CASE STUDY: A Community-Led Endeavor to Preserve Historic Fishtown

Case Study
A Community-Led Endeavor to Preserve Historic Fishtown

Leland, MI


Fishtown of Leland, Michigan, is one of the few remaining historic fishing villages in the Great Lakes region. In early 2001, the future of this working waterfront became uncertain when the longtime owner of the commercial fishing business and property at the heart of Fishtown sought a successor for his land and business. Fortunately, the Fishtown Preservation Society (FPS) emerged in response to the community’s recognition of the value of this historic working waterfront and the property’s vulnerability to development. Fishtown Preservation Society (FPS) succeeded in its goal to raise enough funds to purchase the property, historic structures, fishing boats and licenses necessary to maintain the historic fishery and village. FPS has since developed a master plan, historic structure report, and long-term interpretive plan to ensure that Fishtown remains an active fishery, historic site, and tourist attraction open to all.


The preservation strategies applied in Fishtown are a model for how a community-led approach can foster working waterfront protection in Michigan and other states. Factors that contributed to its success included: the property owner’s desire to ensure a sustainable fishery; the community’s recognition of Fishtown’s value; the creation of a non-profit organization to facilitate acquisition and management of the property; and the preparation of planning and visioning documents. While each of these components may be readily applied in other communities, it is important to note that strong leadership and community support were essential to the Fishtown effort. Additional factors that likely contributed to successful preservation of Fishtown were the small geographic footprint of the property and the fact that it was held by a single owner.

Best Practices
A community driven approach was very effective. Using a variety of tools to generate attention and support for waterfront protection helped the community raise enough donations to purchase the property.

Web presence and photography were effective tools to convey information, increase awareness, and build support.

The management needs of a non-profit owned, recognized historic property (National Register of Historic Place 1975-11-20) are significantly different from a shanty. The transition from a family to non-profit ownership of the dock required changes in policies, insurance, and additional safely precautions. For example, to continue to allow public access while avoiding hiring police and gating off the dock, new policies were required to ensure the protection of the site in perpetuity.

The master planning process was a helpful approach for generating additional community support and for illustrating how Fishtown had changed physically over the years. The structures, location of buildings, and layout of the working waterfront had evolved over time and it was important to educate the community and donors of these changes. Preserving Fishtown ‘as is’ or renovating buildings to what they used to be meant different things to different individuals, depending on the time period.

Selling the property to a non-profit organization and establishing it as an historic landmark increased the long-term viability of the commercial fishery, ensured the continuity of public access, and provided for active management of the historic docks.

Full Case Study Description
Since it was settled in the late 1800s, Fishtown has provided access to the recreation, leisure, and commercial opportunities Lake Michigan offers. Located in picturesque northwest Michigan, Fishtown is characterized by its historic fishing vessels, shanties, and active fishery. Fishtown is home to one of the oldest charter fishing businesses on the Great Lakes, as well as to Manitou Island Transit, which ferries visitors to the nearby National Lakeshore Manitou Islands.

Fishtown was first recognized as an historic site and a vulnerable working waterfront in 1975 by Alan William Moore, a writer working with Sea Grant Michigan, who sought ways to preserve commercial fishing heritage in Michigan. In partnership with the State Historic Preservation Office, Moore identified historic fisheries and sought strategies to preserve the fishing industry. His vision and foresight for Fishtown are revealed in his statement that commercial fishing should be maintained in Leland, and that “a concerted effort by local citizens might accomplish this goal.” Today, Fishtown is one of the few remaining places in the Great Lakes region where a traditional, cultural landscape, commercial and sports fishing, and waterborne transportation coexist and thrive.

The goal of the preservation effort is to preserve and to welcome the public to one of the few remaining historic and authentic fishing docks, shanties, and commercial fishing businesses in Michigan.

In 2001, a local fishing family wished to sell their 0.26 acre Fishtown property to someone who would carry on their vision of sustaining the fishery and maintaining public access to the waterfront. The family and community felt that if the valuable river and lakefront property was converted to private development, the loss to the community and visitors of Fishtown would be significant. The need to preserve an active fishery and continue to draw visitors to the site within the Leland Historic District (National Register of Historic Place 1975-11-20) was strong. The high value of the property and a change in commercial fishing quotas that impacted the viability of the fishing business added to the challenge of sustaining the historic fishery. In particular, the new quota and the value of the property made its purchase cost-prohibitive for a small commercial fishery.

In 2001, local community leaders formed a non-profit organization called the Fishtown Preservation Society (FPS) to preserve the historical integrity of the fishing dock, to enable the continuation of the commercial fishery, and to maintain public access. A primary purpose of the establishment of FPS was to draw attention to and provide education about the impact of new fishing quotas and commercial fishing industry regulations that were deemed detrimental to the sustainability of the fishery. In 2005, FPS emerged as the lead fundraising organization for Fishtown, with a goal of purchasing the family’s property and its facilities to prevent them from falling into the hands of developers.

By early 2007, two years after initiating a fundraising effort, FPS had raised $2.7 million in cash and received pledges from over 3,000 donors to finance the purchase. FPS then officially received title to the 0.26 acre property and facilities including: eight wood-framed buildings; two concrete block smokehouses; overhanging docks on 0.26 acres along the north side of the Leland River; two fishing tugs and equipment; and associated fishing licenses. The total value of this purchase was $3.0 million, and included provisions such as a 40-year use of fishery agreement.

