EXPRESS: How are things after an extremely rough winter? This is such a seasonal area; was the weather good or bad for retail and tourism?
KEEDY: This was a pretty unique winter obviously. One thing we’ve noticed in the past 5-6 years is the seasonality has moderated a bit. As an example, at spring break people started to come up here. It used to be people would just leave. So Petoskey has moved in that year-round direction quite a bit. We have a wide array of restaurants and quality has improved incredibly. We see more seasonality at Palette [Bistro] of course, but for the most part our businesses have been following the economic trends.
DE WINDT: At the beginning of the year ski hills were shouting with joy, but then cold did just the opposite. There was a point in December or January when we thought because of the cold maybe they’re [tourists] not skiing but they’ll shop…but they never really did.
VAN DE CAR: There was also snow through out the whole state, so travel was difficult and many just stayed home.
FITZSIMONS: Our business was down at area ski hills, and that’s still our bread and butter. We had some solid cross country skiing and snowmobiling business, but Marty’s right.
EXPRESS: What’s the Petoskey area’s identity? How do things get done here?
KEEDY: I really think there’s a collaborative way of doing business, a regionality. All of our area communities have staked a claim in our future, including Boyne City and Harbor Springs. The collaboration has been very good and I think very unique. We’re not just a little Traverse City; Petoskey is a unique place.
BRUNET-KOCH: Right. People here are more interested in making sure our area is preserved as opposed to knocking someone down. This isn’t something we just talk about today; it’s genuine.
FITZSIMONS: When there’s an issue, like the proposed library across the street, there were two groups that fought like cats very emotionally and thoughtfully, and then you get a great result. Then everybody walks away friends.
VAN DE CAR: Well all of a sudden this isn’t the tourism place it used to be. Being a Native American from here, I understand you’ve got to get along with your neighbors. That’s a big part of being a part of here; everyone realizing having an Indian tribe in your back yard is a good thing. There are some tribes that have an ‘us vs. them’ mentality, but we’re focused on being a good community partner through education, roads, and more.
FITZSIMONS: I took a tourism industry group on a tour of Petoskey once, and I told them you’re going to ‘not notice’ a lot of things here. Like how we paint the backs of stop signs, or the downlighting for the darker night sky, the setbacks from the roadway, buried utilities. There are a lot of little things you might not notice that have been thought through.
BRUNET-KOCH: That’s a good observation.
EXPRESS: Is there any sense of animosity about summer tourists and their impact on the area? There’s some of that in Traverse City.
FITZSIMONS: Well of course we’re the business you love to hate. Everybody realizes that. But I do think it’s different here.
BRUNET-KOCH: Those folks who are here May through September in many ways keep the rest of the people living here year round.
KEEDY: Right. They contribute to the community, they are very involved, they give generously to the college foundation, to Crooked Tree, to the Hospital. I think having animosity toward summer residents is not thoughtful at all….
BRUNET-KOCH: I think we try to be more thoughtful and take lessons from other places like Traverse City so we can plan effectively for our growth and our future.
FITZSIMONS: I lived in Traverse City from 1966 to 1968, and I remember you could not take a left turn out of the Holiday Inn because of traffic. That mentality about crowds and tourism has been there for a long time.
EXPRESS: What’s driving the local economy these days?
KEEDY: Of course there used to be a lot more manufacturing here, and that was a tough transition. We’ve now experienced some of the things larger communities already had. I came here from Atlanta and didn’t realize how much manufacturing really mattered in this area. And in terms of downtown Petoskey, I think overall it’s doing really well.
DE WINDT: What you see is government, healthcare…the private sector as having large impacts on our economy.
BRUNET-KOCH: Talent is the key, whether it’s for manufacturing or for healthcare, or all these little offshoots. Hopefully the college will respond to those needs and cultivate talent. Our new mobile Fab Lab is going from the business world to schools and providing training so that students can graduate with certificates to go right to work. I’ve heard from companies like Precision Edge and Moeller Aerospace; they have positions open that they’re unable to fill.
VAN DE CAR: Like the governor said; it used to be everyone went to a traditional classroom in the morning, and then half would go to vocational school to learn a trade in the afternoon while the other half stayed in class. Manufacturing’s changed; it’s not the big smokestacks anymore. It’s high tech.
BRUNET-KOCH: And, our area is attracting older people, many with health issues. We need a trained workforce to take care of those folks, people getting elder care certificates, something we will begin in the fall.
VAN DE CAR: Good to know!
DE WINDT: Just look at the success story of Coolhouse Labs, the business accelerator in Harbor Springs. It gives focus to that younger generation. That generation is looking for more lifestyle and quality of life. [Founder] Jordan Breighner chose to come back to Harbor Springs. He fits that demographic we want. But we have to find ways to encourage them. They want to be hands-on and empowered. They don’t want to sit around and talk and have meetings. They’re doers. We need to attract more of them back here.
VAN DE CAR: Part of it too is affordable housing. They want to live here but can’t afford it.
EXPRESS: The real estate market is so critically important to the economy here, isn’t it?
BRUNET-KOCH: It is. A strong real estate market helps all of us. Our millage of course is funded by property taxes, and that has been going down and down. Back when Bay Harbor was exploding there were terrific increases in our tax base. This year was flat and we actually did backflips. It looks like a 1.22 drop in taxable values in Emmet County, after 2-3 years of 3-4 percent declines.
FITZSIMONS: Keep in mind that 35 percent of homes in Emmet County are second homes; Charlevoix is 20 something.
EXPRESS: So what’s the single largest issue facing the region right now?
FITZSIMONS: Public transportation. The need is tremendous.
DE WINDT: I’d second that.
VAN DE CAR: It’s always on the minds of the community here.
BRUNET-KOCH: We’re absolutely underserved there. I think there’s a lack of appreciation of all the people who don’t have cars or access to reliable transportation. It’s a large part of our student population, and we need to get them to and from their classes. I’ll tell you, I would ride a bus in a heartbeart if we had one.
FITZSIMONS: In Traverse City you’ve got BATA, which is publicly funded. We have been unable to even get something on the ballot here.
BRUNET-KOCH: I’ll say public transportation is the number one issue, but equal jobs that pay a living wage is a close second. We need additional businesses and industry to come into our community to create jobs.
FITZSIMONS: Also the environment. I think we probably have the most active conservancy in the country, which speaks to philanthropy in the area. For five and six generations, we have been very aware that we want to keep our water and air the way they are.
EXPRESS: What about Harbor Springs specifically?
DE WINDT: Well, the waterfront is going through a major redesign and that’s exciting. The vision is to have the waterfront utilized by more people. But we know one component – the waterfront – isn’t going to make this a new vibrant area. We’re unique…there’s a political nature to our town and changes come slowly. We’re very careful to preserve the charm. We also have a new movie theatre coming downtown, which is great!
EXPRESS: Are you all expecting a big upcoming tourist season?
FITZSIMONS: We sometimes say Mother Nature is our ultimate terrorist. You never know.
BRUNET-KOCH: We sure deserve a long, great summer…