Michigan town revived by marine sanctuary

Aug 16, 2016
Wedged between Fletcher Street and the waterfront of Alpena, Mich., is a long row of warehouses. It used to be a paper mill, but these days it's home to Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

Inside one of the buildings is a little visitor’s center, with art and artifacts and interactive games that broadcast old sailors' songs to kids playing pirates.

But the main attraction is offshore. Hundreds of shipwrecks lie at the bottom of this part of Lake Huron.

Down inside the glass bottom charter boat the Lady Michigan, passengers explore shallow wrecks through clear panes lining the hull.

Brandy Kozlowski squints into the sunken, splintered deck of the Shamrock -- a wooden steam barge that sank in 1905. She grew up here, but left Michigan years ago to find a job. Back visiting family, she says the place has changed a lot. 
“The marine sanctuary, it’s all brand new, everything on that side of town is new," she says. "It’s good for the area. It really needs a boost in the arm.”

This area has collected shipwrecks for centuries, due to heavy shipping traffic, shallow water and the storms that give Thunder Bay its name.

But tourism has grown since Alpena was designated the first – and so far only – fresh water national marine sanctuary by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

At Thunder Bay Scuba, Joe Sobczak gets most of his business from tourists. But he used to work in the shipping industry, and isn’t sure tourism jobs are enough to keep people, especially young people, from moving away.

“They aren't the same as a blue-collar industrial job. You don't have the benefits; you don't have the pay scale."

Still, Sobczak thinks it’s the best way to move Alpena forward, and not just for dive shops and charter boats.

Downtown is full of shops that have adopted the shipwreck theme. Visitors can buy a maritime blend coffee or a sundae named after a wreck, and new businesses are coming in – including the first waterfront hotel on Thunder Bay River.

Now, the success of Alpena’s rebranding has other communities along the Great Lakes, including Oswego. N.Y., seeking similar national marine sanctuary status from the federal government.

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