Northport sees a light: Harbor town buoyed by new sewer system, development

NORTHPORT-Becalmed for more than a decade, the harbor community of Northport is letting out its sails and setting a new course.

Long the perfect haven for boaters rounding the peninsula or crossing the bay, the community was once known for its gourmet dining, galleries and a bustling small-town atmosphere. Now the village wants to be seen that way again.

Northport, the "land's end" of the Grand Traverse region, has lagged far behind its fast-growing sister city to the south, Suttons Bay-not that residents really ever wanted their community to be exactly like it.

But it has suffered more than its share of indignities lately, including a declaration from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality that its septic fields were leaking sewage into the environment. At times, its stunning harbor and natural setting had seemed its sole remaining assets. And then even they seemed threatened.

Ruth Steele Walker, a Northport native, thinks it can make a comeback. So do scores of other residents now involved in a grassroots effort to revitalize the village.

"A lot of people who have spent a lifetime in Northport, and others who arrived since I grew up there, just want it to be a healthy community that can continue to support its schools and provide jobs," said Steele Walker, president of Due North Marketing Communications, Inc. in Omena.

Many of the latest ideas for Northport have their roots in a community summit meeting earlier this year and in personal efforts by many local residents.

At the urging of resident Bill Collins, for example, Michigan State University has taken the village under its wing, accepting it into its Small Town Design Initiative. MSU staff and students will begin helping the village develop streetscapes this summer.

Residents are also working on ways to make the village more attractive to families and employers. Meanwhile, the construction of Timber Shores, an upscale residential development south of town, and Northport Highlands, a senior housing project within the village, are expected to provide more jobs.

They are sorely needed, many residents say. Munson Health System services decided to close down most operations at its Northport facility, Leelanau Memorial Health Center, in 2004, leaving the town without a major employer. It had a staff of 150. Meanwhile, Northport's population has aged, the overall number of jobs has declined, and school enrollment has fallen.

In recent years, part of downtown emptied out, and blight set in. For some residents, the unkindest cut of all was the Department of Environmental Quality's assessment of the village's septic systems in 2003 and 2004. That, in effect, mandated construction of a new $12 million sewer system.

The lack of a modern sewer system had saddled merchants with the expense of maintaining and pumping out sewage holding tanks, its proponents say.

"Woody's had to be pumped out every couple days," Collins said. "We haven't been able to do anything in terms of expanding the marina. Once the sewer system is done, it's time to go back and enlarge the marina."

It could easily use another 150 boat slips, he said.

Last year, the town was divided into hostile camps, and there was even a failed attempt to recall village trustees. The air only seemed to clear in March when the Michigan DEQ gave the go-ahead for the new system.

"Because of the sewer system, all sorts of things became possible," said Andy Thomas, owner of Thomas & Milliken Millwork, Inc., a Northport architectural wood products supplier, and a prime mover behind the recent summit.

Today the prospect of a new sewer system is invigorating the town's real estate, brokers and business people say.

Sally Coohon, owner of Dolls & More and the president of the Northport-Omena Chamber of Commerce, said local businesses have a stake in the sewer system, whether their owners live in the village or not.

"Although I don't live in Northport-I live just outside of it-I support the sewers," Coohon said. "If businesses go under because they can't operate due the lack of sewers, the issue does affect us."

The recent purchase of the North Country Garden building for about $485,000 at Waukazoo and Nagonaba streets may be one indication of a stronger interest in downtown.

The purchasers, Buzz and Suzanne Moffett of Lahaina, Hawaii, were betting that a new sewer system would give their building a kick-start, closing their deal just as it seemed clear the project would move ahead. The system is expected to be completed in early 2009.

"It is going to change the whole town," Buzz Moffett said.

In the short term, he hopes that a local merchant will take some of their building's retail and office space. In two or three years, the space could be in line for a restaurant or some other high-value use.

"We can evaluate it in a couple years and see if there is anyone around who wants to do something more exciting," he said.

For now, and perhaps the immediate future, selling prices are at bargain-basement levels. The former Little Finger restaurant is selling for $51 a square-foot, roughly half the price of typical retail space in a northern Michigan waterfront community.

Ann Marie Mitchell, the Coldwell Banker Schmidt broker who represented the Moffetts in the North Country Gardens sale, said there is no doubt that the sewage situation had undercut commercial real estate market in Northport.

"I think that when you remove that uncertainty and risk, people can pursue their dream," she said.

That could push real estate prices higher.

"I don't know that it is going to escalate quickly, but there could be an opportunity right now for entrepreneurs, especially young entrepreneurs."

Besides Little Finger, she also has the listing for the now-vacant Woody's Settling Inn, once a watering and dining spot favored by boaters, tourists and locals. It's listed for $370,000, which she considers a bargain.

With the sewer situation seemingly settled, residents are focusing on long-term solutions to make the community a more attractive to both businesses and young families. The village is already home to successful companies, such as Thomas & Milliken. It just needs more like them.

Mitchell expects Northport to benefit from the trend toward mobile employees and self-employed people who can work anywhere. "That is truly the nature of today's business," she said.

Given the quality of life in Northport, Steele Walker thinks high tech firms could eventually find their way up the peninsula.

To make the community as family-friendly as possible, the Northport school board just formally committed to an independent Northport school district with its own high school, putting an end to talk of sending students to Leland for their final four years.

A related measure is the Northport Promise, a new program designed to provide college tuition to local students, mirroring the Kalamazoo Promise. According to its organizers, the longer the student spends in the Northport system, the higher the percentage of college tuition he or she can receive. Students can net fully-paid tuition if they spend all their school years in Northport. Fundraising for the program has begun.

"We are at the end of the peninsula and we have to create a reason for people to want to come there," Steele Walker said.

New developments are making Northport a promise of their own. Ironically, the greatest economic bonus for downtown could come from a project outside the village limits.

The 450-acre Timber Shores development is poised to bring 500 affluent household to Northport merchants over the next 10 years, even if some of the village's 600 residents consider their outsized new neighbor a decidedly mixed blessing.

But the benefit to downtown may be hard to dispute. "For commercial services, this project is solely focused on the village of Northport," said its developer, Fred Gordon. "We do not have any commercial competition for the village."

Work on the project's infrastructure and the first condo units will begin this summer. They are scheduled to be completed next spring. The condo units will cost between $425,000 for roughly 1,800 square feet and $775,000 for 2,500 square feet and prime locations

The developers are scheduled to finish 211 units in about five years.

Northport Highlands, a senior citizens housing project, is another shot in the arm. It will ultimately provide 45 to 50 jobs, said Matt Davis, director of sales at its development firm, Parkside of Northport LLC. That will replace place a good share of the jobs lost when Leelanau Memorial closed.

The project is slated to include 18 two and three-bedroom homes and 38 one and two-bedroom apartment condominiums. The complex also will include 24 assisted living apartments, and 14 studio apartments for people with dementias.

Even when the issue has been controversial, residents have figured out a way to pull together and bridge old divisions.

For example, the Leelanau Township Foundation established a wastewater treatment initiative to help Northport's low income households shoulder some of their sewer costs. That initiative raised $170,000 which will be used for grants to pay hook-up fees for homeowners. They represent the cost to run the pipe from the home to the street.

"It's the only cost that can't be financed over time," said Mitchell, who is a trustee with the Leelanau Township Foundation.

Timber Shores has jumped on board as well.

"We are very significant supporters of the school system and we are prepared to provide funding for it from each of the residential units that we sell, in addition to the property taxes," Gordon said.

The exact contribution hasn't been worked out yet, he said. BN