Northport taps community spirit: With $14M sewer system in place, village turns to waterfront, signage and streetscape updates

NORTHPORT – Mostly freed from their crippling septic system problems, Northport residents are now trying to nurse their downtown back to prosperity with a dash of business activity and a big helping of community vision.

While Michigan's economic slump has slowed real estate development, it hasn't stopped a small army of Northport volunteers from thinking big: Among other things, they are looking for a new public landscape for the village.

"We are moving ahead on all fronts," said Andy Thomas, owner of Thomas & Milliken, a designer wood products company in Northport. "We have our own character, but we want to have the kind of basic activity that a small community requires."

In recent years, Northport, population about 600, has been an oddity: a picturesque waterfront community with a dying downtown.

One dramatic symbol of its decline was the closing of a popular watering and dining spot, Woody's Settling Inn, several years ago. Another was the closing of the Munson Medical Center's Leelanau Memorial Hospital nearly three years ago.

Once a thriving boating and motoring destination, the village had seen businesses fall by the wayside in the recent years. And potential buyers were understandably put off by the need to pump out holding tanks on a regular basis. Many properties languished at prices barely half those of some other waterfront communities.

"I don't think people wanted to get involved here, particularly in the business district, without a sewer system," said Bill Collins, chair of the Northport Planning Commission.

But now, Northport boosters say their community is moving in the right direction. Northport Highlands, a $6-million assisted living facility and care center for dementia, has just broken ground. The developer is Parkside Management Services, LLC based in Skokie, Ill.

The project is leading to construction activity over the next year and as many as 60 jobs long-term, according to the company. The employment partly offsets the 140 jobs lost with the closing of Munson Medical Center's Leelanau Memorial Hospital on the same site several years ago. Ultimately, the site would include the separate development of independent living condos and villas, according to Parkside's plans.

Business development is just part of the story, however. Residents have formed voluntary committees to tackle issues ranging from nature trails to a guaranteed college tuition program, the Northport Promise, for local high school graduates. That program is seen as a way to attract more families to Northport.

The Leelanau Township Community Foundation is a major player in the current flurry of non-profit and volunteer activity. It is helping Northport solicit proposals for a design plan for its public spaces. In early August, the foundation submitted requests for proposals to 14 landscape and design firms. They were due back at the end of the month.

With a recent Michigan State University study as its springboard, the resulting master plan could lead to a new look for the village's waterfront and streetscapes.

Those options, at least, won't have to contend with the sewer issue. After surviving several lawsuits and some hard-fought political battles, the $14 million sewer system is basically completed. In mid-August, village officials and consultants were running tests and planning to notify residents on when they need to hook their properties to it this fall.

"We have been actually testing the system using water to make sure that everything is running mechanically," said Village Administrator Greg King.

"We are pretty much on schedule, but with those court cases, we are about a year delayed. We have had some bumps along the way, but you have that any time you have a project of this kind."

The village proceeded with the sewer system last year after its septic systems were declared inadequate in a report prepared by the Fleis & VandenBrink environmental firm. The village had commissioned the report.

Even before it was completed, the new sewer system was promising at least some relief for the village's real estate recession. It was a key to the Northport Highlands project, according to Assistant Marketing Director Beth Nunnelley, and several downtown real estate sales over the last 18 months. Those deals involve office, retail and restaurant space that could give the village the appeal it once enjoyed.

Not least of all, it is ending unsavory sight of pumping trucks pulling up to restaurants and other businesses. That had been a daily occurrence during the summer.

But even the real estate deals seem motivated by community spirit, to some extent. Bruce Viger, owner of The Eat Spot restaurant on Mill Street, says he basically bought the shuttered Little Finger restaurant recently "because somebody had to do it."

"Let me tell you: I didn't really need any more work," he said with a laugh. He says he would not have bought the eatery if the sewer system hadn't been approved.

"It's going to be seasonal. Sewer or no sewer, I don't see Northport becoming a Suttons Bay or more of a year-round community. We are going to be a seasonal resort community, but I think we can be a good one."

The restaurant will exclusively offer take-out food and have outdoor seating. "We will be bulldozing the seating area and we will be creating patio outdoor seating," Viger said.

Last year, Buzz and Suzanne Moffett, the purchasers of the North Country Garden Building at the intersection of Waukazoo and Nagonaba, only proceeded with the transaction once they were fairly sure the new sewer system would go through.

In another downtown project, the new owners of the old Willowbrook restaurant, Patrick and Kathleen Busch, are turning the building into an inn and events center.

Local community activists like Thomas would especially like to see Woody's Settling Inn sold or developed, since the restaurant has been a landmark.

Even with the sewer situation apparently solved, Woody's and other properties still have to fight an uphill battle against the tough economy.

The state's slowdown extends to both residential properties as well as commercial properties. Like much of northern Michigan, the Northport area has about a year's supply of unsold homes, brokers say.

But a boost for Northport's downtown could come from waterfront improvements based on the village's design study. As part of a master plan, the village wants a "comprehensive plan for the entire waterfront from Main Street to Third Street," including walkways, a small-boat facility and landscaping.

The village is also commissioning a consultant to consider future uses such as a cruise ship facility and a marina expansion. Collins suggests that any expansion would be further out into West Grand Traverse Bay.

His own ideas range from more amenities for boaters to a broader definition of exactly who the waterfront users are. Fishermen are another important class of waterfront customers, he said. So a fishing pier could be another option.

"We need to improve our bathroom facilities not only for boaters coming into the marina but also people coming in for events," he also said.

These improvements could spur business activity, he said.

Ann Marie Mitchell, the Coldwell Banker Schmidt broker who has the listing for Woody's, believes the streetscape and other aspects of a new master plan could "improve everyone's property values." "I think what is important for the waterfront property, the land that the village currently owns, is making it usable for all the people. The boaters are one group, and then you need to improve the beachfront for families or pedestrian us, and picnic areas." BN