Alpena on the verge

As city changes, leaders work to keep the parts we love

News Photo by Justin A. Hinkley The Alpena harbor is seen at sunset in this 2012 photo. From the time this photo was taken until the end of 2020, some $230 million in investments will have been pumped into Norhteast Michigan, according to economic development leaders for the region.

ALPENA — Liz French, on her daily trips into Alpena from her Long Lake home to pick up medication, has noticed the new hotels, the increased number of visitors, the different businesses popping up around the city, especially downtown.

Those are signs that Alpena is a city on the verge, edging into a more diverse economy that is more reliant on tourism and the arts, leisure and retail jobs that support it than on the manufacturing jobs that long put food on residents’ tables.

French, a retiree, knows the influx of new, often younger people and different ideas help the Northeast Michigan economy.

But, she said, it can be “intimidating for older people like me.”

State and federal data show that, despite all the big, splashy investments in Alpena over the last decade — the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center and its glass-bottom boat shipwreck tours in Thunder Bay, the new Holiday Inn and Suites downtown, the Austin Brothers Beer Co. brewpub on the north side of town, and more — the region is actually shrinking, in terms of its resident population and labor force: Since 2007, the year the Great Recession ravaged the American economy, Alpena County has lost more than 1,400 working-age residents.

News Photo by Julie Riddle The downtown building occupied by The Basket Case receives a facelift as part of the city’s efforts to revitalize the central core of a city that’s committed to holding on to its roots as it expands its vision.

The region’s leaders have taken many steps to combat such trends: They’ve obtained grants to beautify the downtown and train the local workforce for modern jobs. They’ve purchased prime property along the Thunder Bay River and are actively marketing it to potential investors. They’ve helped to orchestrate more and more events and attractions in the heart of Alpena and along its Lake Huron shoreline, and have promoted those events to potential visitors nationwide, with a particular focus on neighboring Great Lakes states.

The fruits of that labor — hundreds of millions of dollars have been pumped into the city — have yielded a slightly different Alpena: While we lost nearly 500 manufacturing jobs between 2007 and 2017, the most recent year U.S. Census data is available, jobs in the arts and leisure sector have held mostly steady and we’ve actually added more than 200 retail jobs.

But, as the city shifts, its leaders in economic development and tourism said they’ve been mindful to maintain the rustic charm Alpena residents cherish. It’s a city with a smaller population than many of its northern Michigan counterparts, but that means fewer traffic crashes. It’s poorer, but more affordable. It’s less developed, but safer.

In fact, those leaders said, we do best when we focus on who we are.

“We don’t want to be Traverse City, or New York City, for that matter,” said Dennis Schultz, a longtime Alpena business owner and former board member at Target Alpena, Northeast Michigan’s economic development firm. “We are and want to be Alpena and share what makes us attractive with others.”

Courtesy Photo This photo provided by the Downtown Traverse City Development Authority shows the city street crowded with tourists during a festival.

‘THRIVING ON EACH COAST’

Melissa Tolan-Halleck recently moved back to Alpena after spending many years living in metropolitan areas throughout the country, as well as in Traverse City for several years.

Tolan-Halleck said she often hears folks talk about their fears that Alpena is becoming something it’s not. As the city has emphasized tourism as an economic engine and job creator, many people huff that we might become like that city on the other tip of the mitten.

“We don’t need another Traverse City,” they say.

“And I agree completely,” Tolan-Halleck said. “We don’t need another Traverse City. We need two northern Michigan cities that are thriving, on each coast. Why not? They’re very different.”

Indeed, Grand Traverse County, home to Traverse City, has three times as many people as Alpena County, according to U.S. Census data. Its residents make, on average, more than $17,000 more per household per year than residents in Northeast Michigan. According to state records, Grand Traverse County actually grew its workforce, slightly, between 2007 and last year, while Alpena County’s workforce shrank.

Tourism-related jobs made up about 30 percent of Traverse City’s workforce in 2017, compared to about a quarter of Alpena’s.

And some Alpena business owners want a slice of that pie.

Chef Eric Peterson, who opened The Fresh Palate in downtown Alpena 10 years ago this spring, said it took him six years to break even after he opened. Key to that success, he said, is Alpena’s busy summer tourism season.

“People like me need that to survive,” Peterson said. “Those four months of the year, I do more than half my business.”

To grow that business, Peterson said downtown Alpena could stand more diversions like those found across the state: cool bars, natural food markets, a Chicago-style pizza place, a bakery, or another coffee shop.

That said, Traverse City is not a utopia of economic development or tourism.

Its businesses, according to Downtown Traverse City Development Authority CEO Jean Derenzy, face the same challenges as anywhere else, with small businesses competing with both big-box stores and online shoppers. And the city struggles to provide adequate parking — its residents concerned about feeding meters and receiving tickets — and better public transportation.

