An aerial view of the 2016 Frankenmuth Auto Fest from September illustrates how the community makes use of its close proximity to the Cass River. A group of planners want to emulate the approach along the rest of the body of water. (Photo by John Cook)

An aerial view of the 2016 Frankenmuth Auto Fest from September illustrates how the community makes use of its close proximity to the Cass River. A group of planners want to emulate the approach along the rest of the body of water. (Photo by John Cook)

Cass River to be a focus of ‘eco-tourism’ efforts in Thumb region

An aerial view of the 2016 Frankenmuth Auto Fest from September illustrates how the community makes use of its close proximity to the Cass River. A group of planners want to emulate the approach along the rest of the body of water. (Photo by John Cook)
An aerial view of the 2016 Frankenmuth Auto Fest from September illustrates how the community makes use of its close proximity to the Cass River. A group of planners want to emulate the approach along the rest of the body of water. (Photo by John Cook)

Seven counties in and around Michigan’s Thumb are banding together to promote regional “eco-tourism” that centers on the Cass River.
The so-called Regional Prosperity Eco-Tourism Group held its first meeting via conference call last week.
Tuscola County Commissioner Craig Kirkpatrick was on the call representing Tuscola County. Other participants included representatives from Huron, Sanilac, Lapeer, Genesee counties and more.
The idea is simple: Draw tourists to the region and focus on the Cass River as a primary attraction.
“Seven counties all interested in promoting eco-tourism are referencing the Cass River Greenways and our National Water Trail as what we can build off of…and the question is not only ‘Wow, you guys have really hit the ball out of park here’ with what we have in place, but then how do we market it?”
As The Advertiser was the first to report in August, a group of local volunteers and government officials seek to earn the Cass River the prestigious status of a National Water Trail.
Vassar City Manager Brian Chapman said he and the group known as the Cass River Greenway officially began the process June 30 by applying for a special assessment of the waterway.
The hope is to move toward having almost 22 miles of the Cass River designated a National Water Trail by the U.S. government.
Experts have said it won’t be easy — it could take up to five years — but earning the designation would not only draw tourists to the region, but likely lead to more use of the Cass River by locals, and serve as a source of pride.
Kirkpatrick said the other members of the Regional Prosperity Eco-Tourism Group indicated interest in “getting on board” with what is already happening with the Cass River.
“Everybody wants to tout our trails, whether they be water or bicycling,” Kirkpatrick said, adding that the region should view tourism the way the west coast of Michigan does and that he has “no problem riding on the coattails of Frankenmuth.”
Frankenmuth has several events during warmer months that make use of the Cass River, or close proximity to the body of water.
“They’re tourism experts, and they all agree,” he said.
Andy Northrop, Extension Educator, Sustainable Tourism, Community Economic Development, and Greening Michigan Institute with the Michigan State University- Extension, said the efforts are related to Gov. Rick Snyder’s Regional Prosperity Initiative program.
According to its website, the program “is a voluntary competitive grant process to encourage local private, public and non-profit partners to create vibrant regional economies. The legislature approved the recommended process and the Regional Prosperity Initiative was signed into law as a part of the FY 2014 budget (59 PA 2013).
Through the program, the state is divided into six “regions.”
Tuscola County is part of region six that also includes Huron, Sanilac, Lapeer, Genesee, Shiawassee, and St. Clair counties
Northrop representatives of group members decided through a voting process that eco-tourism should be one of the main focuses of local tourism efforts (the other was creating digital communities).
Northrop credited Kirkpatrick with the eco-tourism idea for the area that focuses “specifically, on the Cass River and its ability to be leveraged as a water trail in a more noticeable manner through kayaks and perhaps events of some kind.”
He added it will be the entire Cass River, and that the hope is to one day put the Cass River in the same discussion as the Rifle River and Au Sable River, both located in the eastern part of the northern Lower Peninsula.
“So the eco-tourism group focuses on the Cass River, but also natural, ecological resources across the seven counties,” Northrop said.
To get things started, he said, the group is in the midst of an asset inventory of what else could be featured in the eco-tourism efforts.
“In the future, we’ll be looking for ways to have those assets a little bit more well-known, like you would in other parts of the state,” Northrop said, adding that it’s in the earliest stages of progress and that the list starts with the Cass River.
Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at andrew@tcadvertiser.com

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