Mackinac Island is famous around the world as a place where you step back in time. It's a National Historic Landmark.
But that designation is at risk, and the city faces some big questions about how to preserve the island's history now and into the future.
It's not just the horse hooves and lack of car exhaust that moves people back in time on the island. It's also the buildings, architecture from another era. But you may be surprised to learn that on the island there are no specific rules to require historic renovation and preservation of buildings.
Park Service Grows Concerned
Back in 2008, the National Park Service alerted city officials they were concerned. Mackinac Island had been placed on what's called a "WATCH" list by the park service. Officials were worried commercial development and loss of historic resources on the island could potentially threaten its status as a National Historic Landmark.
But on the island nothing happened, not for another year.
Slated Demolition Sparks Moratorium
Then, in the summer of 2009, residents were shocked to learn that an historic building called McNally Cottage, in the center of Main Street, was slated for demolition.
"It was the oldest continually run business on the island, says a three-generation island resident, Anthony Trayser. "It was the same family doing the same thing for 120 years. "
McNally cottage, built in 1889, was sold to a group of investors who decided to level the historic building and turn it into a brand new three-story hotel.
Trayser launched a new group called Save Our Island.
Another three generation Mackinac Island resident, Nancy May, felt the image of the island was as threatened as its historic buildings. She went door to door to collect signatures from business owners and residents to support a moratorium on demolition, and to create awareness of the possibility of creating a local downtown historic district.
"I'm just trying to preserve what we have for future generations," she says. "It's not about McNally. If McNally gets torn down, I would be sad. But I didn't go into this to save McNally Cottage. I went in to this to save Mackinac Island. And, you know, it's not just islanders.
The whole state, the country, I travelled in Europe and people knew about Mackinac Island, for heaven's sake. So this is really a big deal"
Moratorium Set To Expire
The Mayor and the city council did vote to put in place an emergency moratorium to stop all demolition on the island. That moratorium runs out on July 15th.
Nan Taylor wants the city of Mackinac Island o make sure that bulldozers don't move in on historic buildings the minute that moratorium runs out. She's a field representative with the Michigan Historic Preservation Network. She and many others are in favor of creating an historic district downtown.
"The point of an historic district is to encourage a community to decide, 'This is important to us. We want to make sure these buildings are going to maintain their historic integrity for generations to come. Therefore, we want to make sure these property owners have to adhere to a certain number of standards to make sure that happens,'" she says.
Mackinac Island Mayor Margaret Doud chose not to comment for this story, or to answer any questions in writing.
Expense and Bureaucracy
Not everyone on the island likes the idea of an historic district. There is a group opposed to adding an historic district. I didn't hear back from its leader by deadline for this story, but the cost of business on the island is already high, and some business owners worry they'll have to jump through too many bureaucratic hoops whenever they want to make a change to their buildings.
Historic renovation can be more expensive, sometimes much more expensive, than other building and renovation options. Some business owners also believe their property values will go down.
"Reputation is something that once lost, you can never regain," says Anthony Trayser. He says a bigger issue is at stake. "If we become known as a place that destroys what is truly historic, we will have lost our reputation. Our reputation is our future. It's our our commerce."
Two public meetings being held this week will allow residents and business owners to discuss the pros and cons of establishing an historic downtown district to preserve historic resources and help maintain the island's status as a National Historic Landmark.