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A New Year’s Resolution

Make Northern Michigan the Culinary, Cultural and Craft-Farming Capital of America

Rick Coates - December 31st, 2012  

Typically, resolutions are for individuals, but maybe now is the time for Northern Michigan to have a New Year’s Resolution. I have a suggestion. The time is right for Northern Michigan to work collectively to become the “culinary,” “cultural” and “craft-farming” capital of the country.

If we act now these three “C’s” will serve as the economic drivers for years to come. They will drive tourism, or increase employment and entrepreneurial opportunity throughout our region.

There is plenty of evidence of this elsewhere. Just drive down U.S. 131 to Grand Rapids and see the economic renaissance going on as a result of a community coming together to embrace the arts, food, brews and farms.


A few years ago Grand Rapids introduced ArtPrize, an art competition that awards a sixfigure cash prize. Last year ArtPrize attracted 320,000 visitors and added $15.4 million to Grand Rapids’ economy, based on a study from the Anderson Economic Group. The 2012 projections claimed over 400,000 visitors and $20 million in economic impact.

Here is the statement from ArtPrize organizers:

“From our perspective, communities thrive when people are given the flexibility and encouragement to be creative and a population is provided with the freedom to voice their opinions and to just plain have fun. The Anderson study shows that small experiments like ArtPrize can grow to have significant impact and we are pleased that our region is thriving as a result.”

When Grand Rapids partnered with Travel Michigan on a Pure Michigan television campaign, they portrayed their community as on art, cultural and food destination. The commercial with Tim Allen’s voice paints Grand Rapids as a place where “food is art” and you can experience “artful living.”

Last month Grand Rapids made headlines in the New York Times: “A Michigan City Bets on Food for its Growth.” The article details the new $30 million, 130,000-squarefoot Downtown Market, a year-round destination that is expected to attract 500,000 visitors a year. The three-story brick and glass building will open in the spring of 2013 and will be a state-of-the art center of commerce for the culinary arts and fresh local foods.

The market hasn’t even opened yet and Grand Rapids is already reaping economic impact from it. Developers are adding 312 apartments and 33,000 square feet of retail space in 13 new and renovated buildings in the neighborhoods closest to the Downtown Market.


These are just a few examples of the economic renaissance Grand Rapids has experienced over the past 20 years. In the early ‘90s business leaders, philanthropists, farmers, artists, chefs, cultural and community leaders began strategizing and re-visioning Grand Rapids. Their vision has paid off as billions of economic development has occurred with old warehouses converted into residential and retail operations, convention centers and businesses relocating to downtown GR. Thousands of new jobs have been created and a fast-growing, young-professional community is breathing new life in the city.

Anchoring this economic resurgence in Grand Rapids are the arts, culture, culinary and farm communities.


We have this same opportunity here in Northern Michigan and if we start now will reap similar benefits as Grand Rapids and even Flint.

Yes, Flint is amidst a major economic redevelopment. While our perception of Flint is as the murder capital of the Midwest, it has actually become a cultural hotbed attracting thousands of visitors every year. An organized effort by cultural leaders a few years ago has resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars invested in downtown Flint, again centered around arts and culture.

Greg Fielder of the Greater Flint Arts Council was in Northern Michigan last month with community leaders from around the country sharing how culture and arts and festivals have revived their downtowns. Sadly, no community leaders from Northern Michigan were in attendance at this conference. Fielder has made a video on Flint’s turn around through embracing the arts and it may be viewed at their website:

COMMITTING RESOURCES So what can and what should Northern Michigan do? We need to start committing resources to our culinary (restaurant, wineries, breweries, distilleries), cultural (art centers, museums, performing arts facilities, galleries and individual artists and musicians) and the craft-farmer (the small family farms, hop farms, vineyards, specialty crop and animal farms, farm markets and farmers’ markets).

Collectively, these groups need to come together and collaborate on events and initiatives that will serve their needs in addition to driving tourism and the region’s economy.

For years our tourism economy has been weather-driven. Warm, sunny days of summer along with good weather during the fall and snow-filled winter months have been needed for tourism to succeed. By embracing a cultural, culinary and agri-based tourism economy we will weather-proof our destination and create a year-round tourism industry.


ArtServe Michigan is reporting that every dollar of public investment in the state’s nonprofit arts sector returns $51 to the Michigan economy. This includes income generated by the cultural institutions through ticket sales and other revenue, along with profits realized from restaurants, gas stations and other businesses that share customers with the art communities.

Fortunately, the ball is rolling for this “New Years Resolution.” Over the past couple of months I have met with visionaries in all three of these areas who are looking to “brand” Northern Michigan as a community that is culturally, culinary and agriculturally based.

• Arts and culture leaders are planning an Art Summit in 2013 to determine ways to transform Northern Michigan as the cultural destination of the Midwest. A lofty vision, but one that is attainable. The Art Summit will be open to all art centers, artists, musicians, performing arts facilities both public and private and anyone else interested in seeing an art and culture-driven economy in Northern Michigan.

• A new culinary coalition is forming that plans to create a major week-long event to showcase the region’s restaurants, wineries, breweries, distilleries, cider and mead operations. The group also plans to create a marketing campaign to show off what the region has to offer to the rest of the world. They plan to collaborate with the regions cultural and ag communities.


This is all great news but it only scratches the surface of what we can accomplish in Northern Michigan.

We need everyone to get on board and the naysayers to stay home. What if the naysayers in Bellaire had gotten their way 10 years ago when Joe Short wanted to start Short’s Brewery and some were trying to stop him? Remember all the naysayers eight years ago when Michael Moore was launching the Traverse City Film Festival (TCFF)?

Sam Porter of Porterhouse Productions also faced naysayers when launching his successful microbrew and music events. What if the naysayers had won?

Look at what these three visionaries have accomplished. Not only has the TCFF become one of the top film festivals in the country, it paved the way for saving the State Theatre. That inspiration saved the Vogue Theatre in Manistee.


About 12 years ago I was a co-keynote speaker at the National Small Towns Conference. On the panel with me was Becky Anderson from an organization called Hand- Made in America. Becky spoke how her vision 10 years prior sparked an economic revitalization of 25 counties in Western North Carolina. She shared how all of these artisans resided in the region and through a collective effort they created a $122 million economic impact on the region annually.

In 1996 they expanded their program to focus on 13 small towns of less than 2,000 in population. In 16 years since, those 13 communities have seen 600 jobs created, $53 million invested, and the restoration of more than 200 historic buildings.

Today HandMade In America creates an economic influx of over $200 million annually into the local economy, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world.

I invited Becky Anderson to visit Northern Michigan in November of 2006. We toured from Manistee to Mackinaw City, stopping at galleries, wineries, restaurants, breweries, farm markets, art centers, performing arts facilities, and with artists and craftsman who work from home. We visited the sand dunes, beaches, lighthouses and several of our other tourist amenities during some very dreary November days.

He response after her three-day visit: “You have a gold mine up here. How come no one knows about this place.” She continued, “You need to do what we did in North Carolina.”

She is right. The time is now for our community of Northern Michigan to come together and work together from Manistee to Mackinaw City and make our region a cultural, culinary and ag destination for visitors and for entrepreneurs to relocate and invest in the region.

Chambers, visitors bureaus, business leaders and philanthropists need to jump on board and make it happen. Come on, if Flint and Grand Rapids can do it so can we.

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