A tiny burg at the end of a peninsula makes a miraculous turnaround. The lesson for other small towns: It takes a village to raise a village.
This story was featured in the October 2014 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy!
The notices started appearing sometime early in September 2013—a story in the Leelanau Enterprise, little posters on grocery store bulletin boards. Somebody was launching a new event in Northport on the last Saturday of the month, an event called Leelanau Uncaged. The name was cheeky, to be sure, and, like many small town fests, the list of things at the event sounded somewhat random.
So a community brass band played, and a chamber music quartet played, and a folk-bluegrass group played and a pop music group played, and a lady sold antique blue mason jars, and a lady sold her sailboat paintings, and Motovino sold its wine, and somebody parked the sexiest vintage Porsche Boxter on the planet out on the street and just let people stare at it, and a guy parked a rotting, paint-peeled big wood boat on the street and presented his vision for bringing the thing back to life for nonprofit education purposes, and children from the Native American tribe in Peshawbestown danced tribal dances to the drum beats and chants of their people.
And that randomness and life and celebration of stuff drew people in. Fair-goers filled the streets and hung around and listened to music and ate street food and enjoyed—all at the tip of a peninsula and well past the heart of tourist season. To somebody who was new to Northport that day, the event probably registered as something like, Hey, man, that was fun, think I’ll come back next year.
But to anybody who had lived in or tried to run a business in Northport during the past decade, the Leelanau Uncaged event represented something much more, something telegraphed loud and clear in the word “Uncaged.” Northport was on the rebound and wanted the world to know.
Because the previous decade, the aughts, had not been kind to Northport. For starters, growth in the tiny downtown was stalled because of an ancient problem: what to do with human waste. Back in 2003, the town had no sewer system, and old septics were polluting the environment. Long-time restaurants like Woody’s Settling Inn and Stubb’s were having to pay high prices to pump their tanks multiple times per week, reducing already thin profit margins and meanwhile suffering unfortunate whiffs on the deck during hot and busy summer weekends. And nobody could expand or build because there was no good way to handle more sewage. The Michigan DNR wrote a report that said something had to be done. Some people speculated that the marina septic was so bad the harbor might have to close.
Then the Leelanau Memorial Hospital shuttered in 2004, and with it, about 150 paychecks vanished. Bruce Viger, owner of the Garage Bar & Grill, says his revenue dropped 30 percent overnight at his former restaurant The Eat Spot (now called The North End Eatery) when the hospital closed. That same year longtime restaurant Woody’s Settling Inn closed, and then the highest profile destination retailer, North Country Gardens, closed. And by the time the Great Recession rolled around in 2009, the business district in one of the most beautiful and charmed villages ever to perch on a Great Lake shore was looking hungry, gaunt and dark.
But the empty storefronts concealed important activity that had been going on behind the scenes by people who refused to let Northport die. That activity ultimately allowed Northport to make one of the most remarkable turnarounds—possibly the most remarkable turnaround—in Northern Michigan small-town history. In 2005, the village council made the politically divisive decision to build a $12 million sewage treatment system—politically difficult because it meant a $10,000 per lot assessment and a $5,000 per customer connection fee. The council survived a 2006 recall vote—possibly helped by a DNR report early that year saying it would not approve a permit for the marina septic system.
The sewer turned on in 2009, the same year that saw the completion of other important projects that had been simmering along for many months. The Northport Highlands, a long-term nursing facility with a focus on memory care, opened in the former hospital, bringing 50 jobs and offering 40 spots for patients, explained Kathryn Browning, executive director. The Highlands also allowed the community to continue using the pool for fitness and recreation—a vote for community cohesion and spirit. That same year, the community completed a village visioning project that allowed people to share their ideas for how they wanted Northport to be in the future and, perhaps just as important, forced people to look ahead to a brighter future.
With the sewer in place, the marina overhaul kicked into motion, and then entrepreneurs—long-time locals and newcomers alike—joined in the resurgence. Pat and Kathleen Busch overhauled the Willowbrook Mill and turned it into a captivating wedding and event venue. Bruce Viger, who had operated restaurants in Northport since 1989, was able to expand his drive-thru bbq place into a full-on bar and restaurant.
Viger’s Garage—which he co-owns with Suzy Moffett—made a style statement too about Northport possibilities. Going with an urban-sleek vibe, he laid down a polished cement floor and covered the walls and ceilings with stained and varnished plywood, achieving a look that was hip, spare, edgy and vaguely indestructible (also a good message for Northport). On a sunny day at the end of August, Viger sits at an umbrella table on the Garage patio and recalls the construction. “We put all that plywood up in one day,” he says, giving a quick point to the panels and laughing at the feat.
Then local investors—and relative newcomers—Ben Walraven and Bill Collins purchased the former Woody’s building from the historical society that had inherited it and announced a family-destination venue called Tucker’s of Northport that would offer year-round bowling, games, dancing, a restaurant and pub. The purchase allowed the historical society to buy another building and open a small museum.
Simultaneously, on the edge of town, Collins also built a golf course that he intends to transfer to the village in five years, when he’s hoping to be able to prove it will be cash-flow positive to the village. “All the utilities are solar powered, even the golf carts will be,” he says, while sharing a shady spot on the clubhouse deck, overlooking a fairway.
Meanwhile, Erik and Deirdre Owen—recent transplants from southern Ohio—rehabbed a downtown building and opened a wine tasting room called Motovino. Then just a couple of years later they announced they were buying the town’s flagship building, the former North Country Gardens, and were opening a restaurant/cafe/hip hangout called Lelu with a boutique hotel called The Northport Inn above (the wine tasting room moved there too).
