Every day in small towns across America, economic development efforts are underway. Designed to build economies, drive innovation, or simply draw communities together, these efforts are the engines that stand to transform a town and its way of life. Here, the Traverse City Business News heads into four northern Michigan burgs — Petoskey, Boyne City, Bellaire, and Charlevoix — to check out the most impactful change agents enjoying success – and those with promise waiting on the horizon.
Northmen Stadium is “an economic engine’
Last year, Petoskey Public Schools built a gleaming, $10 million sports stadium to replace 90-year-old Curtis Field, a facility that no longer met the needs of the school’s sports teams and fans.
But the nearly year-old, 4,000-seat Northmen Stadium is more than just a top-notch venue for high school football, soccer, and lacrosse. Petoskey Schools Superintendent John Scholten said the stadium, part of a sports complex that includes a new track, city-owned baseball field and cross-country trails, is giving the community a financial boost.
“This is an economic engine for the community,” Scholten said. “We’re bringing in events we weren’t getting anymore.”
In its first year, the stadium hosted a high school football playoff game and was rented out for a game between an Upper Peninsula school and a southern Michigan team. After a years-long absence, Petoskey this spring hosted the Kiwanis Relays, featuring 10 schools from the region.
And the stadium recently held the spring gathering of the Northern Lakes Economic Alliance.
“We’re going to expand our events at the stadium,” Scholten said. “The Michigan High School Athletic Association sees it as a destination facility.”
But getting the stadium built was a nearly decade-long effort that involved a failed bond issue in 2007 before voters approved the project in 2014.
The school district first proposed a $15 million project that would have included two fields — one for football and one primarily for soccer.
“Our need was for having facilities closer to campus,” Scholten said. “Our facilities were scattered around town. Our dream and vision for years was for safe and state-of-the-art facilities.”
But it was too much for voters at a time when the housing industry was starting to collapse and the Great Recession was peaking on the horizon. They defeated the $15 million bond issue in May of 2007, forcing school administrators to regroup.
“We listened to the public,” Scholten said. “The chamber of commerce played an active role in developing a new plan. We heard the first proposal was a little too extravagant.”
The new proposal was pared to one stadium. Locker rooms were expanded, and a pedestrian tunnel was built underneath one of the access roads.
Several foundations kicked in more than $100,000 for a new scoreboard. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, through an application by the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, granted the project $800,000 to pay for roadwork.
“It’s been a long overdue project,” Scholten said. “We’re proud as heck of it.”
Construction of the $25 million Great Lakes Center for the Arts near Petoskey is progressing so well that officials have confidently announced the curtain will rise at the center’s opening performance on July 7, 2018, just over a year away.
“Work is on schedule, and construction is moving forward quickly,” said Jill O’Neill, the center’s executive director, adding that the summer 2018 program schedule will be announced this month.
Established as a nonprofit organization and located at Bay Harbor, a resort and residential community on Lake Michigan, south of Petoskey, the center is envisioned as a national destination for cultural performances and events, a leading regional arts facility and home to an “internationally recognized center” for intellectual dialogue.
The center includes a 500-seat theater for movies and a variety of live arts performances, and a community engagement room that will accommodate 4,000 people for banquets, lectures and educational events.
O’Neill said the center will be the largest year-round professional theater venue in northern Michigan.
“Our mission is to serve as a cultural and social hub for all genres,” she said. “The center will really speak to the diversity of the performing arts.”
Planning began in 1999 when a performing arts center was identified as a goal in a community culture plan for Emmet and Charlevoix counties. The 2000 Bay Harbor master plan also envisioned such a center.
Bay Harbor developer David Johnson subsequently donated land at the resort for the center, and a capital campaign was launched to finance it.
Two gifts totaling $10 million were received from undisclosed family foundations in 2014. The center has raised about 80 percent of its $25 million goal.
Its strategic consulting partner and artistic director is Michael Kaiser, the retired president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. He also is chairman of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management, overseeing training and consulting programs around the world.
“He’s usually called in by arts organizations in times of trouble, but he’s been with us since the start of the project in 2014,” O’Neill said.
