Fletcher: We haven’t built it, and they haven’t been coming

Did you ever see the movie “Field of Dreams?” The movie is about a guy who builds a baseball field and stadium in the middle of Iowa. The premise is “If you build it, they will come.” It’s also a fallacy.

They did build a movie prop in Iowa but today no major leaguers play there. It’s just a place where you can see a movie set. The dream was just a dream.

In Northeast Michigan we indulge in our own dreams. In 1960 Alpena County was at about the same population level as Grand Traverse County. Today the Traverse City area is booming, both in population and economic activity compared to Northeast Michigan. So what happened that they grew and we shrank?

Rarely is it the “silver bullet” in economics where just one item makes all of the difference. They developed tourism and realized economic growth while we stagnated and shrank.

Part of the reason for the differences is that old retailing mantra of “location, location, location.” But there were other issues too. TC is located just a couple of hours north of Grand Rapids, which has been the fastest growing economy in Michigan for decades. Thus, concerning location, TC was the beneficiary.

Some of that “wealth” that President Barack Obama has been deriding went up to TC to establish branches of industrial concerns and vacation homes. We have the same phenomenon here from Flint and the Tri-City area of Midland, Bay City, and Saginaw as our tourism market. Those cities just aren’t as upscale nor as wealthy as the Grand Rapids area. There is less available disposable income to potentially spend in our area.

In our area there has been no branches of industrial activity from these visitors. When Tom Cruise says: “Show me the money”we offer no “flash” to potential investors.

In the market area we serve, which is different in demographics from TC, we have made marketing mistakes. These errors are not new, they have existed for decades. A good example is not matching our local desires to the realities of the marketplace. Remember that our tourism base is blue collar and the tourists in TC are more white collar folks. Our customers camp while theirs stay in hotels. We have structured our lodging opportunities to the wrong demographics. Two examples of errors are Negwegon State Park and the City of Alpena’s waterfront.

At Negwegon we pushed for a wilderness area state park designation and we got it. Hoeft State Park near Rogers City is full of campers to the benefit of Rogers City as is Harrisville to the benefit of that community.

Negwegon is designed for few visitors. Our market is looking for camping spots in nice areas like Clear Lake State Park but we opted instead for the wilderness, meaning no jobs and no meaningful amount of camping.

Please note that the state park campground in the middle of TC is very active. In the old “Envisioning the Future” documents of Alpena there was proposed a waterfront hotel listed as a priority. Waterfront development in the city is nearly impossible, however, because the city charter makes it all but impossible to sell waterfront footage.

The charter states that a vote of the people is necessary to sell waterfront property. The city owns or controls virtually all waterfront from the south city limits to the Ninth Avenue Bridge back down to DPI. Development is stymied. A positive vote to sell property in Alpena is seldom successful. Demand is there but we cannot create supply.

The waterfront hotel is no longer in city documents. The waterfront in Tawas City has camping available on city property. With proper landscaping Mich-e-ke-wis and Bay View could be developed for camping with very low impact on the neighbors but huge impact on downtown merchants.

We have spent years developing bike paths and views for the community but here is an opportunity to do more and create jobs. If you want wilderness, go to the Upper Peninsula.

Low government revenue can be solved in large part by economic growth. We need to restructure and rezone to allow for a renaissance in our area. Form follows function. But for change, structure allows growth to take place.

Cute is good in a town in terms of atmosphere. Structure and growth, however, allow a town to eat and prosper.

We built and zoned for “cute.” Unfortunately, to date, no one has come.