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Electric vehicle charging project could make Rapid River a hub

RAPID RIVER — What began as a conversation between friends at Jack’s Restaurant has snowballed into a project to potentially turn Rapid River into the site of a “mini-grid” in the hopes that it will boost tourism, increase patronage of local businesses, and contribute to the movement towards environmentalism.

The town of Rapid River, situated at the northernmost point of Little Bay de Noc near the junction of U.S. 2 and 41, is home to the greatest concentration of people and traffic in Masonville Township, which covers a large land mass that extends all the way up to the border of Alger County. Some have called Rapid “the crossroads of the U.P.” and consider its location as having yet-untapped potential.

Currently, over a million drivers per year pass the highway intersection that lies on the western edge of Rapid River. Not many of those stop, but giving them a reason to do so would be an “impetus to rejuvenate the town,” said Christian Kreipke, who works for Ford Pro in brand and marketing. He’s from the area and lives on the Stonington Peninsula.

“Think of the old days with a train depot. If you housed a train depot, your town was going to be successful … People would stop over and utilize what the town had to offer,” said Kreipke. “Now, fast-forward, we’re in an era where we’re kind of ramping up our electric vehicles. And one of the things that you need is to be able to charge them. Charging is a little slower than filling up your pump — say 20 minutes or so — and that’s the opportunity to go to Jack’s Restaurant, go to the pub, utilize what Rapid River has.”

While residents of rural areas have been slow to accept the concept of electric vehicles, the fact remains that the number of electric vehicles on the road is increasing. And as that happens, there are a limited number of places that can be accessed when charging stations are few and far between.

In other words, tourism to isolated areas is restricted if drivers can’t make it there before running out of proverbial steam.

“The bottom line is, what the whole project is predicated on, is — how do you connect the dots in the E.V. network, and even on the grid, to be able to make rural America connected to Detroit, Green Bay — you know, bigger towns,” Kreipke remarked.

Now, he explained, manufacturers are working together to make their equipment universal. He said that Ford’s current electric vehicles can be charged at Tesla stations and others, and that energy companies are working to meet requirements around electric vehicle use.

“One of the ways we can help each other is what’s called a micro-grid,” Kreipke said. “Rapid River will (potentially) be a micro-grid in the connection of all the grid, and that electricity will be bi-directional. So if there’s a shortage of electricity from the main grid, we can help supply back to the main grid, or vice versa. If our small, micro-grid goes down for whatever reason, or it’s not at full capacity, we can take from the main grid.”

The future of Rapid River, the U.P. as a whole and other communities who may be watching the example set in Rapid River is on the table as Masonville Township and the Rapid River Development Committee — soon to be “Commission,” following its approval as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit — are working with each other and other groups to reach a resolution. The subject was on the agenda of the most recent Masonville Township meeting of Tuesday, June 18, but discussion was fleeting as both parties announced that they wanted to make some changes to the proposed agreement.

Township Supervisor Douglas Curry noted that the process will not be simple nor fast, because with so many parties involved — not only Masonville Township and the Rapid River Development Committee but also the State of Michigan, the DNR, Ford, MDOT, the EPA, not to mention the public — coordination could get “cumbersome.”

Others are more optimistic. Kreipke thinks that getting so much input from so many places will help the project reach an outcome that will benefit a number of people, whereas a single organization or company in control might be prone to push a one-sided agenda.

“This project has evolved significantly since its inception, and we anticipate that it will continue to evolve as we progress forward,” said Caleb Booth from the Rapid River Development Committee. “Right now, the idea is basically to transform what is currently the Lions Club into a full-fledged community center.”

Both Booth and Kreipke mentioned the notion of installing electric vehicle charging stations primarily at a community center and also in front of a couple local businesses. Esther Davis, Masonville Township Treasurer, stated that three potential locations for a center had come up, but the Masonville Township Park is not one of them.

Also in the greater plan is to rethink the main roads in Rapid. Though the speed limit on the highway technically drops to 35 mph through town, people flying down U.S. 2 has long been a problem, so one consideration is to narrow the highway to one car lane, but add bike lanes.

Additionally, it’s been pointed out that the bridge over the Whitefish River doesn’t accomodate snowmobiles well, “so one of the projects is to add a lane to the Whitefish River Bridge, specifically for either snowmobiles, for biking, for running, you know, whatever — to make a recreation make sense,” Kreipke said.

As far as funding sources for the whole project, a number of options are on the table — Kriepke said he’s been in contact with government entities like the  Michigan Economic Development Corporation and the Department of Energy, but that private funds are available, too. Ford Philanthropy is a viable possibility.

“One of the services that is becoming wildly successful is medical transport and, like, mobile medical services. And those work really well on electric platforms, as opposed to gas,” Kriepke explained. “Ford Motor Company — Ford Pro in particular — we’re very interested to see the implementation of charging solutions in rural communities.”

Booth, who can be contacted by email at cbooth@rapidriverdc.org, said that the Rapid River Development Committee has held some outreach events already and encourage further community feedback. After all, as Bobbi Ryan — co-owner and operator of Jack’s Restaurant — commented, “all good things come from conversation.”

There’s still a long way to go, but Curry said on Tuesday that he expected to get an updated resolution to Booth soon, so the matter is likely to come up at the next township meeting, set for July 16.

In the meantime, “people just need to hang in there and watch the magic happen,” Ryan said.

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