In The Pipeline: Developments, investments in the region’s small towns

Will Elk Rapids get a hotel? Will Kingsley’s industrial park attract new investors? The TCBN takes a tour of business and development in some of the small communities surrounding Traverse City.

Smaller may be better when entrepreneurs are choosing northern communities to begin or grow their businesses. Whether recent openings, fresh marketing efforts or past planning moving toward implementation, new developments are underway from Elk Rapids to Frankfort, Northport to Kingsley and many of the other satellite communities surrounding Traverse City.

Leaders note their towns and villages offer the best of both worlds – the relaxed pace and familiarity of small town life coupled with proximity to Traverse City’s assets and the region’s natural beauty. It is a formula that is proving attractive as businesses contemplate growth or new endeavors in the improving economy.

Here’s a snapshot of business underway in these four pockets of the region.

Elk Rapids: Looking to the future

Tom Kern just joined the Elk Rapids Chamber of Commerce as its new executive director in February, but is already busy taking the pulse of the community. The chamber hosted three stakeholder forums in March to gain input on key issues and challenges facing the area.

Although a full report won’t be ready for another month, early feedback from the 40 attendees at the first forum identified affordable housing, M-72 corridor activity and a strong downtown as top focuses.

“We have several hundred thousand feet of retail space that will be coming online over the next 12-18 months as the Acme Center is built out,” Kern said, noting the M-72 development offers an opportunity not a threat. “How does Elk Rapids engage in this positively and proactively?”

Kern added, “The great thing about Elk Rapids is that we have very strong employers (including) two anchor manufacturers that are creating great primary jobs … which in turn create more secondary jobs,” he said, noting the economic impact of Burnett Foods and Short’s Brewery’s continued success and growth. “Combine this with a strong downtown with very few vacancies, and a very collaborative, well run village and township structure.”

As the Elk Rapids area looks to the future, they may look to greater PR to “tell their story,” increased broadband, continued support for employers, more year-round retailers and new initiatives.

One possibility may be a future hotel. In January, the Northern Lake Economic Alliance (NLEA) released a feasibility study showing support for a 40-60 room hotel with a 5,000-10,000 square foot conference center.

“The analysis shows there is a level of demand,” Kern said. “The challenge is taking that study to someone in the business (willing to invest). If there is an opportunity, it may need a collaborative effort to package and promote it.”

Kingsley: Infrastructure, industrial park ready

Kingsley doubled its population between the 1990s and early 2000s with steady residential growth ever since, according to Village Manager Mitch Foster. What it didn’t have was large commercial investment, but that is beginning to change.

Crystal Lake Health Center has opened a facility on M-113 as well as Munson Medical Center’s Kingsley lab services. The downtown area is home to several new businesses including Cherry Wings Realty and its first full service restaurant, The Village Café. Talks are also underway between the village and several prospects looking to expand.

According to Foster, the village is ready for more.

“Now that the economy is picking back up, (investors) are seeing Kingsley as a place to grow business,” Foster said, noting its proximity to population centers in Traverse City, Garfield Township and Cadillac, as well as a full service infrastructure, a solid employee base and a community that supports economic development.

“We offer a full package of services – water, sewer, utilities – and all are under capacity because we built for expansion,” he said, “and, an industrial park with 116 acres of undeveloped land that is ready.”

Kingsley leaders worked with the Traverse Bay Economic Development Corporation to conduct an economic development plan in 2013.

Foster noted that all involved, including the village council and planning commission, are working together to support economic development while also serving Kingsley residents. This includes reviewing outdated policies, updating processes, optimizing BATA transportation, considering new endeavors and working in consort to promote Kingsley to potential developers.

“The village is doing the best it can to get the word out and working to make our community and our services the best they can be at the best price possible,” Foster said. “We want to be as fluid and helpful as possible … and easy to work with.”

Leelanau: Moving off the drawing board

Leelanau County has always been perceived as a destination, so housing prices (among the top in the state) have remained stable and many economic forces weren’t as affected by the recession as other areas of the state. However, as conditions improve, commercial development is picking up along with the economy.

“There was a pent up need,” said Leelanau County Administrator Chet Janik. “I think there were plans on the drawing board for a while that are now ready (to move forward) with investors.”

Janik cited examples of new activity in villages and towns throughout the peninsula, including The Tribune Ice Cream & Eatery in Northport and Hop Lot Brewing Company, a microbrewery and hop garden located just south of Suttons Bay. In Omena, Leelanau Wine Cellars is adding on rental units adjacent to its bayfront tasting room while a new marina is being proposed in Lake Leelanau on property next to the Leelanau Enterprise. The former Norris School in Elmwood Township, near Traverse City, is slated to become a recreation and art center with work beginning later this year.

In Leland, Joel Peterson of J. Peterson homes in Grand Rapids, has taken out an option on most of the land where the former Leelanau Courthouse stood. The proposed development would include 18 homes in a “cottage community.” Early talk is also underway for future use of the former Silver Tree Deli & Café building in Suttons Bay, including consideration of a possible hotel which could add much needed hotel rooms to the county. Northport gained hotel rooms with 9-room Northport Inn in fall 2014.

Benzie: Entrepreneurial spirit

Benzie County has an entrepreneurial spirit as evidenced by new shops and ventures spreading through the area, according to Mary Carroll, president of the Benzie County Chamber of Commerce and Benzie County Visitors Bureau.

Those entrepreneurs include Chris and Victoria Mekas, who have brought three businesses to the county and are working on a fourth, including Petals and Perks in Frankfort, Victoria’s Floral Design in Benzonia and the Hilltop Soda Shop in Benzonia. Their new venture is in the works for Frankfort later this year. Other recent Benzie additions are Stormcloud Brewing Company in Frankfort, Blue Caribou Café in Beulah and Creation Pharm in Beulah. An added plus is that most have a year-round presence in their respective downtowns.

“It’s great to see new things coming in and empty storefronts filling up,” Carroll said, noting that several more sales are pending with at least three additional projects in the pipeline.

“The future is looking bright for continued growth,” she said.

To encourage growth that’s compatible with the region, Benzie County commissioners recently formed a task force of business leaders and governmental representatives to examine obstacles and opportunities for business development. The Benzie County Economic Development Strategic Plan is currently in the works and will be presented to the county board later this year.

Cultural economic development is also a positive force, with the continued growth of the Elizabeth Lane Oliver Art Center in Frankfort.

Challenges can be the seasonality of the region, she said, but noted that flexibility is sought after by some business owners who choose to use the softer months for other pursuits or split time and business ventures between northern Michigan and other states.