And up and down the street, the comeback ignited in one building after another. The old Willowbrook Mill became a smart and handsome wedding venue. Clare Gengarelly opened Red Mullein, a boutique specializing in kimono jackets. Traverse City entrepeneur Tonya Cook purchased Stubb’s restaurant and gave it an overhaul and a new name, The Soggy Dollar. Scott Cain announced he was opening the Northport Brewing microbrewery right downtown. Jay Holman purchased the train depot and transformed it into the boutique Set in Stone, selling wine and cigars, and soon The Tribune ice cream and eatery will be open.
In September of 2013, when the first Uncaged event took place, several of the biggest pieces of this resurrection were not even completed: Tucker’s, the golf course, and the microbrew pub were in various stages of planning or construction. The Northport Inn will open this fall, and The Tribune is likewise under construction. Yet a year ago, Northporters already knew they had momentum, knew they were ready to celebrate in an uncaged way.
So what are the takeaways for other small Northern Michigan towns looking to ignite growth? The elements here are something of a classic mix of government infrastructure (sewer, marina, visioning process), larger private investments (Northport Highlands, Tucker’s, Northport Creek Golf Course), smaller private investment (Garage, Lelu, Soggy Dollar, Red Mullein, Northport Brewing, Set In Stone, and Tribune Ice Cream and Eatery) and, of course, entrepreneurs who looked around town and asked themselves, What does this town need to get uncaged?
People of Northport
Bruce Viger moved to Northport when he was just 10, and for the most part he has lived and done business here ever since. In 2010 he opened his fourth eatery, called The Garage, a hip and kicked-back pub with a menu built around house-smoked pork (Garage precursors: Stubb’s, The Eat Spot and The Drive-Thru BBQ). Vigers vividly recalls the troubled times of the mid-aughts. One day, “I laid on the floor of my shower and wanted to throw up because I just didn’t know how I was going to make it,” he says. “My sister bailed me out.” By contrast, these days are good days, with business up 15 percent this summer and a positive vibe prevailing on the streets of his hometown.
Erik and Deirdre Owen moved to town in 2010, when empty storefronts and under-utilized shops still dominated the scene. But despite the outward signs of concern, the entrepreneurs were determined to build a business in this place that had captured their hearts 15 years prior. “One thing, I’m tenacious,” Erik says. Also in their favor: the new sewer was operating. The couple decided the town needed something to draw wine-tour people, so they rehabbed a building, commissioned wine to be made at French Road Cellars crush facility, and hung the Motovino shingle on a tasting room. They sold a fifth of what they’d projected. Change of plan: They bought the former North Country Gardens store and set about turning it into a restaurant, coffee house, music venue and boutique hotel with nine rooms. Called Lelu, the venue offers entertainment year round, and the Owens hope it will be Northport’s gathering spot.
Tonya Cook, Traverse City hospitality entrepreneur and sailor, always loved slipping up to Northport to decompress from her busy Traverse City life. She and her husband eventually bought a vacation house here, and when Stubb’s restaurant came up for sale in 2012, she convinced some investors to join in and buy. “I wanted the kind of place where I would want to hang out after a day of sailing,” she says. She overhauled the interior, kept the popular deck and transformed the menu with such touches as gourmet cheeses, smoked salmon, crab cakes, bang-bang shrimp and a nicely curated wine list. The new name, Soggy Dollar, is a sailor invitation. These days, “Northport is about good people talking to other good people about moving forward, while keeping what we like,” she says.
Sarah Eggert had worked at Northport’s destination retailer North Country Gardens for 11 years, and then it closed. With a career in retail and a love of Northport, she decided to open her own shop, called Pennington Collection, 16 months later. It was 2006 and the tide was still going out in Northport, but she didn’t let that bother her. “All small towns get hot and then get cold and then get hot again. I knew people weren’t going to let Northport die,” she says. Surveying the landscape of new growth in Northport, Eggert says she’s remaining cautiously optimistic. “It’s exciting to see, but we need to make sure places stay open year round in a way that customers can count on, so when they show up, they know they can shop and get a sandwich.”
Ben Walraven retired from a globe-trotting career in the flower seed industry and moved to Northport in 2003 after telling his wife he wanted to show her “the greatest place in the world for fresh water, scenery and fresh air.” Immediately thereafter, though, downtown businesses started to close. He reasoned the village needed a destination business that drew people year round and dreamed up Tucker’s, with six bowling lanes, a game room, pub and restaurant, and found investors like Bill Collins to join. Walraven believes the handsome upgrade and overhaul of the marina was a key moment in Northport’s renewal. “That helped a heck of a lot for those of us who had been sitting on the sidelines waiting for a signal that now was the time to go.”
Bill Collins earned Motor City immortality as lead designer on both Pontiac’s trendsetter 1960s muscle car the GTO and on DeLorean’s future-iffic, gull wing–doored DMC-12. He moved to Northport to retire in 1999 just before the Lilliputian town began its spiral down, and his “move things forward, damn the torpedoes” world view wouldn’t allow him to stand by. Among other things, he helped save the Pennington building, built the 9-hole Northport Creek Golf Course on the edge of town (which he intends to donate to the village once he can show it will be cash-flow positive) and invested in the year-round restaurant and entertainment center Tucker’s of Northport. The takeaway: “You need people who are motivated to make things happen,” Collins says.