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Marine sanctuary visitor center welcomes visitors after two-year shutdown

News Photo by Darby Hinkley Alpena resident Terri Riopelle sports her new Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary jacket at the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center on Thursday morning. She was one of the first guests to visit the center right when it opened at 10 a.m. after being closed for over two years.

ALPENA — In a soft opening on Thursday, Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center welcomed a handful of guests for the first time in more than two years. Those guests are the first in 100,000 that normally come through on a yearly basis.

While gift shop shelves need to be restocked and other housekeeping items need to be completed, museum staff members and patrons alike were delighted to be able to enter the facility and get ready for the busy season, which starts in May and extends throughout the summer.

The Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center is the museum owned and operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees operations at the museum and Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

The federal government had not allowed the facility to open until now, despite many pleas from local and state politicians.

At any rate, the museum is open now, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Sunday until May 5, when it will return to its regular hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

News Photo by Darby Hinkley Andrew Augustyn, visitor experience manager at Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center in Alpena, changes the sign on Thursday morning to reflect that the center is now open.

“I have missed being able to come here so much,” said Alpena resident Terri Riopelle, who came to the museum as soon as it opened at 10 a.m. Thursday. “I did a lot of volunteering in the past, and these two years have been, like, empty.”

She looks forward to a wonderful spring and summer season at the museum.

“It’s such a valuable, amazing place,” Riopelle said, adding that Alpena residents are lucky to have such an educational and exciting resource here in Alpena. “It’s huge for Alpena, as a destination. Not only tourism, but scientifically, what they’re drawing to this town, from around the world, is incredible … It raises us, as a whole, as a community, to another level.”

She was parked and ready to go before the doors opened.

“I wanted to be the first one in the door, but I was third,” she said with a chuckle. “I’m very excited.”

She bought a Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary jacket at the gift shop to both support the museum and its operations, and to look flashy in hot pink, of course.

“We’ve been getting calls like crazy here,” Andrew Augustyn, visitor experience manager at GLMHC, said on Thursday. “We finally have the staff here to answer phones on a regular basis, so that’s great. On top of bringing summer staff back, the glass-bottom boat will be starting in a few weeks, too. So, the closer we get to May, things will kick off, and it will be absolutely crazy around here.”

And that’s just the way visitors like it, Augustyn said.

“I think people have just been itching to get back in here,” Augustyn said. “I’m excited. We’re all excited … Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, we can do upwards of a couple thousand (visitors) a day.”

He said current programs and exhibits will be similar to what patrons have come to enjoy in the past, but that some amenities have been upgraded, such as the replacement of counters out front, in the bathrooms and in the conference rooms.

Upcoming events in May include the season’s launch of the glass-bottom boat, The Lady Michigan, and the arrival of the Viking Octantis, a Great Lakes cruise ship that will be visiting Alpena eight times this season, the first of which will be May 4.

To learn more about the Viking Expeditions Great Lakes cruises, visit greatlakescruises.com.

“They’ll be bringing about 400 people,” Augustyn said of the cruise ship, “so that’ll be awesome.”

Augustyn expects many more programs and events to be popping up this summer, and looks forward to inviting the public to come celebrate the reopening.

“We do have plans for updating some exhibits in the future here,” Augustyn added. “To have the visitor center reopen, it’s just been, I think, something that’s been a gap for everybody here, for the last couple of years. We’ve always wanted more for people to do around town. Alpena’s a great community, but just looking for something else to do on a rainy day … just to see that activity, to bring people into the visitor center, is just great.”

Stephanie Gandulla, a maritime archaeologist with TBNMS, is elated to have the center back open.

“It is such a good feeling to see people walk through those front doors,” Gandulla said.

For more information about the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center, visit thunderbayfriends.org or thunderbay.noaa.gov.

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