The center is expected to provide a big economic boost to the area through direct employment, increased cultural tourism and overall center-related spending.
“What also excites me about the center is the annual economic impact of between $10 million and $20 million that it will provide to the region,” O’Neill said.
Post-tannery, city capitalizes on beauty and tourism
Boyne City is enjoying an economic revitalization, which City Manager Michael Cain attributes to a major community loss: the closing in the 1970s of the Boyne City Tannery, which made soles for shoes.
“It provided a lot of jobs, but it held us back,” Cain said. “When it left, we moved away from being a manufacturing community on the waterfront. Lake Charlevoix went from becoming a tool for manufacturing to a tool that allows people to enjoy a quality of life and everything northern Michigan has to offer.”
Today, this community of 3,740 people on the southern end of Lake Charlevoix has a healthy mix of downtown businesses, including restaurants, coffee shops, a tap room, a 24-slip marina, and housing.
The marina helps to attract boaters who in the past overlooked Boyne City because there was no place to dock their craft.
Catt Development, a Gaylord developer, undertook much of the construction, including the marina. Its One Water Street retail and commercial development, completed in 2010, was the first major downtown expansion in many years.
Last year, Catt redeveloped two additional downtown buildings that house the 7 Monks Tap Room and the Northern Michigan Sports Medicine Center. Several other businesses are expected to locate in the buildings.
“We’re pretty much full downtown,” Cain said.
In 2003, Boyne City was selected with three other cities in the first class of the Michigan Main Street program, an award Cain said was the catalyst for the rejuvenation of its downtown.
“It was a transformational moment for us,” he said. “It gave us financial support and training from the state. It resulted in a new streetscape and a new sense of direction for the community.”
Boyne Theater project could spark downtown
Rich Bergmann saw dozens of movies at the now-closed Boyne Theater when, as a youngster, he and his family vacationed every July in Boyne City.
Now he owns the historic theater and is attempting to restore it so that it is again one of northern Michigan’s cultural gems.
“The vision of what it could be and do for the community is stronger than ever,” he said.
Transforming that vision into reality isn’t going to be easy. The building, which began its life 113 years ago as the Bellamy Opera House, will require a large financial investment and untold hours of work to bring it in line with today’s building codes while maintaining its historic integrity.
“The challenge is bringing it up to code for things such as fire suppression and accessible restrooms,” he said. “But it’s structurally as sound as anything from that age.”
Bergmann and his partners in the Round Lake Group announced plans in April to renovate and reopen the theater, which has been closed since 2006. They envision restoring the theater to the Art Deco style that adorned it in the 1950s.
The renovated theater would seat up to 300 people and would be used to show movies and host live music events.
In addition to building code issues, financing also is proving to be a challenge. Bergmann has estimated construction and theater equipment costs at $1.2 million.
Private investment, supplemented with public financing, such as government grants and tax credits, will likely be needed, he said.
“I’ve invested my own money in other projects,” he said. “This is a little different. There just isn’t a clear ROI (return on investment).”
The Round Lake Group has renovated several buildings in the area, including the building housing its Lake Charlevoix Brewing Co. It also owns the Bridge Street Tap Room in Charlevoix and the Boyne City Tap Room.
Bergmann said he doesn’t have a timetable for when the theater might again start showing movies.
“I can’t set expectations,” he said. “I’ve learned my lesson with old buildings.”
But he said he hopes the theater can someday serve as a historic touchstone for the city that will help it retain and attract young residents.
“It’s an opportunity to do the right thing for the town,” Bergmann said. “Boyne City is very progressive in how people work together to enhance the community.”
Seven years ago, a handful of downtown Bellaire business owners sat down to figure out how they could grow business in the village. None alone could afford enough advertising to accomplish that goal.
The answer they came up with was Destination Bellaire, a cooperative marketing effort in which they pool resources to promote Bellaire as an Up North destination.
Today that program has grown to 43 members who this year will support a marketing budget of as much as $13,000 to promote Bellaire to potential visitors from as far away as Texas.
“We’re targeting Texas now that the Cherry Capital Airport has direct flights to Dallas,” said Rachel Krino, assistant director of the Bellaire Chamber of Commerce, which oversees Destination Bellaire.
