Conservation District moves to new location on waterfront

HOUGHTON – Houghton-Keweenaw Conservation District board heard an update on the HKCD’s operations at Tuesday’s board meeting, the first since the organization moved from its former home in the Lakeshore Center.

For the time being, the organization is about three-fourths of a mile down the road at 711 W. Lakeshore Dr.

Chair Gina Nicholas said the new location, opposite the docks near the Ray Kestner Waterfront Park, was chosen because of a compatible landlord and a convenient location.

“Because the district had been there for 20 years, we figure if people get lost and end up at our old office, it’s not that far to find us,” she said after the meeting.

In addition to professional movers who cleared the Lakeshore Center office, numerous people, including Keweenaw Copper employees, volunteered to help move things into the new space on Sept. 10.

The lease agreement runs through May, during which time the HKCD is responsible for rent and utilities.

By then, she said, the HKCD will have done a financial analysis to determine if the new location is feasible longterm.

In the meantime, they will have some financial assistance. Chad Kotke, their administrator on the Eagle River Watershed project, helped the office to get compensation for operations.

“That’s a major thing that’ll help pay for the office, so we don’t have to dip into our savings,” Nicholas said.

The HKCD has also gotten several donations, as well as things such as money Bonnie Hay had earmarked for the HKCD from her Heart and the Hands Award.

“I think as more people know, we will get more support,” Nicholas said.

The HKCD and the Natural Resources Conservation District moved from their joint office in the Lakeshore Center building, where they had been for 20 years, after their lease with Michigan Technological University expired.

In an interview earlier this month, MTU President Glenn Mroz said the expiration had been the product of a long period without hearing back from the NRCS at the federal level.

Nicholas said it was a combination of a disconnect in the NRCS chain of command and a desire by Michigan Technological University to push the organization over to office space in Hancock.

Much of the office’s funding was tethered to that specific office, which Nicholas said Tech hadn’t considered.

“…I don’t think they really intended to do the damage they did,” she said. “I think they thought it was an easy thing to just make it look like NRCS wasn’t doing what they were supposed to do, and they would just send us over there, and it would be fine.”

The joint contract with the NRCS will continue. Unlike the Baraga NRCS office, the Houghton one is a “project office,” Nicholas said.

“They only exist because we bring in enough reimbursable money to make it,” she said, listing remaining projects such as the Hills Creek and the Eagle River Watershed projects.

There’s also an opportunity to do more stamp sand stabilization and watershed management in the Torch Lake area, Nicholas said.

Nicholas referenced a letter from Mike LaPointe, area conservationist with NRCS, that said NRCS engineer Rob Aho could be used for reimbursables, as well as equipment the HKCD can continue to have. The joint office will continue at least for the duration of the open contracts, including the long-term Eagle River Watershed work, Nicholas said.

“It’s a big challenge for us, but it’s also a big opportunity for us, because now we control our destiny much more directly than we did before,” she said.

The HKCD will also have another change, as longtime administrator Sue Haralson is retiring. The board has a candidate in mind to replace her, but will wait until next year to determine if additional assessment is needed, Nicholas said.

Nicholas also updated the board on several projects. Almost complete is the latest stage of the Bete Grise Wetlands Preserve project. In June, the HKCD purchased 181 acres of land on Point Isabelle, a coastal strip south of the original preserve. Two new signs are being put up as part of the grant project.

The preserve may continue to grow. The board approved a resolution to allow Nicholas to work with the J.A. Woollam Foundation to expand the preserve by purchasing land on nearby Oliver Bay.

Nicholas said she’s been heartened by the support shown for the HKCD in the past month.

“We’ve had great support from people from all different places,” she said. “We’ve had lots of people from Michigan Tech offer support, we’ve had cash donations that are unrestricted, that helps,” she said after the meeting. “We’ve had labor, furniture donated. We’ve had a lot of nice things happen. I think it demonstrates that people do value what the conservation district’s doing.”