Mackinac Island Worries About Preserving Its Past

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Michigan's Mackinac Island was fought over by France, England and the United States. The 200-year-old city in northern Lake Huron is a popular tourist destination. But the demolition of old buildings has raised a fierce debate about how to hold onto the past while profiting from it.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Remember these words by William Faulkner: The past is never dead, it's not even past. This next story takes us into the present and past of Mackinac Island, Michigan, which was fought over in the War of 1812. It's considered sacred by Indian tribes, who buried chiefs in its soil. Today the 200-year-old city located in northern Lake Huron is a popular destination for tourists, but the demolition of old buildings is stoking a debate about how to hold onto the past while also trying to profit from it.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Here's Peter Payette of Interlochen Public Radio.

PETER PAYETTE, BYLINE: People who worry about the future of Mackinac Island will tell you it's becoming like just about every other tourist destination. Frank Pompa has a summer place here. He says he heard a tourist say it, a boy talking to his father as they looked down historic Main Street.

FRANK POMPA: And the little boy just yells out to his dad; he says, Daddy, Daddy, look. It looks just like Disneyland. And I just kind of thought to myself, boy, out of the mouths of babes. This little kid could see it.

PAYETTE: But unlike Disneyland, Mackinac Island is a real city, with gorgeous historic buildings and an 18th century fort. This isn't a place filled with facades made to look old and workers who take off costumes at the end of each day. Main Street here is a colorful mix of hotels and shops, lined up tightly along the narrow street, with balconies above.

They banned automobiles here at the turn of the last century and the entire island is a National Landmark, one of the first selected for that status. Close to a million people come to visit every year. And Nancy May, a third generation resident, says they find something unique.

NANCY MAY: And they see horses going by and people on bicycles. It's the only place in America you can experience this, the only place.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION)

PAYETTE: Winter is construction season here and the builders have been busy lately. Two more hotels were proposed for the downtown, which is only a few city blocks. That's why some residents fear the historic character of Mackinac Island is slipping from their grasp. Between 1970 and 2000, more than 100 buildings were torn down.

In 2002, the National Park Service put the island's landmark status on a watch list, noting there are no protections for these structures. The only way to stop the demolitions is to create historic districts. And a plan to do that is ready for a final vote of the city council.

But the idea is not welcome by many here in the business community. The issue was stirred up recently up when a 125-year-old cottage on Main Street was torn down to make way for a new hotel. Ira Green is the developer who demolished McNally Cottage. Sitting at lunch at the Village Inn, he says the building was obsolete.

IRA GREEN: Everything about it didn't work. Had the owners been able to maintain it, I'm sure they would of but they couldn't, so they had to let it go.

PAYETTE: Green says if people want to maintain old buildings, they can buy them and do so. But he says they shouldn't put that financial burden on him. He agrees preserving the charm of the island is crucial, but he questions just who gets to decide where to draw the line.

GREEN: Is it OK for the third party to come in and say to me, you can't really take down this building and recreate it good enough? And I have to go, honestly? That building that you wanted saved had windows in it that were rotted out but the replacement windows are fine. Why not the replacement structure?

PAYETTE: There's lots of money at stake. Property downtown sells for millions of dollars these days. An owner who suddenly loses the right to tear down an old building can take a big financial hit. Advocates of the historic district say that without these buildings the very reason visitors are drawn to Mackinac Island will be lost. Business owners counter that they've been good stewards of this island. That dispute is now in the hands of local politicians who will decide whether old buildings deserve protections. And most are business owners. For NPR News, I'm Peter Payette.

INSKEEP: Covering the here and now as well as the there and then, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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