Otsego County’s crescendo

It’s impossible to go anywhere in Otsego County without hearing the music. It’s ubiquitous and continuous, and a constant reminder of our status as the second fastest-growing county in the state. Performed by an orchestra of backhoes, bulldozers, cement mixers and nail guns, the pleasing notes of growth ring out from every corner of the county, and there appears to be no end to this booming construction concerto.

It’s a great time to have a front row seat for the show, as we do at the Gaylord/Otsego County Chamber of Commerce. There’s a palpable sense of excitement in all of us, yet we are also fully aware of the inherent challenges to infrastructure and quality of life that rapid growth can bring about.

Gaylord is growing up–and out–in three significant ways: new business, expanding businesses, and housing starts. On the new business front there are still the classic sole proprietor “mom & pop” operations hanging out the shingle and flexing their entrepreneurial spirit, adding to the charm and uniqueness of our Alpine Village. They’re the types of shops not typically found in the more mainstream mall environment, such as Gaylord’s new Rock Works stone boutique on South Otsego Avenue, or, more likely, they’re service-oriented operations hoping to fill a missing niche as the Corridor Couriers delivery folks are trying to do.

On a somewhat larger scale, Gaylord’s success quotient has not gone unnoticed by the likes of Alpena’s Kadrich family, who is erecting Gaylord Home Furnishings on the booming west end of town. It’s just about a mile or so from a new Quiznos sub shop and a Powerhouse Gym, both also under construction and expected to open later this fall.

Powerhouse is actually moving into the former location of Fitness Systems, Gaylord’s inaugural health club, which recently moved to a new, larger facility on Wisconsin Avenue. Getting the growth picture?

Making the most headlines in the county are the national chains and big-boxes: Home Depot, Ruby Tuesday, Carter Lumber, Applebee’s and Meijer. The first three are in the midst of various stages of construction, the fourth plans to break ground in 2001, and the last has been the subject of rampant rumor for at least eight years. Some who claim to be in the know insist dirt will be turned for a Meijer store by 2002. We’ll have to wait and see, but, nonetheless, the signs are there that Gaylord is fast becoming the community du jour for the big boys.

Proof positive of that is the largest proposed project of all, the 800,000 square-foot shopping mall under development on the south side of Gaylord. While Bagley Township still has some hoops to jump through in its quest to construct a wastewater treatment plant to service the shopping complex, developers are hoping their shovels will hit the ground sometime in 2001.

While new enterprises are materializing like earthworms after a hard rain, there’s also been a strong movement afoot in the realm of business expansion. At least a half dozen Gaylord area enterprises are asking pardon from their patrons for dust generated by various augmentation projects.

On South Otsego Avenue, Gaylord Motor Sports is tripling the size of their watercraft/ATV/snowmobile facility to 16,000 square feet, and Saks Wellness Center is both expanding their chiropractic center and building an adjacent new health food store, Jo Jo’s Natural Market. Over on Wisconsin Avenue, Dan’s TV and Appliance plans to increase showroom space by 3,200 square feet. Recently, Feeny Chrysler-Plymouth-Dodge added a second 75-car lot next to their Dickerson Road dealership.

Barring a case of tunnel vision, it’s impossible to drive anywhere in the county without noticing house after house in various stages of completion. New subdivisions are a current trend, as fresh neighborhoods are dotting more and more points on the county’s compass.

There are two causes of the building boomlet: a need for more housing for newcomers, and the prosperity of those already here seeking to move up to bigger and better accommodations. According to statistics from the North Central Michigan Homebuilders Association in Gaylord, 1999 saw over 400 new housing starts recorded in Otsego County, with the pace for 2000 set to outdo last year.

This robust growth and humming local economy does present some significant challenges for the community and the Chamber of Commerce. At a time when existing businesses have it tough trying to fill their job openings, how will the new or expanding companies find qualified workers? Where will the inevitable relocating jobholders live on $7 and $8 an hour wages, when there’s a shortage of affordable rental units, and an average Otsego County home sells for over $100,000? Are we in danger of outgrowing our infrastructure?

These are just a few of the issues that propelled our Chamber Board to map out a five-year strategic plan, which will guide us through the genesis of workforce and leadership initiatives, the evolution of our Economic Development Alliance and the hiring of an Economic Development Coordinator. Concurrently, with a membership spiraling upward toward the 700 mark, we’re also working diligently to provide a quality package of services and benefits to our membership, to allow each of them to compete effectively in the ever-expanding world of Otsego County commerce. Our work is certainly cut out for us, but it’s an exciting brand of challenge.

We’re no longer a sleepy little northern Michigan berg. Strategic plans, unprecedented growth, new jobs and a better quality of life are the fresh lyrics of the community. These are the sounds of our success, and they truly are music to our ears.

Christopher Hebel is Executive Director of the Gaylord/Otsego County Chamber of Commerce. Reach him at (517) 732-4000. BN