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Alpena officials work to overcome loss of retail

News Photo by Steve Schulwitz Alexis Ciarkowski inventories children’s books at the Parallel 45 Bookstore in downtown Alpena. Over the last year, Alpena has lost some of its largest retailers, but several small shops and boutiques remain. Local planning and development officials are trying to fill the vacant buildings and lure more retail businesses to the area.

ALPENA — Over the course of the last year, Alpena has seen an uptick in manufacturing businesses but lost some of its popular retailers.

Vacant buildings and storefronts are starting to add up, and going-out-of-business and for-sale signs are becoming more common.

News this week that manufacturing hub I2P is working to buy the Alpena Mall added to the loss of stores such as J.C. Penney, Neiman’s Family Market, Peebles, Burger King, and a Dollar General that has local economic development and government officials scrambling to fill the empty spaces. They are also trying to diversify the local economy in the process, which they say would increase the viability of many of the small businesses.

Right now, the biggest need in Alpena is in the retail sector, Alpena Area Chamber of Commerce President Adam Poll said.

He said the loss of the bigger chain retailers have left a void in the local economy, and officials are working to attract new retail stores to Alpena, because not everyone wants to shop online.

“We are very fortunate that we have been able to retain our industrial capacity,” Poll said. “Not every community can say that. We do need to find additional retail opportunities. Shopping online is simple, but there are a lot of people who don’t want to go online. They want to be able to walk around a store, try on clothes, and see items in person.”

Poll said lacking retail reduces the number of people who visit Alpena and increases the number of residents who travel to places like Gaylord, Saginaw, and Traverse City for purchases.

People in the area tell the Alpena Downtown Development Authority they want more places to shop for items of necessity, DDA Executive Director Anne Gentry said.

“I always hear we need more places to shop, especially for clothing, both men’s and women’s,” she said. “We have more than 30 shops, but we always want more, especially as other businesses around the area go out of business.”

Gentry said Alpena also needs more unique restaurants that stay open later at night, and there is also a high demand for apartments and homes in or close to downtown. She added that more large events, such as the city’s popular beer and wine festival and blues festival, also would help.

Jane Thompson was eating lunch at Culligan Plaza downtown on Wednesday. She said downtown offers a good variety of food options, but she would like to see something seafood-specific. She said it may seem like there are a lot of restaurants in Alpena, but few have a large selection of seafood on its menu.

“We live right on the lake and have tourists from all over, so you would think we should have a seafood restaurant where you can get crab legs, lobster, and a few variations of fish,” Thompson said. “Making it upscale and having it where you could see the lake or river, I think, would be popular. We don’t have a lot of upscale dining, really.”

Thompson’s daughter, Julia Demerit, lives in Traverse City, but visits Alpena often. She said Alpena could use a candy shop, like those in Mackinaw City, and an electronics store that specializes in computers and accessories. She said a Kohl’s, Target, or Bed Bath and Beyond would also make shopping in Alpena better.

“That would give people more options, she said. “Right now, Walmart and Meijer is all you have to shop at, really. There are some cute boutique shops downtown, but I’m not sure how they appeal to most shoppers.”

Steve Schulwitz can be reached at 989-358-5689 at sschulwitz@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @ss_alpenanews.com.

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