Making the outdoors for everyone
Initiative seeks to create ADA-compliant community sites
HANCOCK — A new initiative has been launched that seeks to improve access to site and places throughout Houghton and Keweenaw counties. The initiative is seeking to make many sites compliant with the Americans with Disability (ADA) Act.
The Accessible Keweenaw Initiative (AKI) was launched last month with a $17,000 grant from the Keweenaw Area Community Foundation’s (KCF), Community Impact Fund, with an additional $3,500 from the Herman “Winks” Gundlach Fund.
The AKI is a community-led effort to enhance access for all mobility-levels to the Keweenaw’s outdoors, cultural amenities and historical points of interest, states the Visit Keweenaw website. AKI seeks to identify opportunities to enhance the accessibility of the Keweenaw’s outdoor, cultural and historical sites through subject matter expert-led assessments and capital investments. AKI aggregates the necessary resources to identify and assess high priority community sites and work with community partners to invest in site accessibility improvements and community awareness. Hopefully, the initiative’s success will inspire other communities to make progress as well.
KCF Executive Director Robin Meneguzzo said that Brad Barnett, executive director of Visit Keweenaw and Rachel Pressley, regional planner at the Western Upper Peninsula Planning & Development Region (WPPDR) approached the KFC to discuss their hope to conduct evaluations on local outdoor recreation sites in order to determine what improvements need to be made to accessible to everyone.
Barnett said the idea for the initiative came after Visit Keweenaw brought a travel writer to the area in 2020. Because she had mobility issues, she had difficulty reaching several spots, including state parks, beaches and even roadside parks.
“These are places our visitors come to and enjoy all the time,” said Barnett, “but she had a real challenge getting to some of these places that quite frankly, I think, a lot of us just take for granted.”
From her experiences, Barnett realized that something like the AKI could create some opportunities to make some improvements so that when people visit the area, they can fully enjoy the Keweenaw Peninsula.
Visit Keweenaw states that in 2019, an estimated 233,000 people visited the area; in 2021, it is estimated that number swelled to more than 300,000 visitors to the Keweenaw Peninsula. Tourism has been a growing economic driver in Keweenaw County and in the entire Upper Peninsula, with more than half of Keweenaw’s employment connected to tourism, according to a report, “Economic Impact of Tourism in MIchigan 2019,” prepared for the MIchigan Tourism Office, Department of Community and Economic Development.
The initial concept broadly focuses on Houghton and Keweenaw counties, said Barnett, but even further south. The organizations involved with the initiative, including WUPPDR, the KCF, they have a broader focus than perhaps Visit Keweenaw has, he said.
“So, I can tell you there are a lot of interested parties in what we’re trying to accomplish here,” he said, “so, I can see some replication being done in other areas, when they see what we’re trying to do, then try to follow that pathway.”
Meneguzzo said that Barnett and Pressley gave an impressive presentation to the KCF.
“They really highlighted the need in our community, and the why,” said Meneguzzo, “and I felt like it was a great alignment with the type of work the KCF is trying to promote in the community, to allow people to really have that access.”
Meneguzzo said that she was excited about the concept, as was the Board of Directors of the KCF.
The AKI asks the question whether the area is keeping up with investments necessary to keeping these spots accessible, said Meneguzzo.
“Brad said ‘no,’ and that’s one reason why we’re really trying to rally together as a community,” said Meneguzzo. “That’s why there’s so much focus on access, particularly with the Nature Conservancy project.”
Meneguzzo said it just made sense for the KCF to become involved in making the AKI succeed for the community.
AKI is led by a coalition of community organizations and subject matter experts. The coalition is responsible for identifying priority sites, pursuing funding for site improvements, and sharing information to the broader community about places residents and visitors can go that are barrier-free. The Coalition is currently being formed, but includes the following organizations thus far:
• Keweenaw Area Community Foundation
• Superior Alliance for Independent Living (SAIL)
• Western U.P. Planning & Development Region (WUPPDR)
• Visit Keweenaw
For more information on the AKI, please visit the Visit Keweenaw website at: https://www.visitkeweenaw.com/accessible-keweenaw-initiative/