Meeting focuses on improvement efforts

ALPENA – Business leaders swapped ideas Wednesday about how to improve Alpena’s southern gateway and said they hope their meeting continues to ignite changes along US-23 South.

At issue is the ragtag appearance of the highway. Some areas south of the city look blighted. Storefronts and signs appear neglected and the entryway is uninviting.

Hal Neiman, owner of Neiman’s Family Market, officiated at the meeting, telling people there will be a time when they take pride in the area and are envied for living, working and shopping there.

Businessman Bob Young recalled previous efforts that stalled, but repeated the theme and said interest is on the rise again.

“If we get a buy-in, I want this end of town to be the Nordstrom of Northeast Michigan,” Young said to a crowd of 30 residents and business owners in an empty store front at the Alpena Mall.

The start of their grassroots effort, “Brighten US-23 S. Corridor,” began in the spring of 2011 when two men decided to do something about the appearance of the gritty byway, said Larry Clark, who also spoke at the meeting.

Bear Point neighbors Gary Pateka and Don Duval were on their way to McDonald’s and started picking up litter as they walked, Clark said. Then they made it a routine, and also cleaned out a drainage ditch nearby.

“But Gary and Don started getting disgusted,” Clark said. “They would go out and pick up a bag or two of trash and the very next day more trash would appear in the same area.”

So Clark joined them, lending his corporate experience to their efforts.

“I started working with businesses and local agencies and governments, getting businesses to clean up their properties,” Clark said.

That effort was lauded by local business owners and led to further improvements until people began talking about forming a business association.

“Imagine being lucky enough to use US-23 South,” Clark told the audience. “Imagine being lucky enough to use the bike trails. Imagine being lucky enough to live here.”

It could happen, but it will require money, commitment and dedication, Neiman and Young said.

The downside is the group will have to organize, Neiman said. Business owners may be reluctant to pay dues or may want to sell their property. Or they may fear they will have to pay more taxes if sales and property values rise.

“But if you’re paying more taxes, you’re doing more volume,” Neiman reminded them.

One key will be to create a look along the corridor that unifies the area and creates a sense of community, Denise Cline, US-23 Heritage Route coordinator with NEMCOG, said. Her project provides some visual guidelines. She also suggested that the organization work with two concepts that already exist.

“The truth is Alpena is a spectacular place, but people outside don’t know that,” Jeff Gray, superintendent of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, said.

Motel owner Dave Hite said he was attending the meeting to find out what was happening. He and his wife, T.C., own the Bay Motel and Tanning Salon, and want to sell, because he is no longer able to maintain the buildings due to health. But he wanted to see improvements happen.

“A lot of the buildings are steel shells. They’re unattractive,” he said.

His own business also could use improvement, but he said he needs $20,000 alone just to repave his parking lot.

“If I had the customers I used to have, I could retire,” he said.