WHITEHALL TWP. – Last fall the Lakeshore Museum Center announced it decided to close the Michigan’s Heritage Park at Hilt’s Landing after just four years of operation, but there may be a new future for the 19-acre indoor and outdoor facility.
The museum center, Whitehall District Schools and Whitehall Township are exploring the possibility of the school district taking over the lease for the park from Whitehall Township which is the property owner as part of the larger Hilt’s Landing.
“We kind of initiated it,” Annoesjka Soler, director of Lakeshore Museum Center, explained the intention to turn over operations of the facility which includes a museum building and a half mile paved trail with other historical installations which cover 10,000 years of Michigan history.
Soler said she began talking to Whitehall District Schools Superintendent Dr. Jerry McDowell near the near the end of last year about the district using the facility as a local history and outdoor educational facility.
“We’re really excited about it,” she said recently.
The museum center and school district are working on a letter of intent for the district to explore assuming the 99-year lease the museum center has with the township.
McDowell, who met with the township board and his school board at their separate meetings April 22, said a Letter of Intent gives direction for the exploration of an agreement for the schools to operate the park.
“We see it as a win, win,” Soler said.
Soler said the museum center was not able to bring in the revenue from admissions to the park to cover the cost of operations. That revenue began to decline, instead of increasing during the recent summer operations. The director said the museum had labor costs for operating the facility that the school district won’t have.
Michigan Heritage Park receives $50,000 a year from an endowment fund through the Community Foundation for Muskegon County to maintain the property.
McDowell said one of the areas of exploration will be to determine if the school district can use the endowment fund to continue the maintenance.
The superintendent said the district can use the park for historical and outdoor education as well as possibly working with other partners for its use, such as other school districts, the scouts, art organizations for festivals, and historical groups who may want to use it for pow wows and Civil War reenactments.
He said the possibilities are immense so they want to take their time to explore.
A draft letter of intent calls for a public opening this fall, but McDowell said they would not be held to that timeline.
“We want to do our due diligence over the next year to see if it’s economically feasible and makes sense for our community to assume that lease. We want to provide a mutually beneficial relationship between Whitehall schools, Whitehall Township and the greater community.
“We want to make sure those 19 acres are used — not just left to be abandoned,” he added.
Soler said the museum center will continue to maintain the park until it is transferred to another use.
Brad Johnson, vice-president of the Whitehall board of education said students have been involved with the park in recent years. “What a fantastic opportunity,” he said.