The Little Town That Could

HONOR – Bringing a town back from the brink isn't easy. But villagers here are determined to do just that.

It started last year with friends finding they shared a belief that the small Benzie County town could – and should – come back from its economic doldrums.

"Shantel Sellers, Chris Theobald and I found we had an interest in Honor," said Homestead Township treasurer Shelley Rosa, a longtime resident. "We weren't happy with how it looked. It used to be a bustling little town, but it got desolate."

The three began talking with other friends, and eventually put together a meeting to discuss how to restore the town. The meeting culminated with the creation of the Honor Area Restoration Project (HARP).

But simply founding HARP wasn't enough. One of the first orders of business was to create a way for all the people interested in restoring Honor to have a voice. By its charter, the Village Council can only be made up of and represent residents of the village. But many of those who call Honor home or have business there don't reside within the village limits.

So organizers decided that the village should pursue the creation of a Downtown Development Authority (DDA), making Honor one of the smallest towns to have one.

The formation of Honor's DDA enabled all those connected with the downtown to have a voice and seek grants for various projects.

One of the first action items was centered on fixing the parking problem. Shantel Sellers, a village council member and founder of HARP, said that was one reason she had located Vintage Violet, the shop she used to own, outside of the village.

"I tried to be in the downtown but there was no parking," she said. She eventually located her shop just west of town on U.S. 31, before selling it and moving on to become marketing director at Grand Traverse Resort and Casinos.

Last summer, the village purchased the lot across the street from the former Money's Platte River Inn, and the new owners of the Platte River Inn couldn't be happier.

"We're really happy. That gives us more parking," said Susan Leone, during a break renovating the eatery. Leone and her husband John bought the restaurant in May and are updating the mechanicals in anticipation of a Labor Day opening.

The couple owned and operated Leone's Dairyville in Grawn for 27 years, until a fire destroyed the popular ice cream restaurant. They had since been looking for a new place, and decided Honor was a good fit.

"We were looking to get into a smaller community," said John Leone. "We like it out here. A lot of our (Dairyville) customers were from Benzie."

Money's Platte River Inn isn't the only local business that is reopening: Last summer, a downtown pizza shop opened its doors again after being closed for two years or so, Sellers said.

Elsewhere, a former barbershop that Sellers said had been empty for years has been transformed into a custom sign shop, and an old hardware store has been leased out and is now a consignment shop. In addition, a new sidewalk was installed on the south side of U.S. 31 from Bud's to the shopping center.

Long-time mainstay Bud's has morphed from a gas station/convenience store to an auto repair shop, but was recently purchased by oil and gas giant BP with plans to clean it up.

There's man-made beauty, and then there's the natural kind. The Platte River meanders along the south side of Honor. But because so much of the town is defined by U.S. 31, from which the Platte River is invisible, it's almost as if it doesn't exist. Plans are afoot to change that as well, with parks and bike paths designed to point people to the river.

Another step in the community's revitalization is the creation of a new town holiday. Each May, Honor Days celebrates the area's heritage with activities including a community picnic, Victorian tea and fashion show, and a Civil War re-enactment and reunion.

Johanssen said continued input from all those who care about Honor is key to its revitalization. Meetings, community forums, and the Internet have all helped to foster a sense of community in the community.

"We've got 249 people on our email list, and do regular emails," he said. "There's a lot more to come. We want to keep the enthusiasm."

The renewed interest in downtown Honor has also sparked the hope that some of the older derelict buildings will either be cleaned up and reopen or be demolished.

One of the more infamous examples is a building just down from the Platte River Inn on U.S. 31 that's been vacant for years, festooned with a giant question mark on the exterior of the second floor. HARP co-chair Ingemar Johanssen, who has lived just outside of Honor for 20 years, says when that building is gone, it will be another visible reminder that the town is on the way back.

"Everyone knows it as the 'Question Mark Building.' It's falling apart. Everybody recognizes that," he said. "When that thing comes down, there will be a street party." BN