The great attraction of Fishtown is that, really more out of luck than planning, it has been preserved in a way that makes it easy to track its historic roots and see how it functioned a hundred years ago and how it is functioning today. I find it challenging and interesting to try to figure out how we, as an organization, can preserve that and, when we are no longer around, enable board members, staff and volunteers to carry out that tradition.
I grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, but also here as a little kid. My parents vacationed up here with friends before I was born, and just after World War II they found some frontage on Good Harbor Bay for fi ve dollars a front-foot. I remember the first time I came up in 1947, flying in an old DC-3 into the Traverse City airport. Someone picked us up and drove us over to the new cottage. That was when Leelanau County became a significant part of my life.
Back then Leland was just Van’s Garage and the Merc and a few other things, but Fishtown was there and I was down there all the time. I would get my parents to drive me, and I would be fishing all day with my cane pole on the dock. Nick Lederle’s place used to be the old Grosvenor boat dock. There was a little inlet back there where they had two boats moored, and the water was just perfect for fishing. You could catch great big bass there, hardly working at it at all. When I was a teenager I got a fourteen-foot aluminum boat and I would motor over from Good Harbor Bay. Where the Cove is now was then just open ground, and I used to take my boat and pull it up there and portage over the dam and go into Lake Leelanau all day.
It was a fun place to grow up: the sand, the lake and the waves. At that time you could walk all over in the woods, any place you wanted. There was nobody else around. That is how I got to care so much about Fishtown, because I spent so much time there as a child and I enjoyed it so much. It is always something that I have wanted to see preserved.
I was involved in the preservation of historic buildings in Kalamazoo, where I began my career as an attorney. I really value older buildings. The structures speak to history, and to bulldoze them and put up shiny glass and stainless-steel structures is sterile and uninteresting. I moved a lot of houses, and I helped preserve an old YMCA building that was turned into a bank headquarters, and probably seven or eight other significant structures downstate. I learned that very few developers wanted to preserve historic structures, and I knew that they were all in danger unless people could understand their value.
In 2006, I was lucky enough to join with many dedicated people as part of the Fishtown Preservation Society. With the help of those who shared—and still share—my love for the place, we were able to raise $2.9 million in just six months. I learned that many people wanted to preserve this historic site and its structures. Preserving Fishtown— at least that phase—was a relatively easy sell, because people were really nervous about whether it was going to be lost.
For the future, I see a two-pronged focus. I know that if we are not successful in developing specific funds—endowment and other strategic funds—then the long-term existence of Fishtown is always going to be threatened. Having those funds would mean we do not have to worry, like we do now, about raising large amount of money each year. Then we could concentrate on the historic preservation and educational components of Fishtown. The other key to success is to continue to attract high-quality board members, staff and volunteers to make sure we have an organization that is focused on preserving Fishtown in perpetuity. And the best way to do that is to get rid of the mortgage debt and then get some endowment funds in place. That is going to be a ten-year project—at the least.
There are many ways people have helped support Fishtown—volunteering, contributions, attending events, and sharing stories. But we need to continue to build funds to ensure Fishtown’s future. I try to help people recognize the importance of making a contribution to the organization through a will or a trust. That may be the only way we are going to build endowment funds to preserve Fishtown, because it is often easier for people to give through a legacy gift than out of their annual income. We have gotten a couple of legacy gifts, and I know some board members have designated legacy gifts to Fishtown, as my wife Nancy and I have. But people put off estate planning because we do not like to think about our own mortality. It is hard to get people to put their arms around that.
I view an endowment as the rudder and the keel of the organization. Having those funds stabilizes everything. Fund development for Fishtown is, for the foreseeable future, going to be the biggest challenge we face, but t is crucial to our long-term success. As a child I knew I loved Fishtown. As an adult I understand how important it is that I help make Fishtown a gift for future generations.