Sunday, September 30, 2007

NASCAR's Newman driving Mill Lake repairs

Ann Arbor News - Ann Arbor, Michigan
By - Judy McGovern

Bill Wells has long lamented the deterioration of the vintage camp facilities at Mill Lake in the Waterloo Recreation Area.

Built in the 1930s under Depression-era New Deal employment programs, the rustic cabins and lodges display craftsman-like details and were home to summer youth camps for generations.

But time has taken a toll on the cedar-shake roofs. The electrical service, plumbing and mess-hall kitchen all need attention.

And while Wells and other members of the Waterloo Natural History Association raise and contribute as much as $25,000 a year to provide recreation and education activities at the sprawling state park, the project is simply too big for the community group.

"It's a shame,'' says Wells, a Sylvan Township resident who taught an outdoor class for elementary school kids from nearby Chelsea at the Mill Lake Outdoor Center. "It's a beautiful location and a perfect place for kids.''

But as he strides through the tall grass that's grown between the clusters of cabins, Wells' dismay at roofs collapsed since his last visit is tempered by the knowledge that help is - unexpectedly - on the way.

NASCAR driver Ryan Newman and his wife, through the Ryan Newman Foundation, are leading an effort to put $500,000 into the facilities by next June. And another $3 million to $4 million will go into restoring all 14 structures at Mill Lake.


And, no, Newman isn't a local guy.

But the South Bend native apparently does have fond memories of fishing with his grandfather in Michigan waters. And a fairly chance meeting between the popular driver and a staff member the Conservation Fund led to an initiative dubbed "racing for wildlife.''

That national conservation group contacted the state Department of Natural Resources looking for a project proximate to Michigan International Speedway, which was ready to pitch in, says Ron Olson, Ann Arbor's longtime parks and rec boss who now heads the DNR's parks and recreation bureau.

"We're working on ways to get kids and families back outdoors,'' Olson says. "When we explained the idea, the resources at Mill Lake - which has the water, trails and the Eddy Discovery Center nearby - and the historic and cultural significance of the cabins, the Newmans got excited about it. They came out to see it and fell in love with it.''

For their part, DNR and Conservation Fund officials are so in love with the philanthropy that they're suddenly fluent in NASCAR.

Newman, No. 12, has finished in the top 20 the past five years, says Olson, an MIS virgin until last month.

The collaboration does create unusual bedfellows, says Conservation Fund spokeswoman Kathryn Brown. "But,'' she says, "the NASCAR community loves outdoors. And if you talk about getting kids outside, we're all on the same page.''

Beyond Mill Creek, the goal is to launch similar projects across the country, she says. Newman and the Conservation Fund are working with other drivers and tracks to identify projects.

Back at Mill Lake, Wells points out an area that was a canoe launch and a large glacial bowl where weathered benches ring a campfire area that hasn't burned in many summers.

He and DNR staffer Matthew Millar, who's come to check on us, have an animated conversation about skat (too big for raccoon) and revel in the sight of leaves that pour down when a strong blast of wind shakes the trees.

"You see tons of turkey out here and loons, mink and deer,'' says Wells, a native Detroiter who was as a child, in the late 1950s, first exposed to the outdoors at a camp held at nearby Cedar Lake.

A tall guy with a bristly mustache, Wells teaches special education in Dexter. "I told the kids about what the Newmans are going to do,'' he says. His middle-schoolers corrected Wells, who had called the driver Randy instead Ryan, and they seemed to approve of the NASCAR connection.

Some kind of private-sector help was going to be necessary, says Wells, who - as he daydreamed about salvaging the property - had imagined a photography park with corporate sponsorship.

The disrepair doesn't leave much room for argument. And there are plenty of models, among them public radio, where sponsors and the public enjoy mutual benefits in such arrangements.

But there's nothing ungrateful about wondering how public parks - and other institutions - got to this point. Or whether, in the end, the Mill Lake Outdoor Center is more apt to resemble NPR or NASCAR.

Judy McGovern can be reached at 734-994-6863 or

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