PROGRESS 2020: Big-money tourism, commerce travels U.S.-23
ALPENA — Capt. Ed Retherford, of Trout Scout V Fishing Charters, who’s guided outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen for 52 years, rates Northeast Michigan tourism a nine or 10 on a 10-point scale.
And a big driver of that tourism is traffic on U.S.-23, the highway that runs along the Lake Huron shoreline from Standish to Mackinac City and, interchanging with I-75, connects the Alpena region to metropolitans like Flint, Ann Arbor, and Detroit.
The federal highway, which ultimately runs all the way to Jacksonville, Florida, runs some 90 miles through Alcona, Alpena, and Presque Isle Counties.
In that distance, it runs through Harrisville, Alpena, and Rogers City, passes by six state parks, seven campgrounds, and 10 hiking trails.
It brings travelers near Hubbard Lake, Long Lake, and Grand Lake, and over the Thunder Bay River.
And, of course, it brings travelers by the mighty Lake Huron, with its shipwrecks in the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, its beaches, and, important to Retherford, its fishing.
The Trout Scout captain said he grew up in an outdoors family and came to Alpena as a teacher and football coach in the 1970s.
He started guiding the Au Sable and eventually took to charter fishing the big lake.
He can take one to six people aboard his 30-foot Marlin Charter Sportfisherman, running as many as 150 trips a year, a figure that’s “gone up and down over the years,” Retherford said.
“They come from all over the United States,” including Texas, Florida, and Colorado, the captain said. “I get a lot of repeats, but they come from all over. We get more people traveling up here to fish than anybody realizes.”
In addition to tourism, the U.S.-23 corridor along Lake Huron includes multiple industrial operations — such as LaFarge North America and Carmeuse Lime and Stone — that pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the economy, according to a 2018 study from the Michigan Port Collaborative.
In 2017, Alpena’s “water-based culture” generated $173.8 million in the region’s economy, the study said. That includes about $45.5 million related to tourism, with commercial shipping making up most of the rest.
The impact is even greater in Rogers City, where nearly $972 million flows into the community from the lakes, mostly through commercial shipping but also through nearly $38 million in tourism.
Traffic has slowed some on the highway. Traffic data from the Michigan Department of Transportation shows about 13,000 daily travelers on U.S.-23 just north and just south of Alpena last year, compared to more than 14,000 in 2013.
But that traffic ebbs and flows with the times, and 2020 counts could be higher.
As Michiganders flocked to the outdoors amid the coronavirus pandemic that made indoor entertainment risky, camp nights at the dozen state forest campgrounds in Northeast Michigan was up by 2,500 stays this summer, said Ron Olson, chief of the Parks and Recreation Division at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
The pandemic slowed business for Retherford this summer. One of his regulars, who owns a place on Hubbard Lake, has fished with Retherford for 39 years and this was the first year the guy couldn’t go out.
But the captain’s confident traffic will flow again.
“On a normal year, I’m already booked,” Retherford said. “It’s definitely tourist-oriented.”
Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.