion reached by most observers. The Advisory Commission recommended the “no-build” option and in March 1985 Midwest Regional Director Charles Odegaard ordered the lakeshore to forego constructing a new facility.