New pub owner has unwavering faith in downtown Petoskey

PETOSKEY – When Larry Rochon closed the doors of Record World in downtown Petoskey earlier this year, he had no idea what business venture would replace the beloved independent music store he founded and operated for nearly three decades. He only knew that, in spite of changing business climates for independent retailers and a general trend toward urban sprawl and downtown decay across small-town America, he had faith in Petoskey's central business district. The solution? Buy the Mitchell Street Pub, a Petoskey landmark located next door to Record World, and start all over again.

The death of a business would lead many to question the wisdom of starting up shop again in virtually the same location, but Rochon says he never had a doubt about the Pub being a sound investment.

"This place is a downtown institution," he explains. "I've been coming here for nearly 28 years, and their service and quality have always been really consistent. I think they've always done a great job of catering to both locals and visitors, and most of the staff has been here for a very long time and really know their stuff. Those are all reasons for the Pub's success, and they're not going to change."

Undeterred by his lack of restaurant experience, Rochon took over daily operations of the business this spring. While the learning curve has been steep and hours long, Rochon is enjoying every minute of his return to downtown business ownership.

"I never really left downtown after Record World closed," Rochon continues. "I was, and still am, active in commercial realty downtown; but I missed the hands-on stuff and the day-to-day contact with the customers. I wasn't really looking to buy the Pub, but an opportunity presented itself, and I thought, 'why not?'"

Rochon, a long-time member of the Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Tourism Management Board and the Downtown Development Authority, is quick to point out that his belief in Petoskey's downtown vitality never waned.

"We're going through a transition right now, an evolution," he said. "It's the same thing Traverse City went through several years ago, and their downtown is in much better shape than it used to be. We just have to decide what we want to be."

He noted that several new art galleries have leased formerly vacant spaces on the east end of downtown Mitchell Street, and that their entries into the area were part of a larger plan to create an "artist/gallery row" beginning with the Crooked Tree Arts Center.

The city has also followed the recommendations of a recent development study with regards to street improvements and pedestrian friendliness. Rochon says we've just seen the tip of the iceberg, pointing out that the sidewalk improvements, replacement of traditional power and phone lines with underground lines, superior signage, and aesthetic touches like flowers and benches are the first steps toward following the blueprints of cities with newly-vibrant downtowns like Traverse City, Royal Oak and Birmingham.

He feels strongly that downtown Petoskey is simply going through a cycle of change, not the downward spiral seen in so many small towns across America in the last decade.

"Look, this area is on the rise," states Rochon. "Baby boomers are retiring or buying second homes here, and property values are going sky-high. And people are starting to get behind the idea of hometown living, being in a small area where you can work, live, shop, and play."

An essential element to the continued growth and development of downtown Petoskey is additional residential living space, according to Rochon. He was an ardent backer of the controversial proposed Lake Street development project; and he believes that the plans, which call for construction of a parking garage, new retail space, a new hotel, and a significant number of condominiums, should be acted on quickly. He also points out the need for a more diverse blend of retail outlets downtown.

"We have to make people want to come downtown," he adds. "If we add residential space, great. That's more warm bodies downtown right there. But we need the retail businesses to bring them in, too."

Rather than expanding the Mitchell Street Pub into the spacious confines of the old Record World building next door, Rochon says that he's waiting to lease the space to a strong retail entity. He adds that Petoskey's downtown development director is now taking steps to aggressively pursue successful downstate retailers and persuade them to make the move to northern Michigan.

"If you live here, there are still things you have to go to Traverse City for," says Rochon. "Those are the kind of businesses we need to bring to Petoskey."

Rochon's sense of optimism seems to be well-founded, considering the recent new businesses downtown and the palatable retail vacancy rate of five percent. When asked where he sees downtown Petoskey in five years, Rochon says, "Look at Traverse City, a vibrant, active downtown with a great mix of restaurants, retail and residential. That's exactly where we'll be."

As for the Pub, Mitchell Street's newest (sort of) businessman has definite ideas about the changes he'd like to make, including a wider range of healthy options like salads, but he stresses that any modifications will be subtle.

"I still want this to be known just as a bar with great food," he says.

Gesturing toward a black and white childhood picture of himself that now nestles comfortably amongst the rest of the Pub's charmingly-cluttered decor, Larry says with a smile, "That picture's the biggest change I'm going to make around here. If it ain't broke, don't fix it." BN