MUSKEGON — The precarious state of the historic LST-393 Veterans Museum could help spur a major milestone in Muskegon’s waterfront development.
The city is looking into the feasibility of a potential land swap with West Michigan Dock & Market Corp., known as The Mart Dock, to move its commercial shipping operations away from downtown.
Muskegon City Commission approved a letter of intent with Mart Dock President Max McKee last November, and both parties continue to perform due diligence on the potential swap.
The land deal involves swapping Mart Dock’s Third Street perimeter property that includes a grassy lot, commonly known as the Third Street dock, for the city-owned Fisherman’s Landing. The city wants to extend public access to the waterfront and consolidate commercial port and shipping operations to the east end of the lake. That would free up Mart Dock to redevelop its main downtown site for other uses.
The Mart Dock site has been a hub of commercial shipping activity on Muskegon Lake since the 1930s and offers boat storage and dock space. The Aquastar, the former Port City Princess vessel that provides passenger cruises on Muskegon Lake, and LST-393, one of only two remaining World War II Landing Ship Tanks out of 1,051 built during the war, both dock at the site.
McKee declined to comment on the potential land deal, but did say the LST-393, which the Mart Dock owns but lets a nonprofit organization operate as a museum, sprung a few leaks over the winter and needs to be placed on land. The floating museum is a popular downtown attraction.
“We want to shove that up on land somewhere,” McKee said. “That will change the face of the Mart Dock right out here.”
One possibility is moving the museum ship near the USS Silversides Submarine in the Muskegon Lake Channel or another location downtown, McKee said. If the deal with the city works out, the LST-393 could potentially move to the Third Street dock site or be displayed in some fashion where it’s mostly on land, according to City Manager Frank Peterson.
“A boat like that is just not meant to sit in the water like it is forever,” Peterson said, noting it could anchor the new public space and free up existing dock frontage at Mart Dock. “That’s one of our larger tourist attractions.”
The city plans to ask for the entire Third Street dock area, which spans a large vacant grassy area and property between Terrace Point Road and Shoreline Drive. The parcel is located near a public access point at the end of Terrace Point Road that connects to a walkway overlooking Muskegon Lake next to Terrace Point Marina and the Shoreline Inn and Conference Center.
As part of the deal, Mart Dock proposes to transition commercial port activity from its downtown site to Fisherman’s Landing. That property is adjacent to the now closed B.C. Cobb power plant site and includes a public boat launch and campground.
The 18.6-acre park at 501 E. Western Ave. features deep-water boat launches, a large parking lot, 105 campsites, a picnic shelter, a playground, shower facilities and a fish cleaning station.
If the deal moves forward, the Letter of Intent includes language for the campground and boat launch to continue operating in those capacities until Mart Dock finalizes engineering, permitting and funding to convert the property to a commercial marine terminal.
The overall goal is to redevelop the Third Street Dock and Mart Dock into a mixture of public space and potential commercial uses that connect visitors to the city’s waterfront.
Along with the land swap, the city would need to replace the recreational components of Fisherman’s Landing because the city received federal grants years ago for site improvements that include deed restrictions on future uses. Peterson noted the Mart Dock could continue to operate the campground while those details get worked out.
“Whatever our community wants is what we can replace it with, as long as we can demonstrate it’s what the community wants,” he said.
Peterson doesn’t think the swap is imminent, but feels confident the city and The Mart Dock can strike a deal. Right now, the due diligence process includes appraisals and looking into what both sites can accommodate in the way of aggregate piles at Fisherman’s Landing and other recreational and commercial port enterprises at the Third Street dock location.
“I think there is enough momentum behind (the land deal) that it would be very unlikely that it doesn’t happen,” Peterson said, citing the benefits of moving the Mart Dock’s shipping operations out of downtown.
“The upside is that all of their land right now, which is underutilized from a tourism and downtown development standpoint, can all realize its new potential,” he said.
McKee declined further comment, but praised Peterson and the current Muskegon City Commission for being open to ideas.
“This commission, it’s night and day from the previous regime,” he said. “There are several possibilities out there and a lot of different things are being considered.”
The Mart Dock area is nestled between the Shoreline Inn and Heritage Landing and sits close to the planned Muskegon Convention Center, making it a prime area for redevelopment. Contamination issues near the Third Street dock site prevent any residential development there, but it can be redeveloped in other ways. Public recreational docks would be permitted in the channel adjacent to the Third Street dock parcel, according to the Letter of Intent.
In the city’s Imagine Muskegon Lake plan, The Mart Dock Activity Center envisions a variety of mixed-used development and land-based waterfront activities, such as water taxis, cruise ship docks, waterfront residential units with a promenade, a formal waterfront park, transient boat docks, and reuse of historic pier buildings as a market.
“What that really means is we would really like that to be public access waterfront,” Peterson said of the overall vision. “But that doesn’t always mean it has to be the whole thing.”
Drawn to the lake
The possibility of lakefront redevelopment near downtown came as good news to the owners of Pigeon Hill Brewing Co., which recently purchased a city-owned parking lot adjacent to The Mart Dock along Shoreline Drive and built a new production facility, where it expects to move its taproom in the future.
“I think it is prime real estate and will expand downtown Muskegon and really take advantage of the downtown waterfront,” said Michael Brower, co-owner and director of legal and marketing for Pigeon Hill. “I am highly supportive of anything that gets people outside and enjoying the outdoors and enjoying what we have here.”
Both the Third Street dock and redeveloped Mart Dock would create a different dynamic to the downtown and serve to attract residents and visitors to the waterfront and across the divided four-lane Shoreline Drive. Connecting the downtown to the lakefront also has been a driving factor behind other developments in the city.
“At the end of the day, it will show people that things are being developed on the lakeshore,” Peterson said. “That’s been our biggest push behind all of this stuff. We’re working to redevelop our downtown, and we’re trying to say we are a lakefront community.
“It’s nice to see now the opportunity to redevelop a downtown area on the lakefront that is legitimately on the waterfront.”