Resources & Research

What’s Your Sense of Place? Petoskey

What’s Your Sense of Place?

Northern Field Report
A column by Caroline Weber Kennedy

Location: Petoskey
Population: 5,670


Governor Snyder in his first Special Message to the Legislature referred to the importance of creating a “sense of place” within Michigan communities no less than a dozen times. One such shining example is Petoskey’s new Bear River Valley
Recreation Area (BRVRA).

Like many Michigan communities, Petoskey is blessed with an abundance of natural beauty. It is the stuff Pure Michigan ads are made of: sand beaches, sparkling shores and glowing sunsets. But Petoskey’s sense of place was not always what
it is today; success takes planning, perseverance, and some calculated risk.

The two largest generations in our nation’s history, the millennials and the boomers—approximately 155 million strong—are seeking cities with a sense of place to call home. We laud and applaud elected officials and communities retaining focus on this big picture; recognizing that the oft-times unquantifiable, intangible assets of our communities remain an essential part of service provision. Nurturing the unique aspects within each of our communities and giving them their due consideration in the budget process remains highly important.

Parks, trails and other recreational opportunities add economic value to our communities both by attracting visitors and providing a higher quality of life for residents. According to the National Association of Realtors, homes with proximity to such
amenities enjoy higher property values of five to 15 percent each, based on the quality of the park.

Petoskey Reinvented
Like most of Michigan, Petoskey is reinventing itself. It exists today because of the valuable power of the Bear River flowing into Lake Michigan, which established Petoskey as a mill town. The Bear River once had five dams set along its steep course, harnessing energy for mills. Railroad cars ran along both sides of the river carrying timber and limestone. At one time, the Bear River features and the industries it supported created Petoskey’s hard-working and bustling sense of place.

Today Petoskey is a national destination and still bustles—albeit in a more leisurely fashion. The Bear River Valley is gradually being restored to its more natural state, with the removal of the last dam in 1991. But its power is once again harnessed for the new purpose of whitewater kayaking. With its naturally steep grade to Lake Michigan and strategically placed limestone, the Bear River offers whitewater—the likes of which cannot be found any nearer than West Virginia or the western Upper Peninsula. Additional limestone creates eddies for self-rescue. In key areas, put-ins and take-outs, at 100-yard intervals provide enthusiasts with a way to reshoot favorite sections of the rapids. These play features mutually serve as fish habitats, enhancing the local fishing experience.


Not Just For Visitors
The Bear River bisects Petoskey into east and west sides. So perhaps more important than the economic draw, is that this project links Petoskey’s two other linear parks and several neighborhoods, greatly increasing connections for residents. The project was accomplished through TIF district bonding of just more than $2.4 million. The two streets immediately parallel with the river enjoy new curbing and buried utilities. The entire project includes 36 acres, 1.5 miles in length. A concrete path traverses the length of the river on one side, while gravel trails line both sides, with a number of access points from different neighborhoods; two pedestrian bridges are available along the trail with a stair tower. Two new public restrooms and two shelters, which can be rented, also serve the valley. There are a total of five parking areas, three at street level, as well as the neighborhood non-motorized connectors, so access was given high priority.

Residents are now also conveniently linked via this trail all the way to the Riverbend skate-park and to the high school football field and sports complex on the southern end, and will eventually link to North Central Michigan College on the northern end.
In summary, the BRVRA project accomplishes many objectives. It reaffirms Petoskey’s sense of place as a desti­nation for visitors and a haven for residents. For local and national trail enthusiasts, it connects directly to the historic Little Traverse Wheelway portion of the North Country National Scenic Trail, which traverses our country from New York to North Dakota. It protects important local flora and makes usable a serene, natural area of 36 acres in the heart of a small but active city. It creates an economic stimulus three seasons of the year by filling a unique whitewater kayak niche. It connects the city’s east- and west-side neighborhoods via trails and pedestrian bridges. It increases the desirability and real estate value of an estimated 500
residential properties. It is a complete part of a larger vision to connect key residential user groups throughout the city from north to south.


Petoskey has seen great success with its three linear parks including the 1.8 mile Waterfront Park and the downtown Greenway Corridor which may one day soon run a trolley on the railroad tracks for downtown employees to key parking areas. All three parks serve multiple users and enhance Petoskey’s sense of place.

For more information on how parks, trails, and recreation provide economic value to your community, contact Ann Conklin, chief operating officer, Michigan Recreation and Park Association, at 517-485-9888. For more information on this project, contact Petoskey City Manager Dan Ralley at 231-347-2500.

Caroline Weber Kennedy is manager of field operations for the League. You may reach her at 906-428-0100 or [email protected].

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