And with all of Traverse City’s boom comes a number of realities Alpena doesn’t have to — and probably doesn’t want to — deal with: Houses cost nearly 40 percent more in Grand Traverse County than Alpena County, according to Census data. Traverse City deals with more than four times as many traffic crashes and five times as many traffic injuries, and three times as much crime, according to Michigan State Police data.

In fact, when compared to Traverse City and other northern Michigan hubs, such as Gaylord and Marquette, Alpena has some of the lowest levels of crime, some of the lowest costs of living, the least amount of traffic.

Those are the kinds of things, Alpena-area officials said, that Alpenans hold dear.

To Mary Beth Stutzman, president and CEO of the Alpena Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, comparing statistics proves nothing more than the fact that Alpena, like any city, is unique.

“The old adage rings true: If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid,” Stutzman said. “People shouldn’t compare themselves to others, and neither should communities.”

‘A BETTER VERSION OF OURSELVES’

Instead, Stutzman and others said, Alpena fares best when it amplifies its own assets, rather than chasing someone else’s.

“We used to look at our rural isolation as a downfall or a detriment, but that, really, is one of our greatest assets,” Stutzman said. “We have a lot of the benefits of a modern city, without a lot of the amplified stress that goes along with the modern lifestyle.”

Alpena residents and visitors have access to 19 miles of bike paths and 25,077 feet of publicly accessible water frontage, according to the city. Additionally, 8 percent of the city’s general fund budget is committed to arts, culture and recreation.

Alpena boasts more than 1,000 miles of shoreline on area rivers and inland lakes, as well as Lake Huron, 300,000 acres of open water, 43,000 acres of state forest land, and the nation’s only freshwater marine sanctuary, protecting more than 100 shipwrecks.

Alpena has its challenges, to be sure: We are poorer than other northern Michigan communities, and our graduation rates and education levels are lower than many of our neighbors.

Our rural charm also means a small population, which can scare off some potential investors who look for a base of potential customers as far as 80 miles out from the city where they’re thinking of opening shop.

“If they are looking for a population of 150,000, then we will have that covered,” said Jim Klarich, economic development director for the Alpena Area Chamber of Commerce. “If they’re looking for 250,000, well, then that is a different story. Does that mean they won’t build? Not necessarily, because everything is really different on a case-to-case basis.”

But area officials have been able to find growth by investing in what we do have, be it marketing our natural resources to potential tourists or training students in the kinds of high-paying jobs they could find right here, such as science and robotics-related jobs tied to Lake Huron.

There are signs of success: The Michigan Economic Development Corp. says Alpena, Montmorency, Alcona and Presque Isle counties raked in a combined $172 million in spending from people visiting last year. From that, businesses were able to pay employees a combined $51 million in 2018.

Taking into account new businesses and other projects finished since 2012 and other work still underway, some $230 million is expected to be pumped into the Alpena area by the end of 2020, Klarich said.

That includes the new Holiday Inn downtown, Meijer on M-32, and Fitzpatrick Hardware on U.S.-23 South. It includes two new Dollar General stores and remodeled Arby’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and McDonald’s restaurants. It includes projects still in the works, such as a new tower at the MidMichigan Medical Center-Alpena, a new senior living center, the Northland Area Federal Credit Union headquarters on Bagley Street, a substantial update to Van Lare Hall at Alpena Community College, a new county jail, and a new terminal at Alpena County Regional Airport.

“When you consider everything that has been done and what we have in the queue through 2020, the amount of investment is huge, and we have a lot of room for more,” Klarich said.

A challenge that faces our city — in fact, faces all cities — is how to continue to be the part of us we love, while still remaining open to growth and evolution, officials said.

Stutzman, of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, said community leaders need to make sure they are on a similar page so that the community is not being developed in a direction that doesn’t make sense for Alpena or that will threaten its quality of life.

“Growth for the sake of growth is never good,” Stutzman said. “I think, for the most part, everyone is pulling on the same end of the rope to move us to a better version of ourselves.”

About this series

“This Is Us” takes an in-depth look at the changing economy in Northeast Michigan and the efforts of Alpena leaders to preserve the city’s identity while managing the growth of tourism. Alpena News reporters spent weeks collecting data and conducting interviews for this series.

COMING UP

∫ Monday: A look at how Alpena’s leaders are working to attract young people to invest in the city’s future, and a look at Alpena’s efforts to build solid youth sports programs as a way to attract and retain top talent

∫ Tuesday: Find out why one man decided to leave Alpena, and why another came home

∫ Wednesday: What’s next? How Alpena’s leaders hope to capitalize on its tourism boom