Pictured Rocks Cruises manager discusses tourism in Alger County

MARQUETTE — “What’s going on with Munising?” is a loaded question many have posed.

One person specifically, though, was Marquette’s late Mayor Tom Baldini who asked John Madigan, general manager and part-owner of Munising’s Pictured Rocks Cruises, if he would someday update the Economic Club of Marquette County on the small Upper Peninsula city, which he did Monday night.

Munising rests along Lake Superior shoreline and has under 2,500 residents who live there year-round. In the 1890s, 26 sawmills took up most of the lakeshore in the city, Madigan said. Presently, Alger Maximum Correctional Facility, Neenah Paper Mill, Timber Products and tourism keep the city afloat.

As a gateway to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Munising has noted a significant influx of visitors over the last several years.

PRNL Superintendent David Horne, who joined Madigan at Monday’s event, said the number of area visitors was at an all-time high last year, with around 810,000 people exploring the park. The National Park Service also reported that about $34 million was spent in surrounding communities.

Marketing and advertising, partnerships, the Pure Michigan campaign and technological advances have helped bring people to the region, Madigan said. Since 2010, marketing has increased ten-fold.

“As one community prospers, it really does affect all of our communities,” Madigan said. “By promoting the region as a whole, we could be so much stronger if we could pull all those resources together.”

Pictured Rocks Cruises has teamed up with other attractions in the Upper Peninsula, like Tahquamenon Falls, with around 80 billboards strategically placed throughout Michigan and surrounding areas.

“This has become a tourist destination, not a tourist byway,” Madigan said.

Formal tours to Pictured Rocks began being offered by Cleveland Cliffs Iron Co. in the 1920s when the Ottawa would leave port on Grand Island and take visitors along the shoreline, according to Pictured Rocks Cruises’ website.

More vessels were eventually purchased and in 1974, the Pictured Rocks Cruises partnership was established.

In 1992, the guided boat tours had 32,000 passengers. That number increased to 137,000 passengers by 2017. Numbers started growing in 2009 and they haven’t stopped going up, Madigan said.

In 2010, Kid Rock filmed the video for his song “Born Free” at Miners Beach off H-58 in Alger County. Years later, the area also welcomed a national newscast to its shores.

“‘Good Morning America’ came to Munising a few years ago and broadcasted live to New York City. It had a huge impact to our area,” Madigan said. “When I say ‘our area,’ I don’t mean Munising. I mean regionally — Marquette, Escanaba, Manistique, Newberry — all these communities benefited.”

In August 2015, Munising’s Subway restaurant was the busiest in the nation, according to a Michigan State University report.

Since 2012, Pictured Rocks Cruises has teamed up with the Alger County Chamber of Commerce, offering its Yoopers Ride Free Day. More than 600 free rides were provided the first year. In 2013, the number of riders more than doubled.

Eventually, the event became Pictured Rocks Day — Yoopers Ride Free, and grew into a two-day event every June, with an attendance record of over 7,500 people turning up for the activities last year.

Although Madigan is excited about the city’s exposure, it also comes with some challenges, he said.

“Housing in Munising has become a pretty hot topic,” he said. “People are buying up older houses that are dilapidated or in ill repair, putting an investment into them and turning them out into vacation rentals, which has caused some friction with people looking for housing, and that’s a challenge we have to solve as a community.”

It’s also difficult to find enough people to work, he said.

“It saddens me to think we’ve lost 60 graduating students in Munising from 30 years ago,” he said. “We have drastic reduction in that population.”

In 2017, the Pictured Rocks Interpretive Center, a museum honoring the history of the Munising area that’s located near the Munising City Dock, was opened. Madigan said it was opened with the help of the late state Rep. John Kivela’s support. The city of Munising was also able to retain a grant recently to expand the city’s dock.

With events like the Michigan Ice Fest bringing over a thousand people into the area, along with its trail system, Munising gets a lot of visitors in the winter as well. Hotels and restaurants are often packed with snowmobilers and others who travel miles to explore the pristine terrain.

Mike Prusi, director of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Northern Michigan office, asked Madigan and Horne if reconstruction of H-58, a scenic route that connects to M-28 in Munising and ends in Grand Marais, has increased visitation.

“It’s really increased it a lot,” Horne said. “It’s a huge impact on some of the access points to the beaches to the point where we’re going through a Visitor Use Management Plan in our Washington office to try and rethink how we manage the crowds, particularly with the kayaking. That’s really exploded in the last few years and I think we’re coming up with some awesome solutions.”

Madigan said he expects the numbers of visitors will continue to increase over the years as well as development in the area.

Currently, a 150-passenger catamaran is being built in Alabama for Pictured Rocks Cruises. A kayak-launching boat is also being built in the Lower Peninsula.

“It’s going to be Michigan-made by Michigan craftsmen and used in Michigan. We feel good about that,” Madigan said.

Everyone who attended the club’s event received the book “Pictured Rocks: From Land and Sea” and a PRNL quarter, which was officially released last year.