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Upgrades possible for Father Marquette Park

MARQUETTE – Father Marquette Park is a nice place for tourists to glimpse as they drive by.

However, it’s probably best appreciated if people take the time to walk through the park, and if planned improvements are made to the historic site, their visits should be greatly enhanced.

The Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund board of trustees recently recommended several sites in Marquette and Alger counties to receive development grants.

The board’s recommendations totaled nearly $28 million to fund development and land acquisition grants in the state in 2016.

One of those grants was for development project funding of $140,000 for an accessibility/improvement plan for the park, located along Front Street. The project will feature pathways throughout the park and up to a large bronze sculpture of famed explorer Father Jacques Marquette.

Work will feature an elevated viewing platform that provides dramatic vistas of Lake Superior, with the project also providing for an accessible picnic area. Paved walkways will allow for an accessible connection to the park from the Front Street routes of the Iron Belle, Iron Ore Heritage and North Country Scenic trails that pass by the site. Bike racks, benches and native Michigan landscaping are planned as well.

Tami Dawidowski, president of the Marquette Beautification & Restoration Committee Inc., and Jerry Irby, who’s involved with the committee’s efforts to restore the Father Marquette Statue at the park, are excited about the project, which will involve a match of $60,000 from the MBRC.

“This is our one and only piece of public art in the city of Marquette,” Dawidowski said. “We would like to showcase it and give it the home it truly deserves.”

An architect’s rendering of the proposed improvements was created by the Marquette-based firm of Sanders & Czapski Associates.

“We had this rendering done, but now it’s going to have to go through the city engineering department,” Dawidowski said. “They may make changes.”

She said there will be handicapped-accessible pathways, with accessibility from Front Street, and stairways up to the statue on both sides. There also will be cement pavement so people can access the statue more easily.

Dawidowski said plans include a platform viewing area and picnic tables. The committee too will try to save the cobblestone walkways at the site.

Expanded parking also is planned.

“We’re going to make them where we can bring buses in here eventually,” Irby said.

The main reason the project was OK’d for funding, Dawidowski said, is the fact the park is connected to the Governor’s Showcase Trail, otherwise known as the Iron Belle Trail, which Gov. Rick Snyder has proposed to run from Belle Isle in southeastern Michigan to Ironwood in the Upper Peninsula and back.

Father Marquette Park adjoins the Iron Ore Heritage Trail, which runs from Republic to Harvey, and the North Country Scenic Trail, which goes from New York to North Dakota. Both would be part of the Iron Belle Trail.

Dawidowski said Father Marquette Park would serve as a “gateway” to the city, offering a resting spot for trail bicyclists, with racks available and a green space to have lunch.

The timeframe for the project, though, depends on the money raised.

“We have to gain our money first,” Irby said. “The $60,000 has to spent first before the state will release money, so we’ve got to put our money into the coffer, get the engineering done, get the architectural done and all that.”

Irby said it is hoped work will begin on the renovation project in May 2016.

“We have our work ahead of us,” he said.

Donations can be sent to the MBRC at P.O. Box 334, Marquette, MI 49855, with checks made out to the committee.

Irby said the funds raised will be turned over to the city, which then will make its allocations for engineering and other services.

The bronze statue represents Father Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit missionary and explorer who is believed to have camped near Marquette’s south harbor while mapping Lake Superior circa 1669-70.

The focal point of the park is the statue, but MBRC members, Irby said, will install flowers and bushes to make the site even more attractive.

Community involvement for the project, including youths, is needed, he noted.

“We want everybody to feel they have a stake in this,” Irby said.

Not only does the park have a view of Lake Superior, it could also provide something else: a better view of the statue.

“I’ve always said I want to have it to where a family could roll up their child, who’s in a wheelchair, to the base of it,” Irby said. “He could look up and see the face of Father Marquette. Well, you can’t do it now because it’s not accessible.”

The Trust Fund is a restricted fund established in 1976 to provide funding for public acquisition of lands for conservation and outdoor recreation as well as public outdoor recreation development grants. It is funded through interest earned on funds derived from the development of publicly owned minerals like oil and natural gas.

The board’s recommendations will go to the Michigan Legislature for review as part of the appropriations process. The Legislature, upon approval, will forward a bill to Gov. Snyder for his signature.

Irby said: “It’s the right time to give attention to Father Marquette.”

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.