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Officials fighting retail void in Alpena

News Photo by Steve Schulwitz Master-LaLonde’s Shoes owner Shawn Straley, left, and employee Silas Bastow restock shelves in the store Thursday. The store is slated to close in the coming weeks.

ALPENA — Despite a rash of “going out of business” signs posted in some Alpena store windows recently, the economic picture is not all gloom and doom, the city’s economic development chief said.

Steps are being taken to help businesses still trying to regain their footing after the state-mandated shutdown meant to slow the spread of COVID-19, said Mike Mahler, economic development director at the Alpena Area Chamber of Commerce, and efforts are being made to fill empty storefronts and bring in new businesses.

Mahler said there’s still about $3 million in government relief funds to be allocated to businesses in Northeast Michigan, of which $931,000 will be distributed to businesses in Alpena County.

“This is a really big deal, because these business owners still have rent to pay, bills to pay, and taxes to pay,” he said. “There are a lot of businesses who are still hurting that can really use these funds to help keep them afloat for a while longer.”

Meanwhile, the list of stores and restaurants closing in Alpena is growing, though not all of those closures are caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Mahler said.

In the last year, Peebles, Burger King, and J.C. Penney have all shuttered or announced plans to close. The Dollar General at Harborside Mall is also in the process of closing, as is Master-LaLonde’s Shoes in downtown Alpena.

Mahler said it’s concerning to see a void growing in the local retail market, and he has been working with J.C. Penney executives to try to avoid its closure, though little progress has been made.

“I have been explaining the market in Alpena to them, because we are unique,” Mahler said. “The people who live here, for the most part, don’t want to shop online or drive 140-plus miles to shop for clothes. Because we lost several retailers recently, there is a void, and they would be able to fill it. We’re going to keep working on it.”

Mahler added that he has also been working on three sizable development projects that would give a big boost to Alpena. He wouldn’t release any details, but said the talks could lead to as much as $25 million in new development.

“There is still a lot of interest in Alpena, and there are a few developers who are really interested,” he said. “Alpena was really on the radar before COVID, and now they seem ready to get the bus moving again.”

In positive economic news on Thursday, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy announced Rogers City will get a $80,000 grant to purchase and install a pair of fast-charging electric car stations.

City officials hope the charging units will draw more tourists to the city.

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