The Next Hot Spot Up North: East Jordan
Part 1 in our quarterly Small Towns on the Rise Series
By Ross Boissoneau | Sept. 25, 2021
Paths, trails, a bridge, high-speed internet, a revitalized downtown: What might sound like a few dry infrastructure projects is actually a part of a substantial series of thoughtful investments positioning East Jordan, a town of about 2,300 in Charlevoix County, to become the next hot spot Up North for visitors, residents, small businesses, and investors.
“The energy and momentum right now — it’s fantastic,” says Mary Faculak, a business owner and CEO/President of the East Jordan Area Chamber of Commerce. “New businesses, new owners — there’s been a lot of ribbon-cutting.”
Of course, Faculak has a vested interest in the once-sleepy town at the end of the south arm of Lake Charlevoix. She’s both the head of the chamber and a business owner in East Jordan. But it’s the latter role that might provide the best measure of her confidence. She owns the East Jordan Shop, as well as Mary’s of Boyne City.
Faculak has watched Boyne City — similarly positioned as East Jordan, albeit at the end of the east arm of Lake Charlevoix — grow and expand over the years. She says she anticipates the same happening in East Jordan as more retail and restaurants and recreational opportunities have developed and more people are discovering the “other” town just 15 minutes southwest of Boyne City.
There are concrete reasons for Faculak’s optimism for East Jordan, and they go far beyond geographical positioning and lakeshore access. Among the town’s highlights — perhaps the biggest highlight — is the September opening of the Joining Jordan Project, a pedestrian bridge spanning across the Jordan River that has expanded accessibility to East Jordan’s natural assets for both residents and visitors.
BRIDGING THE GAP
East Jordan City Administrator Tom Cannon says the pedestrian bridge was seen as the first and most necessary step to revitalizing East Jordan. “We were behind where we wanted to be. We began a master plan … and planned for expansion,” he says.
Those expansion plans included some not-so-sexy-but-necessary elements, like a new wastewater plant and a new water tower (replacing the original one from 1909) — but the biggie was connecting the two parts of the city.
While there has long been a bridge across the Jordan River, it was not pedestrian-friendly, and the result was that people would get in their cars and drive from one side of town to another. Or not. Either way, the limits of its usefulness divided the city into two parts, militating against casual strolling or shopping throughout the downtown.
The new pedestrian-friendly bridge, though seemingly a small change, made a big impact on the community. It connected two parks, created a boardwalk on formerly blighted property, and prompted the creation of a new boat launch.
“The river and lake are beautiful but [they were] an obstacle. You could throw a softball across, but it was not bike or walk-friendly,” Cannon says. Enabling people who drive into to town to park on one side and simply walk to the other has not only created much more foot traffic — a helpful factor for the community’s existing businesses and, in time, an enticing one for prospective ones — but also a significantly more community-like vibe and sense of place in the downtown.
Improved access to and more recreational and cultural opportunities have been key to increasing East Jordan’s tourist draw and boosting the quality of life for residents.
“Being on the water is obviously a major deal,” says Tom Teske, chair of the Downtown Development Association. But the town looked beyond the beauty of the water to capitalize, too, on its surrounding forests and rolling hills.
Just last month, East Jordan officially opened Brown’s Creek Pathway trail, a five-mile mountain bike trail is located on Elm Street near the East Jordan Middle/High School. It is situated on 20 acres of properties that are owned by the City of East Jordan and East Jordan Public Schools.
For walkers, a substantial cultural addition: The state provided a grant that led to an art walk currently now seven sculptures on the connection between Memorial Park and Sportsman Park. Teske says the project provides another lure for those who want to slow down and take in all the town offers.
BUT WHAT ABOUT JOBS?
Teske is vice president and general manager of EJ Group, formerly East Jordan Iron Works, the construction castings company that has served as the backbone of the town — and the nation and now world’s construction-castings needs (think: manhole frame and covers, tree grates, fire hydrants, and more) — since its founding in 1883.
The company announced plans to relocate to a new facility just outside of town at about the same time as the city’s master planning process began. Rather than look for a more affordable place elsewhere in the country or outside it, EJ — which owns and operates three other foundries in Oklahoma, Ireland, and France and supplies products to infrastructure projects on six continents — moved to a new location in East Jordan, just 14 miles away from its prior location, retaining every one of its 350 local workers and hiring more.
“[E.J.’s commitment to East Jordan was a trigger [for the city to invest in improvements], but there were a number of factors,” Teske said.
The other part of the equation has been private parties investing in the city. The old marina has been redeveloped into an entertainment center. Another nearby building was revamped, leading to a new coffee shop, wine bar, and restaurant. Once the downtown area began morphing, the entire atmosphere began to change, and residential real estate followed suit. “There was a lot of rehab of old homes and buildings,” says Cannon.
REHAB, ATTRACT, RETAIN, REPEAT
Among those who chose to move back to his hometown was Rick Gotts. “Mom was a special ed teacher at the public school, Dad was in purchasing at EJ. When I graduated, I moved to Charleston. It was great, [but] when we had a child, we decided a small town was really nice,” he said.
Even nicer was a small town that wasn’t yet a hot spot but developing into one. The Gotts purchased the old marina and looked at ways to refurbish it. They considered opening a restaurant or brewpub in the space, turning it into a facility to restore wood boats, or making it an event space. They settled on No. 3, and today the Boathouse on Lake Charlevoix is an enticing venue for weddings, receptions and the like.
Another hometown investor was Clif Porter, though in his case, it was his wife, Suzi who longed to return to her home. Their investment group, Cannonball LLC, purchased four buildings downtown to renovate. The result thus far is Iron Goat coffeeshop; the wine and cider tasting room Cellar 1914; and a restaurant (a nod to East Jordan Iron Works), the Foundry; plus office space.
Porter says the growth and appeal of northern Michigan in general, and other nearby lakefront locales such as Charlevoix and Boyne City, puts East Jordan on the cusp of some very promising economic growth.
“We envision East Jordan as the next place, so we invested in a few dilapidated buildings,” he says.
The Porters aren’t done yet. They’ve purchased three other properties, two of which were vacant and one so derelict it had to be razed. Porter says he and Suzi are still in the planning stages for the properties’ possibilities.
One consideration for all is to create something that helps satisfy the area’s need for both short-term and long-term housing. The Gotts recognized that need as well; they purchased and refurbished buildings across from their event center, which serve as rentals for those utilizing his property, as well as for visitors who don’t.
Teske says housing is a dilemma for all of northern Michigan. He says he recognizes that those who eventually move to the region come here first as vacationers, and while drawing tourists and new residents is a goal, “We can’t just be a glorified AirBNB. The whole region, not just East Jordan has … to attract families and new people.”
Cannon admits there is still more to do, but he believes East Jordan is well positioned for the future. He says the fact residents and local business owners are investing in East Jordan demonstrates its vitality and viability.
“It’s a slow process,” he says, “but it shows people believe in it.”