A public Wi-Fi hotspot at Waterfront Park was turned off earlier this summer in an effort to deter a group that frequently spends all day under the bandshell.
City Manager Mitch Foster asked that the hotspot be turned off “temporarily,” according to Dominic Hasbrouck, general manager of SyncWave, the Wi-Fi provider. No other public hotspot is available at the park.
About five-to-six men, assumed by some officials to be homeless, have often spent all day at the bandshell for the last three-to-four years, said Joe Stickney, superintendent of the Department of Public Works.
They make some other visitors uncomfortable and leave cigarette butts “all over the place,” Stickney said. While the group has been asked to leave less of a mess, some haven’t complied, he said.
The recurring messes attributed to the men pose a “nuisance” to the city workers who clean them, said Kirk Caithamer, parks crew supervisor.
“There could be 60-70 cigarette butts just right underneath one of the picnic tables,” Caithamer said. “It just gets to be disappointing, that’s all.”
Cleaning messes is part of these workers’ job descriptions, but given their limited resources, a greater sensitivity to litter left behind would be welcome, Stickney said.
“It’s pretty simple to not throw your cigarette butts on the ground,” he said.
Ludington Police Chief Tim Kozal said there haven’t been reports of behavior that would warrant police involvement. And if there was a littering violation to enforce, it wouldn’t be a good use of the department’s time, because they likely couldn’t afford to pay the fine, he said.
“We now have to work with the individuals to try and be able to help them,” Kozal said. “I think that’s the best thing you’ve got to think about.”
The Waterfront Park situation was discussed during a meeting of the city council’s cemetery, parks and recreation committee on June 15.
According to the meeting minutes, the men arrive in the morning, plug their phones into the bandshell’s power outlets and can sometimes be found drinking from bottles in paper bags or napping against the building.
Turning off the Wi-Fi, disabling the outlets and prohibiting smoking were discussed as deterrence methods at the meeting, according to the minutes.
Caithamer said he’s wary of turning off the power outlets, as they’re often used by park visitors. The outlets remain usable for now, Caithamer said.
Officials are considering adding a sign asking visitors not to vape, smoke or drink alcohol near the bandshell, Caithamer said. A similar sign currently stands near the playground.
Foster said the goal isn’t to “kick these folks out of the park,” but to let families be comfortable using the area.
He said it’s too early to tell whether the group has been warded away, and that’s harder with the Offshore Classic fishing tournament being held at the park this week, but the parks department is “keeping an eye on” it.
Whether to re-enable the Wi-Fi — and whether to impose other rules — will be discussed at the cemetery, parks and recreation committee’s next meeting at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, July 28.
Foster said he’s working with local organizations to address issues of poverty and homelessness that could be driving the group to Waterfront Park.
“We have to look at it holistically and how to help these folks,” he said.
He said there is an “ongoing conversation” with United Way of Mason County about what some non-profit organizations targeting poverty and homelessness have to offer.
The hotspot was one of three set up in Mason County at SyncWave’s expense in April 2020 to help with remote school and work during the pandemic.
One hotspot still remains near Scottville Optimist Hall, while another at the Lakeshore Resource Network’s parking lot was shut off “early this year,” Hasbrouck said.
The Lakeshore Resource Network did not request that SyncWave shut off the hotspot, according to Lynne Russell, executive director of United Way of Mason County. She said SyncWave either deactivated it or it is malfunctioning.
“We are currently working with SyncWave to purchase the equipment so this service can still be provided,” Russell said.