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Clinton Township and Mount Clemens vie for zoo's nature center

By: Alex Szwarc, Nick Mordowanec | C&G Newspapers | Published February 25, 2020

CLINTON TOWNSHIP/MOUNT CLEMENS — More than two years after a regional nature center was originally announced, a couple of local communities are hoping to get the project moving in their direction.

The Clinton Township Board of Trustees and the Mount Clemens City Commission planned to deliver resolutions March 2, offering free public property along the Clinton River for the creation of the Detroit Zoological Society Great Lakes Center for Nature.

The municipalities are proposing that the center be located at Shadyside Park in Mount Clemens, north of the Clinton River and just east of Gratiot Avenue. Shadyside Park is publicly owned land, approximately 40 acres in size, where the Clinton River connects with Gratiot along the banks of the Clinton River spillway, in Clinton Township.

Federal officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently recognized areas around the Clinton River spillway as an undeveloped asset, awarding $3 million of Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funds for habitat and a public fishing access point.

The original announcement by the zoo proposed plans for a $10 million, 20,000-square-foot, eco-friendly center in a waterfront location in Macomb County.

The focus will be on the water and wildlife of the Great Lakes, with the center being home to a number of Great Lakes fish, including lake sturgeon. It will also focus on conservation, acting as the largest nature attraction dedicated entirely to the Great Lakes and its holding of 20% of the world’s accessible fresh water supply.

At press time, Detroit Zoological Society CEO and Executive Director Ron Kagan issued a statement thanking both communities for their “enthusiasm” in relation to the project.

Since the DZS’ original announcement, Kagan said, staff has worked with county leaders to explore more than 20 potential sites, including several in Mount Clemens. That has included the analysis of critical criteria, including sightlines, size, adjacent features, access, soil and other environmental conditions.

“During this process, DZS joined forces with many educational and environmental leaders to design and develop expansive, unique and innovative programming for the Great Lakes Center for Nature,” Kagan said. “Though 6% of the DZS annual operating budget comes from Macomb County’s portion of a regional millage, this world-class educational and tourist destination will be primarily funded by donations, sponsorships and earned revenue.

“We are committed to making the best decisions to ensure its success and remain excited about our latest investment in environmental education. We’re grateful for the many people, and in particular the county’s local elected leaders and state elected leaders, who continue to offer their support in creating such a special place to celebrate our magnificent Great Lakes.”

As for a timeline, Kagan said finalizing a site will occur “in the very near future.”

The idea for the local joint resolutions was an outgrowth of meetings between Clinton Township Treasurer Paul Gieleghem, Clinton Township Trustee Michael Keys, Mount Clemens Mayor Laura Kropp and Mount Clemens City Commissioner Denise Mentzer.

Mentzer said that since Mount Clemens is virtually surrounded by Clinton Township, it’s time for some joint service projects, joint recreation and even joint purchasing.

“We have a lot of the same goals and ideas, and there’s no money coming out of Lansing,” she said. “Let’s do things together that will benefit us both.”

Mentzer called Shadyside Park the perfect location for the nature center.

“We started talking about this in 2018, so we decided it was time to step up and make an offer,” she said. “Mount Clemens should be one of places we think of when we think of waterfront access.”

Keys said he and Gieleghem, both being part of the Clinton Township Conservation Committee, found an ally in Mount Clemens officials. It made sense for both sides to capitalize on available space, he added.

“Clinton Township and Mount Clemens need to be in the conversation when we talk about drawing in an investment as big as the zoo is offering,” Keys said.

Gieleghem recalled when the tri-county zoo millage first occurred. Over a decade later, he said, attractions like these have “quite frankly eluded the county for far too long.”

Land acquisition is not a hindrance in this case. Rather, it offers waterfront property and economic opportunity in an area where transit occurs up and down Gratiot Avenue and Interstates 94 and 696.

“Building a nature center, to put Great Lakes aquatic life on display right next to an area where there’s a lot of open space, and we already made an investment in nature … there’s an educational component to the things the zoo does, and this (would be) a nice addition,” Gieleghem said.

Mentzer said it made sense to select publicly owned land for the nature center because it’s available, it’s a well-established recreational area, and it’s the largest public park in Mount Clemens.

“It’s a perfect fit because it’s on the river’s bend and will allow access from the river and people coming down Gratiot,” she said.

Mentzer added that after the resolution is presented to the Detroit Zoo, the city will invite zoo officials to tour the property.