MUSKEGON — At one point last year, Grand Valley State University and West Michigan Dock and Market Corporation were not speaking — except in Muskegon County Circuit Court.
But now, at least for public consumption, the two parties are happily married and nurturing a growing child.
OK, OK … at least they have shaken hands and executed mutually beneficial contracts that serve several purposes, among them Muskegon tourism.
The background is that construction is nearing completion on GVSU’s Water Resources Institute, sited on the west side of a Muskegon waterfront cargo ship mooring basin.
West Michigan Dock and Market Corporation (locally called Mart Dock) owns the basin and GVSU has won a lawsuit for an imminent-domain taking of the west 90 feet of land at the end of the basin.
That court victory gave GVSU owners’ control of the 90-foot strip of water adjoining the institute’s property. That’s where the institute moors its research boat, the William D. Jackson, and would moor any vessels it acquires in the future.
The Mart Dock, a subsidiary of Detroit-based Sand Products Corp., contested the taking, pleading that it would upset the firm’s arrangements with the USS Silversides board to build a naval museum in the center of the basin.
The museum would consist of a Coast Guard cutter, the USS Silversides and an LST, all three of which served throughout World War II. The Mart Dock’s interest in the museum is that it would constitute an important attraction for cross-lake ferries, which likely would dock on the Mart Dock’s side of the basin.
For decades, the Mart Dock was the Muskegon terminal for the Milwaukee Clipper, a car ferry making several runs daily between the Port City and Milwaukee.
The interest of the Silversides board was that the arrangement would provide a permanent and high profile home for the submarine, which is a designated U.S. Park Service national landmark.
After GVSU prevailed in its imminent domain pleading, university and Mart Dock moved into the compensation phase of the litigation. That’s the part of the proceeding in which the court would determine how GVSU must pay the Mart Dock for having taken the riparian property.
At some point in those deliberations, the adversaries established a community of interest and decided to play Let’s Make A Deal.
And here’s the deal:
GVSU received title to the 90-foot strip of property at the end of the basin and thus control of the 90-foot strip of water adjoining the new institute. The institute not only will be able to moor one or more vessels there but also have ample maneuvering room for them.
The Mart Dock contracted to donate LST No. 393 — a $750,000 property in full operating condition — to the nonprofit corporation that owns Silversides, for its use in a display in what probably will be named the Great Lakes Naval Memorial and Museum. The change of ownership was official last week.
The Mart Dock retained control of the remainder of its basin with enough room for use as a ferry terminal should fresh proposals for cross-lake ferry service come to fruition.
GVSU agreed to lend the museum its grant-writing expertise and promotional support in raising some of the $2 million to $3 million that the museum needs to construct the museum’s pedestrian pier, offices, shops, allied exhibits and landscaping. An unnamed donor has pledged $100,000 to help establish the museum.
Finally, Silversides gets a permanent home that it has sought since a group of Muskegon area businessmen more or less rescued the vessel 16 years ago from the neglect of the City of Chicago. The boat had fallen into disrepair and was badly damaged when war protestors contrived to sink it at its Navy Pier moorings.
Businesses and volunteers, some from as far away as Detroit, have restored the 60-year-old submarine to original appearance and working order (the sub cannot get under way or maneuver since, by treaty with Canada, no submersible warship in the Great Lakes may have propellers on its drive shafts).
But even though the boat looks just as it did in 1945, Muskegon City Hall has never been particularly hospitable to the vessel, refusing a proposal, for instance, to allow it to moor permanently at Heritage Landing.
Even so, the submarine has been a magnet for overnight stays by nearly 12,000 youngsters and adults a year — Girl Scout troops, Boy Scout troops and church youth groups — from all over the upper Midwest. Too, more and more submariners attend its Memorial Day ceremonies.
But according to Robert Morin, the retired construction materials supplier who is the director of the Silversides museum, it’s the LST that is the real tourism draw. The reason for that, he explained, is that far more veterans served or were passengers aboard the naval cargo vessels than ever served in submarines.
Without any promotion whatsoever, he explained, 27 groups of 30 to 35 LST veterans have booked more than 3,000 room-nights in Muskegon this year in order to visit what, until last month, was the only LST remaining afloat in American waters.
Three of the gatherings, he added, are state LST conventions. The others are reunions of LST crews from World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
“And these bookings,” Morin said, “are just a result of scuttlebutt. We haven’t promoted this thing at all — so far.”
Though in operating condition, the LST is being restored to its wartime configuration, including receiving a coat of U.S. Navy gray paint from stem to stern. Another important project will involve reconstructing gun tubs for the 40-mm anti-aircraft guns with which the ship was armed during the war.
Morin said he hopes soon to scrounge 100 bunks for the old vessel so that it, too, can serve as an overnight visiting site for Scout troops as well as veterans’ reunions.
Before too long, Muskegon’s LST — which for years was an auto-carrier named Highway 16 — may have some competition.
Readers may recall that earlier this year a group of World War II veterans flouted all advice and put to sea in a LST (No. 325) which they bought in Greece and successfully navigated to the United States. The vessel now is in Mobile, Ala.
In fact, Morin said, the skipper of the ship, Bob Jornlund, has tentatively accepted an invitation to speak at this year’s Memorial Day observance in Muskegon.
Both the 325 and Muskegon’s LST landed equipment and troops on the Normandy beachhead on D-Day, and both served in other theaters of operation.