One of the most historic communities in the Michigan is in an uproar over preserving its past. Mackinac Island was fought over in the War of 1812. It is sacred to American Indian tribes who have buried chiefs in its soil. And today the 200-year-old city in northern Lake Huron is a popular destination for tourists. But the demolition of old buildings has raised a heated debate about how to hold onto the past while trying to profit from it.
Today, Main Street on Mackinac Island is colorful mix of hotels and shops lined up tightly with balconies above the narrow street. The warmer months here are spent catering to nearly a million visitors. Winter is construction season. And Nancy May say there's been so much construction in recent years it's getting hard to take a photograph of the Christmas tree.
"There's scaffolding on the pizza building," says the third generation resident of Mackinac Island. "There's stuff in the middle of the road."
May's Grandfather came here 1898, just before the community decided to ban automobiles. During the 20th Century Mackinac became one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. It was selected in the first round of National Landmarks in 1960. The entire island is a landmark, not just some structures.
"It's the only place in America you can experience this," she says. "The only place."
New hotels spark debate
But the pace of new development has raised a tense debate about preserving that experience.
Between 1970 and 2000, about 140 buildings were torn down or burned. In 2002 the National Park Service put the island's landmark status on a watch list, noting there are no protections for these structures.
Some cities have historic districts that give them the power to stop demolitions. But a proposal for new districts on Mackinac Island is not welcome by many in the business community.
The issue was stirred up more recently when a 125-year-old cottage on Main Street came down to make way for a new hotel. Ira Green is the developer who demolished McNally Cottage. He says the building was totally obsolete.
"Everything about it didn't work," Green says. "Had the owners been able to maintain it, I'm sure they would have. But they couldn't so they had to let it go and they put it up for sale."
Green says if people want to maintain old buildings they can buy them and do so. But he says they shouldn't put the financial burden on him. He agrees preserving the charm of the island is crucial, but he questions who gets to decide where to draw the line.
"Is it okay for the third party to come in and say to me, 'You can't really take down this building and recreate it good enough'?"
Ira Green is back at it this month with plans for a new hotel and once again his plan is bold. He's ready to build right in front of the dock owned by the oldest ferryboat service to the island. Passengers disembarking the Arnold Line would walk under an arch holding up a section of his new hotel.
What makes up the fabric of Mackinac Island?
Nancy May says this kind of rapid expansion is a new business model for Mackinac Island. Her father ran a bike shop and a boat service here. She says people from her parents' generation were happy with one or two family businesses.
"It was a small community," says May. "It wasn't about how much more can I get."
And these days the amounts of money at stake are large. Property downtown sells for millions of dollars. An owner that suddenly loses the right to tear down an old building takes a big financial hit.
But advocates of the historic districts say without these buildings the very reason visitors come to Mackinac Island would be lost. Frank Pompa is a seasonal resident and formerly on the board of the Michigan Historic Preservation Network. He says last summer he overheard a boy talking to his father as they looked down Main Street.
"And the little boy just yells out to his dad, 'Daddy, Daddy, it looks just like Disney Land!'"
But business owners like Ira Green say they're good stewards of Mackinac Island.
"We believe in what works here," he says. "We believe in the charm of the island."
The question now is what the city council will decide. And most of them are business owners.