Alpena sanctuary holds huge untapped economic potential, study finds


The Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Alpena is a unique natural marine environment and historic ship graveyard with the potential to be a major tourism and new business driver in northeastern Michigan, according to University of Michigan researchers.

U-M’s Institute for Research on Labor, Employment and the Economy, in conjunction with several local partners in the Alpena area, recently finished an assessment on the sanctuary’s economic impact in Alpena, Alcona and Presque Isle countries, concluding its potential is great.

“A broad range of visitors and tourists and researchers come to the sanctuary from many different states and many different countries,” said Lawrence Molnar, the principal investigator. “This is the only national freshwater sanctuary on earth. It is a very unique resource and research environment.”

The sanctuary was created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 2000 and is one of 14 marine sanctuaries nationally. It holds more than 116 historically significant shipwrecks that are well preserved in Lake Huron’s frigid waters. The sanctuary is 448 square miles with plans to expand to 3,662 square miles.

U-M’s Molnar and staff interviewed and analyzed survey results from local businesses and tourists who visited in the summer of 2012. The information provided ways to improve marketing, offer new business suggestions and ways to enhance the sanctuary experience by using smart phones and other technology to tie stories of the sunken ships to visitors more easily.

Businesses could also create a maritime technology cluster something like the computing cluster in Silicon Valley. Already 400 researchers from around the world travel to the Thunder Bay sanctuary annually to study its unique marine environment indicating great business-expansion potential.

As Alpena-area organizations use the report to formulate plans, NOAA brought U-M’s Molnar to Washington, D.C., recently to discuss conducting economic assessments at the nation’s other 13 sanctuaries. First up is the Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa, in the south Pacific, where Molnar would use the same methodology first developed for Alpena. Molnar said he’s ready.


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