The community and a team of renowned architects and planners designed and implemented a preservation strategy for Fishtown. In 2009, FPS completed the Fishtown Site Study, Design and Master Plan that provides guidance and direction for the community. FPS and Leland Township used this plan in the creation of the Fishtown Historic District in the township’s ordinance. The Fishtown Historic District was established to preserve the historical integrity of Fishtown and to ensure that it continues as a publicly accessible and authentic connection to local and regional history, Great Lakes commercial fishing, and maritime traditions and experiences.

In 2010, FPS formed a task group to prepare the Fishtown Long-Range interpretive Plan, a comprehensive plan that outlines a vision and implementation strategy for the future of Fishtown. The plan highlights educational opportunities, and identifies important themes and goals for FPS, as well as for the visitor experience.

Evaluation is a key and ongoing component of implementing both the Fishtown Site Study, Design and Master Plan and the Fishtown Long-Range Interpretive Plan. A grant from the Michigan Coastal Management Program helped FPS to produce a historic structures report. In 2011, Laurie Kay Sommers et al. published “The River Runs Through It, Report on Historical Structures and Site Design in the Fishtown Cultural Landscape”. This publication — filled with historic photos of the people, landscape, and structures of Fishtown — conveys the multifaceted effort to preserve Fishtown’s uniqueness.

A small staff and Board of Directors now manage the property and fishing operations, oversee fundraising to pay the mortgage and ongoing expenses, and implement preservation and interpretation efforts.

Today, retail activities as well as the general operation of the commercial fishery continue on the property. Carlsons’ Fishery markets retail and wholesale fish, the shanties remain and are systematically rehabilitated, and the same two fishing tugs still ply Lake Michigan. FPS helps to ensure that the tradition of fostering tourism continues: Fishtown remains free and open to the public year round; schedules for staffing at the information center, demonstrations, and events reflect and accommodate daily and seasonal fluctuation in visitors; wayfinding and informational signage help pedestrians access and navigate the historic site; design guidelines ensure that the historic character of the shanties is maintained; and a website and numerous publications and printed media help to increase awareness of Fishtown. These efforts to ensure that visitors both continue to enjoy Fishtown and add to the resiliency of the fishing community. Fishtown succeeded, in part, by demonstrating that preserving heritage supports what the community values from the past — as well as their prospects for the future.

Next Steps
FPS continues to implement its master plan and interpretive plan, including preservation of structures, interpretive planning, and educational programming and outreach. Next steps include maintaining the physical infrastructure, such as repairing and renovating historic structures and their foundations. To maintain the long-term sustainability of the working waterfront, FPS must evaluate future challenges and identify adaptation strategies to address issues such as lake level, climate and weather.

Key Partners
Fishtown Preservation Society (

Michigan Sea Grant (

Michigan Coastal Management Program (

NOAA Preserve America (

National Park Service Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program (

National Trust for Historic Preservation (

Jeffris Family Foundation (

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (

Saxon Design (


Hopkins Burns Design Studio (

Inland Seas Education Associations (ISEA) (

Leelanau Conservancy (

Liz Durfee
NOAA Coastal Management Fellow
Michigan Coastal Zone Management Program,
Michigan Sea Grant

Mark Breederland
Extension Educator,
Northwest District, MI Sea Grant Extension

Amanda Holmes
Executive Director, Fishtown Preservation Society

Additional Information
Fishtown Preservation ( Leland,
MI Chamber of Commerce (,
Fishtown Facebook Page (,
The Leland Report (

Eckert, K.B., Stewart, D. (2011). Fishtown Preservation. Fishtown Preservation Society Newsletter, 5, 1.

Fishtown Preservation Society Staff and Volunteers. (2011). Long-range Interpretive Plan, Historic Fishtown, Leland, Michigan. Leland, MI.

Leland Township, Michigan, Zoning Ordinance art. XII, § 4 (2009).

Pistis, C., Breederland, M., Bohling, M., Schroeder, B., Michigan Sea Grant. (2010). Working waterfront challenges in the great lakes: Some examples from diverse communities in the state of Michigan. Working Waterfronts and Waterways, A National Symposium on Water Access, Portland, ME.

Sommers, L.K., Hopkins, E.C., Hall, E., Johnson, M., Neafsey, J. (2011). The River Runs Through it, Report on Historic Structures and Site Design in the Fishtown Cultural Landscape No. ISBN-10: 1466261366). Leland, MI: Fishtown Preservation Society.

Last updated 25-Mar-13

Fishtown, Leland, Michigan


  • Great Lakes

Geographic Scope

  • Town
  • Small (< 20,000)
  • Rural (<500 people per square mile)

Governance Structure

  • Home Rule


  • Loss of commercial and/or recreational access and associated user conflicts
  • What will happen if we do nothing?
  • Loss or preservation of heritage (cultural, maritime, etc.)
  • Impacts on tourism industry


Waterfront Uses

  • Public access (docks/wharfs/beach/park)
  • Pier/dock/wharf/lift
  • Commerical fishing
  • Coastal tourism
  • Cultural/heritage tourism
  • Waterborne passenger transportation (ferries, water taxis, cruise ship facilities, etc.)
  • Boat ramp/lift
  • Fish processing
  • Fish/bait shops, fish cleaning station
  • Recreational fishing
  • Charter fishing
  • Charter boat tours (general sightseeing, whale watch, etc.)
  • Recreational boating, kayaking, other recreational watercraft
  • Guided touring
  • Fisheries tourism
  • Educational facility (museum, aquarium, interpretive center, etc.)
  • Market (local seafood, produce, etc.)
  • Retail/commercial
  • Restaurant accessible by water
  • Hotel/motel/lodging providing water access

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