‘How many Walgreens do we need?’

Why one man left the bustle of the Sunset Side and came back home

News Photo by Julie Riddle Alpena resident Kurt Herriman recently returned to the city after several decades living in Traverse City. He brings with him a love for Northeast Michigan coupled with a desire to see the area have the courage to embrace change.

ALPENA — Area kids know Kurt Herriman as an advisor, caring adult presence, and all-around nice guy.

The Alpena resident has worked as a mentor to children at a nonprofit community agency since he moved back to Alpena to care for an ailing family member three years ago. Before that, he spent 27 years living and working in Traverse City.

Herriman, 48, lived in Alpena until early adulthood before moving to the Sunset Side to pursue career opportunities. He spoke with warmth of the city where he lived for nearly three decades.

Intertwined with his reflections were insights about what Alpena might do differently, and observations on what it is doing well.

Like in Alpena, conversations in Traverse City meetings often turn to what that city wants to be, Herriman said. Some argue strongly it should take steps to be more like Grand Rapids. Other voices say the city needs to retain its small-town roots and Up North feel.

Herriman calls Traverse City, at its heart, a small community.

“It’s a lot like Alpena. It really is,” he said. “Friendly people that know your name” are all around you.

In the off seasons, when the tourists have all gone home, Traverse City has small-town charm, Herriman said. Summers — especially the beginning of July, when the annual Cherry Festival is held, drawing half a million visitors — are not so peaceful.

In the summertime, locals scatter, Herriman said, sticking to activities on the water or outside the city to avoid the heavy traffic brought on by massive tourism.

“It’s a pain in the butt,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Everybody hide, here come the tourists.'”

When he was in his 20s and early 30s, he said, he enjoyed the vibrancy of the summer months, when the city was flush with visitors. As he got older, his perspective changed.

“I’m not trying to be bah-humbug about it,” Herriman said. “It keeps the town beautiful, it brings in a lot of money, and a lot of people benefit from it. But, in summertime, it’s chaotic. It really is.”

Because of visitor traffic, coupled with new residents moving up, largely from the Chicago region, the city has grown quickly.

“You could be gone a month and you go back and there’s 10 new buildings,” Herriman said. “It’s outstanding. It’s overwhelming, really.”

He has seen bitter conflict in Traverse City between longtime locals and newly arrived “implants” as a result of the tremendous growth.

People, he said, move to the area, “set their feet on the ground, and then say, ‘We’re going to expand the town.’ And everybody that’s lived there is like, ‘Hmm, haven’t we done that enough? How many Walgreens do we need?'”

Alpena, as it looks forward and decides what efforts it wishes to make to draw visitors and new residents, can learn from its sister city to the west. Concerns about traffic and overcrowding can instruct rather than frighten, helping Alpena stay focused on moving forward, embracing the potential for change that lies in its residents, he said.

Alpena isn’t at risk of becoming a high-traffic place, Herriman said, both because of its distance from major roadways and because the culture of its residents won’t allow it. He feels the people at the heart of Alpena, unlike in Traverse City, won’t be overrun by new residents bringing in new ways of doing things. Rather, the town will hang on to its quiet, pleasant identity, even while embracing the lively additions to the city being introduced by a younger generation.

Since he has moved back to Alpena, Herriman has noticed a new willingness to embrace new ideas. The young people in Alpena, he said, show a spirit of entrepreneurialism that seems accepted in a place that, in his experience, has not always seemed open to new ideas.

“The more trendy businesses our young people can come up with, the better chance this town has of expanding and doing well, economically,” Herriman said.

Herriman reminisced with fondness about a favorite restaurant in Traverse City with an extensive tequila menu. He and friends would go grab a drink after work, eat chips and hang out. When he saw the new Mango’s Tequila Bar opening in downtown Alpena, he was excited at the prospect of replacing a favorite activity.

“Well, they’ve only got, like, five tequilas,” he said. “But you’ve got to start somewhere.”

Herriman was enthusiastic about recent business additions and community ventures. He praised such eateries as The Fresh Palate, Cabin Creek Coffee, The Black Sheep Pub, and Mango’s as embracing a modern vibe that will appeal to both young city-types and long-term residents. He commended the community for utilizing its most intrinsic feature, the waters in its back yard, through the development of the underwater sanctuary in Thunder Bay.

The experienced west-coaster with a heart for the Sunrise Side gives the city credit for such recent additions such as film festivals and live music during the summer.

Despite the advantages and apparent popularity of some of the new additions to the town, Herriman knows there is some reluctance at the thought of change in a city that prizes its culture, history, and peace and quiet.

It’s hard to be open-minded, Herriman conceded, “especially in a smaller community. You are so used to things being this way and this way and this way. It’s how you like it.”

But, Herriman said, “I think, as long as that’s not overdone too much, Alpena will always be the charming little gem it is in Northeast Michigan.”

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or jriddle@thealpenanews.com.