Boyne City one of few communities featured in National Main Street pilot program

STORY BY BENJAMIN J. GOHS, EDITOR – PHOTOS BY CHRIS FAULKNOR, PUBLISHER

Boyne City’s ongoing improvements have attracted new businesses, families, accolades … and, now, one of only a few positions in a National Main Street Center revitalization pilot program.

NOTE: See the full 27-page Main Street Refresh presentation included at the end of this story

The National Main Street Center has chosen Boyne, Grand Haven and Saline to participate as demonstration sites for what it calls a “revamped approach to comprehensive community revitalization and preservation-based economic development.”

“You’ve been doing Main Street for many years, and you’ve been very successful at transforming downtown …

but this (new) transformation strategy basically looks to elevating our focus and saying, overall, what are the type of things we need to do to transform downtown to the next level,” said Norma Ramírez de Miess, Senior Program Officer and Director of Leadership Development with the National Main Street Center out of Chicago, Illinois.

De Miess met with Boyne City business and civic leaders on Wednesday May 11.

According to National Main Street officials, “the three selected towns are top performers in Michigan’s Main Street program, recognized for success in energizing their local economies, empowering community residents, and celebrating their distinctive character and local history.”

As a result, Boyne City and the other two communities will get technical assistance from experts from across the nation, play host to stakeholder meetings, and work to develop transformational strategies with the goal of elevating the downtown area to a whole new level.

According to Boyne City Main Street Program Executive Director Lori Meeder, the purpose of the Main Street Refresh program is to, “obtain a clear picture of what the most common challenges are, how different audiences use and perceive the Main Street approach, and make the approach more user-friendly, strategic, flexible, and outcome-driven.”

De Miess asked those in attendance for their input on the local business climate.

“How do you feel, as stakeholders, that it is going?” said de Miess, adding that identifying the strengths and challenges will help Main Street better assist in developing a strategy to deal with challenges.

Attendees named assets like Lake Charlevoix and Boyne Mountain and some gave kudos to local business owners.

One of the major challenges identified was the competition local retailers face from online stores.

One attendee said she would like to get rid of the stigma that everything in a small-town local shop is automatically more expensive than in a bigger city.

Other concerns were that there are not enough places to dock boats for people who would like to visit the city.

Boyne City Harbormaster Barb Brooks said there seems to be a disconnect when people talk about expansion.

“I would say the majority of the business owners get it—not all of them but I would say the majority—but when you talk about the residents and the locals, if they’re not boaters, they’ve got this idea that, ‘It doesn’t do anything for me so I don’t want any of my tax dollars to support it,’” Brooks said.

“And, it’s really difficult to get them to understand what it does for the entire community.”

Brooks said much of the floor traffic that comes into local businesses comes from boaters on day trips who use Boyne City’s municipal marina.

The meeting in Boyne City was also a chance for the Main Street representatives to survey local business, economic development and governmental officials on where Boyne City is with its Main Street program.

“[I]s there sort of a broader-based economic development strategy … so that each of your committees… is specifically targeted and focused on those strategies,” said Matt Wagner, Vice-President of Revitalization Programs with the National Main Street Center. He used the example of taking a local niche and figuring out how to better sustain and grow it.

“The second thing that we’re looking to do is to make sure that you have more flexibility in the work that you’re doing so that not everything has to fall under Main Street; you have other partners like the chamber and the city, obviously, and what’s some of the work that can be done through them?” Wagner said.

The final main point of focus, Wagner said, was recognizing resource limitations. Wagner said he was also looking for feedback for consideration on transformation strategies for issues that need to be addressed with downtown activities.

Wagner used a small town in Colorado as an example. This town has a robust agricultural economy with cattle ranchers and farmers who utilize the downtown.

So, that city looked at what it was doing to draw people in relation to those assets.

They held an antique tractor show and customer appreciation barbecues but they needed to fill in the gaps. They then looked at what kind of events they could hold, depending on their resources.

Wagner said the basis of the Main Street Refresh program is to help communities identify their strengths and weaknesses in order to better maximize economic development.

Wagner was asked if there are common themes through Main Street programs in their success trajectories, specifically how to deal with affordable housing and keeping young families from moving elsewhere for better opportunities.

Wagner said there have been discussions beginning among Main Street officials about how to help communities address those challenges.

Other challenges identified by attendees included a need for more small businesses—not big box stores—as well as complaints that there is duplication of merchandise from one store to another in some cases. And, the ability to control growth to project a certain image was also noted as something that needed to occur.

Potential solutions included the idea of having local retailers meet occasionally to discuss how they can improve their businesses.

Attendees were then asked what they would like to see.

One person said they would like to see the area approaching the airport and downtown from that end of the city improved with landscaping.

More improvements to the waterfront were also mentioned as things that might attract more people to the area.

Affordable long-term housing and quality hotels and motels were also mentioned as necessities to area growth.

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