Fort Empire: A New Headquarters For Sleeping Bear
Both the original master plan for the lakeshore and the revised general management plan called for the headquarters of the park to be located in Empire, Michigan. Yet from 1971 until 1987 the "temporary" offices in the former State Savings Bank Building in Frankfort served as the lakeshore headquarters. The space that Julius Martinek had found cramped and inadequate when the lakeshore was founded continued to serve as the base for twenty headquarters personnel sixteen years later. More so than even the site's space limitations, it was Frankfort's location well south of the lakeshore, that made the site such a frustrating headquarters location. Everyday park staff wasted hours of time driving back and forth from the lakeshore to the headquarters. That ended in January of 1987 when several Bekins moving vans emptied the old bank building of park service equipment, furniture, and records, and drove to the new centrally located headquarters in Empire. 
The long delayed preliminary plans for the headquarters called for a combined office facility and visitor center. The preferred location of the building was within a half mile of the intersection of M-22 and M-72. During the years when the headquarters was merely a line in an unfunded plan, lakeshore staff frequently speculated on just where the structure would be built. The more cynical would hold "we'll probably just end up in the lot behind Taghon's gas station."It was not until 1984 that funding looked solid enough for planning to move forward. Realty specialists from the General Services Administration were given charge of the project. They issued a request-for-proposals for a 12,000 square-foot office, exhibition building. Although the building would be built to General Services Administration standards, it would not be owned by the government, rather the National Park Service would be a long-term tenant. For the village of Empire this had the advantage of making the structure a private and, therefore, taxable endeavor. For the lakeshore, which had little prospect of receiving a construction budget large enough to build their own facility, the involvement of the General Services Administration was a way to put the bulk of the costs for the new headquarters into the Washington, D.C. office's general facilities rental account. The downside of this creative budget management was that it ensured that the public would continue to pay for the building with rent long after the construction costs had been covered. More than a dozen developers bid on the project. A group called Empire Investments, formed by a group of local investors, won the General Services contract. The project was supported by a tax-free bonds issued through the Leelanau County Economic Development Corporation. The site that was selected was a large open field behind Taghon's gas station.
There had been considerable discussion about using the former Empire Air Force Base site, which already was serving as the maintenance center, as the headquarters site. Certainly there was plenty of space available, much of which could be easily adapted to office use. The general management plan, however, had called for a joint headquarters-visitor center facility. The lakeshore staff believed that the Empire base site, located nearly a mile off of M-22, was too remote from the stream of tourist traffic to function well as a visitor facility. The desire to implement the plan may have blinded lakeshore leadership to the opportunity to use the former base administratively and then upgrade the existing Glen Lake visitor center. Certainly the latter site seriously needed to be expanded, particularly the washroom facilities, which had been little changed from the days when the building had served as a private residence. In fact, the cost of new washrooms at Glen Lake helped to drive lakeshore management to accept the Empire site. By going with the General Services Administration plan the lakeshore's new headquarters was categorized as a "relocation," not a new construction project.
The Chicago firm of Hammond, Beeby & Babka designed the new headquarters building. James W. Hammond, the principal architect for the building was a long-time summer resident of Glen Lake. Ironically, twenty years before he had been one of the many people worried about losing their homes to the national lakeshore. Two decades later he helped to build the park service's permanent headquarters. Hammond's original design called for a 14,000 foot square box, enclosed by a large cedar shaked hip roof and weathered cedar siding. Cost overruns, however, necessitated a late design change to a flat roof. This gave the building an appearance that at best was bland. In an effort to inject a bit of style Hammond added a tower. At first the idea was that the tower could be fitted with a staircase that would allow visitors to ascend to an observation deck that allowed at least a glimpse of the dunes and the Lake Michigan shore. Such an overlook would have made up for a principal shortcoming of the Empire site as a visitor center-it was out of view of the lakeshore. But safety and financial considerations prevented the tower from ever being adapted to serve as an observation deck. On the inside, the new headquarters and visitors center was a very functional and pleasant space. To visitors approaching the site, however, the low wood-sided building with the blockhouse-like tower looked a bit like a frontier fort. In fact among some of the local residents the headquarters came to be known as "Fort Empire."
The new visitor center was equipped with an excellent set of exhibits and an auditorium for public programs. It lacked the "lodge-like" feel of the Glen Lake facility, which during the winter was often filled with cross country skiers or hikers warming themselves by the fireplace. That older visitor center was demolished, which cleared the view from M-109 of Glen Lake. The new visitor center offered a much more professional image and superior facilities for large groups of tourists. Within the first year more than 73,000 visitor contacts were made at the new facility. In July of 1984, National Park Service Director William Penn Mott visited Sleeping Bear as part of a swing through Michigan to meet park staff at existing National Parks and to inspect several prospective park projects in the Upper Peninsula. Mott was a crusty career park administrator and a landscape architect by training who was not afraid to speak both bluntly and humorously. After touring the new Empire visitor center the Director addressed the staff of the lakeshore. In what was supposed to be a morale boosting talk, he broke-up his audience by candidly voicing the expert opinion, "You have what must be the ugliest visitor center in the entire National Park System."