October 30, 2014

Father of AuGres yacht club passes away

Courtesy photo
Kenneth Ralph, circa 1990
By Tim Barnum
Staff writer
Posted

AuGRES — Over the years AuGres has evolved into a respected waterfront destination for summer visitors and tourists, but its prominence for sailors and other recreational boaters may not have come to fruition without the vision and perseverance of Kenneth Ralph, who passed away Dec. 27 while wintering in Sebring, Fla.

According to Kenneth’s stepson, Scott Walker, in 1978 and 1979, Kenneth purchased property along the AuGres River, south of US-23, from Harmon Williams and Kittie Bilacic with a vision to change and develop the waterfront that was a 35-slip marina when he bought it. Now, the property, known as the AuGres Yacht Club, includes a 300-slip marina, 46 condominium units, a restaurant, bar, pool and clubhouse, according to augresyachtclub.com.

Joseph Walker, a friend of Kenneth’s, says the man who also served as Arenac County Probate Judge made amazing strides for the community.

“Ken Ralph did more for the development of AuGres than any one man,” Joe said. “He didn’t play a big part, he played the whole part. … He never really got the credit he deserved.”

According to Scott, until Kenneth’s purchase and developments, the area that now serves as a standalone community in the summer was nearly wilderness.

“There was no road going out there at that time,” he said.

“There was nothing there. It was just fields,” Joseph added.

Scott also says that Kenneth’s fast-working mind kept him a step ahead of the game when he decided to purchase the property for the yacht club’s development, since the river’s water in that area led to a harbor of refuge, meaning it’s depth was maintained by the State of Michigan.

“He knew that,” Scott said. “He had that vision to know that that was a navigable waterway.

“It was probably one of the biggest developments on this side of the state north of Bay City.”

Patricia Killingbeck, AuGres City Manager, says the Yacht Club’s evolution changed the way people begin to think about the city of AuGres.

“I think what it did, it brought recognition to areas of the state that AuGres had natural resources with the waterfront,” she said. “Before that it wasn’t marketed.

“It (waterfront) wasn’t used to attract tourism or recreational activities. … To have that kind of impact in the area was pretty dramatic.”

According to Scott, the impact spread without the assistance of media advertising.

“Our advertisement comes from word of mouth. We’ve always believed that. That good word of mouth will do more for you than a billboard,” Scott said. “That word of mouth part of it was huge to dad.”

He also added that the word of mouth advertising helped attract club members that were parking boats in Tawas, Harrisville and other lake front areas.

However, Kenneth’s venture into real estate actually began in Standish, where he lived while serving as probate judge and as an attorney.

According to Nancy Buttrick, the widow of Forward’s founder Austin Buttrick, Austin and Kenneth were partners in real estate when he entered that business in Standish.

“They owned a lot of land together,” she said. “He (Kenneth) was a wheeler and a dealer. … He could think of ideas and he could get people to join him.”

Nancy did say that Kenneth’s dealings did rub some people the wrong way, though, and that there was even a rumor that Kenneth had shorted Austin in a deal. However, she said her late husband never held ill will towards Kenneth over any dealings they had together.

But Joseph (Walker) says ill will harbored at Kenneth was mostly due to envy.

“I think that there was a lot of jealousy,” he said, adding that others were envious of Kenneth’s intelligence, which allowed him to capitalize on ventures such as the Yacht Club property purchase.

And Nancy also added that through selling real estate for developments, Kenneth, along with Austin, were an asset to the area.

“Anybody who advances property for a community advances a community,” Nancy said.

Scott echoed the sentiment of real estate’s importance to increasing revenue for a community through taxation.

“It’s a small town (AuGres), but it’s (Yacht Club) a big development. … There’s tax revenue on each and every dock out there. There’s a tax revenue on every condo out there,” he said.

But even though the yacht club area is now a well-developed and well-known commodity to the area, Scott says that he and his stepfather’s vision did run into some hard times during the early years.

“It wasn’t all good times, there were some recessionary periods,” Scott said. “The biggest thing was the interest rate.”

He says in the early 1980’s, interest rates jumped, making it difficult to sell property. Scott also said it was difficult to get people to the area to consider a condo or boat slip, but through the aforementioned word of mouth advertising and visits to boat shows Scott says the condominiums and docks eventually filled up when interest rates came back down.

Besides serving as Arenac County Probate Judge, Kenneth was also a former Marine and served in the Korean War. His obituary can be seen on the inside pages of this issue (Jan. 7, number 2) of the Independent.

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