PROGRESS 2019: Building a beacon
Jeff Gray helps make Marine Sanctuary attraction for tourists, researchers
ALPENA — For Jeff Gray, every day is an adventure.
Whether he’s working on partnerships with Alpena Community College, planning a research project, or working on a community development project with local economic leaders, no two days are ever the same for the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary’s resident superintendent.
“My favorite part of my job is it’s not something different every day, it’s something different maybe every hour,” Gray said. “It’s exciting how diverse things have become. I love my job as much today as I did the first day. There’s still so much work to be done and so many great people to work with in this community and that we bring into the community.”
The sanctuary — originally 448 square miles, but expanded to 4,300 square miles in 2014 — protects historic underwater shipwrecks and natural ecosystems in Lake Huron, stretching from the shores near Cheboygan to the shores near Harrisville and out to Canadian waters.
As the sanctuary’s first and only superintendent since 2002, Gray has overseen and been directly involved with the growth of the sanctuary from its days in the federal building to moving to the 20,000-square-foot National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) building and campus in 2004.
Thunder Bay was designated as a national marine sanctuary in 2000, making Alpena the spot for the first and only freshwater sanctuary on the Great Lakes.
From its humble beginnings, the sanctuary has long been a point of pride in the community, a place where 100,000 visitors come each year and a place that has become revered and respected for its research.
Visitors come from all over to roam the waterfront, to take in the exhibits at the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center, and to enjoy Lake Huron’s shoreline
“So many people have not been exposed to Alpena and Northeast Michigan and, for a first-timer, it’s a discovery,” Gray said. “They’re discovering what’s here and they’re happy with what they’re finding. We’re very lucky to expose to a lot of people and have conversations with them about their impressions of the community.”
NOT JUST TOURISTS
The sanctuary has long held the fascination of those in the academic and diving communities. Researchers from universities around the country have visited the sanctuary and, earlier this year, a team from Germany came to do research. This spring, researchers who work with Robert Ballard, who discovered the Titanic and several other famous wrecks, visited the sanctuary and have plans to return in the future.
Gray said one of the biggest ways the sanctuary has grown is by the number of documentaries released about it by everyone from the BBC to the Discovery Channel to the History Channel to National Geographic.
“In the marine and ocean conservation world, people know Alpena,” he said. “They know Alpena, they know Thunder Bay, and this place is recognized nationally and to some degree internationally for the work that’s going on here.”
BECOMING ‘THE FIRST’
Of the 14 designated sanctuaries around the world, Alpena is currently the only one on the Great Lakes and the only freshwater sanctuary.
But the future may look a little different.
According to the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, several locations on the Great Lakes are undergoing the designation process, marking the first time in 15 years that the federal government has considered this designation.
Places under consideration include:
∫ Wisconsin, extending from Port Washington to Two Rivers,
∫ the Potomac River in Mallows Bay, Maryland, and
∫ an approximately 1,700-square-mile area in eastern Lake Ontario that was a transportation route for Native Americans and European explorers and was the center for many of America’s early military conflicts.
As those sites are examined and attempt to become designated, representatives from those areas have looked to Alpena as a model.
What they’ve been impressed with are Alpena’s facilities, research, interaction with the community, and continued growth in ways such as improvements and education.
Time will tell if Thunder Bay becomes simply the “first” Great Lakes Sanctuary.
But, regardless, Gray said he is pleased to see Alpena and Northeast Michigan serve as a model and a driver for shining a bright light on the Great Lakes.
“We’ve been asked, ‘Is that threatening to us? Do we want them?'” Gray said of the other proposed freshwater sanctuaries. “We can still say we’re the first, but our mission is to protect the Great Lakes, and I think the entire team, anyone that works closely with us, feels the more work being done on the Great Lakes, the better off the Great Lakes will be.”
The sanctuary has come a long way from a fateful day in the early 2000s when local developer Jeff Konczak met with Gray for coffee and showed him plans for the NOAA building on a laptop.
Back then, Gray was looking for the sanctuary to get maybe a whole floor or two of the federal building downtown and told Konczak his idea for a 20,000-square-foot facility was crazy.
Nonetheless, that idea became a reality in 2004 and remains a point of pride for Gray, Konczak and the local community.
“We have, without question, the pinnacle facility in the entire system,” Konczak said. ‘It’s not just because we did it. It’s because the interaction between the community and NOAA, Jeff Gray and his staff, and our private side is just incredible. I think it transcends what you would expect a normal commercial relationship to be.”