The group advertises mostly online and in specialty publications, reaching an average of 50,000 people a month.
“And we have a really active Facebook page that attracts about 8,000 visitors a week,” she said.
To be a part of Destination Bellaire, the business must belong to the Bellaire Chamber and pay an additional fee that supports the marketing budget. The program recently was opened to any business in Antrim County.
“We work as a committee of the chamber and meet every two months,” Krino said. “If you show up to a meeting, you have a voice [in how the money is spent].”
In addition to data that shows the effectiveness of Destination Bellaire spending, Krino said she also sees anecdotal evidence of success.
“The owners of Dewitt Marine came to us in May and said they’ve never been sold out of slips and storage this early in the season,” she said. “That tells me people are coming to the area.”
Joe Short looking for the next Joe Short
Over the past 15 years, Short’s Brewing Co. has grown to become one of the largest craft beer brewers in Michigan. Now, founder Joe Short wants to use a vacant building he owns in downtown Bellaire to help another budding entrepreneur create the next successful business in the city.
Short and the Bellaire Downtown Development Authority are working on plans to turn the former Short’s Mart retail building into a business incubator.
“I was inspired to do something like this because I had a string of luck in the past as a young entrepreneur,” Short said. “This is an opportunity to help somebody in a similar situation — someone with a good idea and a strong work ethic.”
A number of ideas are being considered. Short envisions a competition in which the winning entrepreneur would have use of the 2,500 square-foot building at a reduced rental rate.
That competition might involve entrepreneurs putting up small booths in the building to pitch business plans to the DDA.
“There are a lot of preliminary ideas,” Short said. Plans for the building probably won’t be finalized until later this year.
“One hope is that we’ll bring in new businesses that add value — especially more foot traffic — and will be new and diverse,” he said.
It’s hard to say what kind of businesses they might be. Short recalls that many were “less than impressed” with his plan 15 years ago to build a small brewery in Bellaire.
Today that business employs about 150 people, including its Bellaire operations and brewery in Elk Rapids.
“There could be a similar impact by a new entrepreneur with a business plan,” he said. “It might be something we’ve never heard of before.”
A devastating downtown fire
Business prospects looked awfully bleak in downtown Charlevoix last winter.
On November 13, fire destroyed Johan’s Café and the Round Lake Gallery and damaged several other businesses — the adjacent Ga Ga for Kids boutique, Celeste Murdick’s Fudge and The Clothing Co. A little more than a month later, on Christmas Eve, another fire gutted a historic building that housed the Cherry Republic store and several offices.
“That was pretty devastating,” Dotson said. “Cherry Republic was a stable business for downtown.”
In addition to destroying several buildings, the fires displaced nearly a dozen other businesses. The Pine River Channel drawbridge on the north end of town was closed at night for repairs, causing occasional backups on US-31.
“People thought you couldn’t drive here,” said Lindsey Dotson, executive director of the Charlevoix Downtown Development Authority.
Anxiety among business owners was running higher than the average snowfall in this picturesque community.
Rising from the Ashes
Fearing that many of Charlevoix’s visitors might think the entire downtown was closed, the DDA launched “Charlevoix is Open for Business,” a television and social media campaign.
The campaign stressed that many of the city’s shops, restaurants, bars and other businesses were operating normally. Dotson judged the campaign a success.
“It kind of rallied the troops,” she said. “People became more enthusiastic about shopping local. Most downtown businesses saw gains in January and February.”
The DDA also set aside $30,000 for building façade improvement grants. The program will reimburse businesses for 50 percent of the cost of improvements, up to $10,000 per project.
While a number of businesses have reopened, the buildings housing Johan’s Bakery and Round Lake Gallery have been leveled and awaiting redevelopment. Cherry Republic’s building is undergoing renovation and is selling its products at The Lake House gift shop.
Dotson said the fires served as a wake-up call for downtown.
“Things were the same downtown for quite awhile,” she said. “The fires resulted in people waking up and rethinking downtown. There’s renewed energy. Ultimately, I think it will be a good thing.”