Alpena, Mich. – Thanks to support from the Besser Foundation, Friends of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary is expanding education and economic development opportunities in the Alpena area. The Besser Foundation board of directors recently approved two grant proposals submitted by the Friends of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary (TBNMS) totaling $200,000.

“The Besser Foundation does not usually receive two grant proposals from the same organization within the same funding cycle, especially for such significant dollar amounts,” noted Gary Dawley, Board Secretary of the Besser Foundation, as he addressed more than 150 community members attending a Friends of TBNMS event, “All Aboard!,” held at the Fletcher Street Depot on May 13, 2017.

Dawley continued, “The reason the Besser Foundation board approved these two significant and exciting grants is pretty simple. Both projects will improve educational opportunities and increase tourism for Alpena, two of the Foundation’s top funding priorities.”

The Besser Foundation and its trustees have more than 70 years of experience providing financial support for Alpena development efforts with an ongoing focus on children, education, social needs, and continuous economic improvement within the community.

TBNMS Superintendent Jeff Gray was the host of the event and recognized how important community partnerships have been to expanding the sanctuary’s reach. “The Besser Foundation has been invested in the sanctuary from the start. However, these two grants come at a critical time. The Friends of TBNMS is taking on two significant efforts that will have a direct and immediate impact on our community,” Gray said.

$100,000 Grant for Lady Michigan Enhancements

The Besser Foundation is awarding a $100,000 grant to the Friends of TBNMS for educational technology enhancements and a STEM (Science, Technology, Education and Math) educator for the Lady Michigan. Additionally, a portion of the grant will serve as matching dollars for another grant that the Friends recently received from the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation to promote sustainable recreation and tourism in northeast Michigan.

The Lady Michigan is a 130-passenger glass-bottom boat used to explore shipwrecks in Lake Huron, and as a “floating laboratory” for schoolchildren to learn about Great Lakes history and ecology. The boat is a popular tourist attraction, with nearly 10,000 tickets sold each year, in addition to private charters.

While the Lady Michigan has been operated by Alpena Shipwreck Tours for six years, now the Friends of TBNMS will run it as a non-profit education vessel.

“This is the best the Lady Michigan has looked since first arriving in Alpena six years ago,” said Chuck Wiesen, President of the Friends of TBNMS and a frequent guide on the boat. “The Friends board is truly grateful for all the work the crew and local contractors have done over the past few months to make the Lady Michigan shine as a point of pride for the Alpena area. The Besser Foundation funding is a tremendous show of community support, enabling us take Alpena Shipwreck Tours’ educational and tourist experience to a whole new level,” Wiesen emphasized.

$100,000 Grant for Dive Tank Enhancements

The second $100,000 grant from the Besser Foundation will help purchase and install a water filtration system for the 500,000-gallon dive tank located on the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center (GLMHC) campus. The grant also supports STEM education programming at the sanctuary. Once the water filtration system and related construction work is completed, the tank will be the premier facility of its kind in the Great Lakes region and one of the few in the country of its size.

The 18-feet deep tank provides an ideal controlled environment for diver training and certification, testing of diver protocols and equipment, research and development of marine advanced technology, as well as STEM education for area elementary, high school, and college students. State and local law enforcement and other public safety officers have utilized the tank for in-water training. The sanctuary hopes similar use will grow with the completion of the filtration system.

Installation will finish in time for the American Association of Underwater Scientists (AAUS) annual conference planned for September 12-16, 2017 at the GLMHC. The conference will attract approximately 150 of the country’s top underwater scientists. They will share cutting-edge research, use the dive tank for training and certification demonstrations, interact with elementary and high school underwater robotics classes and Alpena Community College’s Marine Advanced Technology students, and explore Thunder Bay’s extensive array of fresh water shipwrecks.

“The AAUS conference is a perfect example of how this facility will benefit the Alpena area well into the future,” said Gray. “There are very few places where professional divers and underwater scientists can access such a large, professional dive tank for controlled testing and training, adjacent to a major river system and a Great Lake with one of the world’s largest collections of shipwrecks preserved in fresh water,” Gray added. “We were able to attract the conference to Alpena because of the tank and the fact that every skill-level of professional diving and underwater research can be experienced within minutes of the GLMHC.”

“The Besser Foundation’s investment in these two projects will help the Friends of TBNMS further two key educational and economic development drivers for our community, and help everyone in Alpena as well,” Dawley said as he announced the grants.

“These programs are truly collaborative in nature. As Alpena diversifies, these types of opportunities create a pipeline for future development. With projects like these, Alpena has the ability to become a statewide center of excellence in STEM education, advanced technology, and research,” Dawley concluded.

Other guest speakers at the “All Aboard!” event reinforced Dawley’s remarks by sharing their experiences with the sanctuary. They included Alpena High School graduate and former TBNMS Volunteer of the Year, Hannah MacDonald; Alpena High School “Shipwreck Alley” teacher, John Caplis; and Ella White Elementary science teacher, Bob Thomson. Thomson is the Michigan Science Teachers Association’s 2017 Elementary Science Teacher of the Year. Don MacMaster, President of Alpena Community College (ACC), also joined the group of educators, emphasizing the impact that the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary has had on the growth of the marine advanced technology program at the community college, leading to excellent job opportunities for ACC graduates.