Whitmer listens to leader concerns at Rogers City roundtable

News Photo by Julie Riddle Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks with community leaders at the Lakeside Park pavilion in Rogers City on Thursday.

ROGERS CITY — Rogers City leaders on Thursday took their concerns to the top at a roundtable discussion with visiting Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Mayor Scott McLennan, City Manager Joe Hefele, and a selected group of business and community leaders met with Whitmer at the city’s Lakeside Park pavilion, where Whitmer asked what the town needs to continue its revitalization efforts.

Housing took the forefront of the discussion, with roundtable participants voicing concerns that prospective employees and visitors who fall in love with the community can’t move there without an adequate housing supply.

As the city focuses its efforts on strengthening its downtown and increasing its visibility, the lakefront town that was once one of the state’s hidden treasures is no longer a secret, McLennan told the governor.

“Now, we have been found,” he said,

News Photo by Julie Riddle Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, center, speaks with community leaders at the Lakeside Park pavilion in Rogers City on Thursday.

Last year, Whitmer announced Rogers City as one of three cities chosen to join the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s Michigan Main Street Program.

With this designation, the city was promised five years of intensive technical assistance from MEDC, with a focus on revitalization strategies designed to attract new residents, business investments, economic growth, and job creation to its central business district.

Northern Michigan is spectacular, Whitmer told the group.

“But we have to tell people about it,” she said. “We’ve got to really highlight some of these incredible towns like Rogers City.”

Mostly listening during the 45-minute discussion, Whitmer asked community leaders for their impressions of the biggest hurdles the town faces as it strives to grow.

News Photo by Julie Riddle Rogers City Mayor Scott McLennan, right, looks on as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses community leaders at the Lakeside Park pavilion in Rogers City on Thursday.

The city needs to use tourism as an economic tool to push itself forward, said Tim Pritchard, owner of Domaci Gallery in downtown Rogers City.

With few direct roads or public transportation connecting to the region, communities like Rogers City have to work hard to attract visitors’ attention, said Katherine Wilbur, owner of Woodland Confectionary in downtown Rogers City.

State assistance like an MEDC grant she received when she opened her shop help business owners stay on solid economic ground and contribute to their town’s attractiveness to visitors, Wilbur said.

Customers have told her they moved from Colorado, California, and other parts of the country, snapping up property locally and when they couldn’t afford to live in their current homes anymore.

Visitors fall in love with the city and want to come back — and bring their shopping dollars with them, Hefele said.

News Photo by Julie Riddle Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, center, walks with staff members near the Lakeside Park beach in Rogers City on Thursday.

To come back, though, they need a place to stay.

The community’s motels are old and don’t offer as warm a welcome to guests as the community would like, but hotel operators can’t get anyone to help fund repairs because developers won’t take a risk without proof the hotels will stay full, Hefele told Whitmer.

While several local vacation rentals provide visitor lodging, those rentals tap into an already thin for-sale housing supply, several participants said.

And a dearth of homes for sale means those new residents can’t move to town, bringing their families and job skills with them, they said.

Without sufficient housing, the town won’t bring in enough money to keep stores open or entice entrepreneurs to open new ones, resulting in vacant storefronts that give those passing by on U.S.-23 less reason to turn off of the beaten path into the city’s downtown, Hefele told Whitmer.

News Photo by Julie Riddle Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, center, speaks with community leaders at the Lakeside Park pavilion in Rogers City on Thursday.

Inadequate housing also means professionals like doctors, mental health care workers, and attorneys can’t move to the area, depriving residents of needed services, members of the audience said.

Hefele encouraged the governor to consider supporting efforts that would clear the path for developers who might consider investing in Rogers City lodging as one way to make sure the city remains a thriving town.

While town leaders have mixed feelings about vacation rentals, McLennan told Whitmer he is nervous about rumblings at the state level that might turn into laws regulating such rentals.

Every city knows its own needs, and city leaders don’t want to be hamstrung by lodging-related decisions made for the whole state, McLennan said.

He also urged the governor to take communities’ efforts toward mending their own problems into consideration when doling out state dollars.

Several years ago, the city was on the brink of bankruptcy but restored its financial solvency through a vigorous overhaul of its pension liability system, he said.

When the state recently handed stimulus dollars to towns that hadn’t worked as hard to get themselves out of a financial hole, “I thought, ‘Wow. Maybe we should have just waited,'” McLennan said, asking Whitmer, in the future, to give more support to communities that do their part in creating financial stability.

Whitmer, addressing the group, said the state needs to do what it can to strengthen communities such as Rogers City.

“I think we’re on the verge of a real growth spurt here in Michigan,” Whitmer said, extolling the value of the state’s lakefront towns as she gestured toward the waters of Lake Huron outside the pavilion’s windows. “This makes us so special.”

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or jriddle@thealpenanews.com. Follow her on Twitter @jriddleX.


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