Published in Economic Development
High water levels are wreaking havoc on lakeshore communities and limiting some recreational opportunities. High water levels are wreaking havoc on lakeshore communities and limiting some recreational opportunities. PHOTO: MARLA MILLER

PENT-UP DEMAND: Battling COVID-19, cancellations and high water, lakeshore communities hope tourism rebounds

BY Sunday, June 07, 2020 06:00pm

Plagued by high water, COVID-19 business closures and canceled festivals, officials in lakeshore communities are developing plans to bring visitors back to restaurants and lodging in hopes of tourists’ return this summer. 

West Michigan community officials also agree with the sentiment from state tourism executives that the widespread closures since mid March have created pent-up demand for travel. They remain optimistic the industry will rebound despite the challenges brought so far in 2020.

Because of the timing of the coronavirus closures and travel bans, many people missed out on spring break trips, said Dave Lorenz, vice president of Travel Michigan, a division of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. He believes people will stay closer to home and plan vacations within the state this summer. 

“There is no reason to leave the area now, so when they can travel, I think they will spend their time and money in this state,” he said.

On June 1, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a “big step forward” by lifting the statewide stay-home order and opening retail stores, restaurants and bars with occupancy limits. Previously, restaurants and bars were only allowed to reopen in 17 northern Michigan counties and the Upper Peninsula. 

Retail businesses reopened June 4, and restaurants and bars can offer dine-in service beginning June 8 with safety precautions and at 50-percent capacity. Hotels, short-term rentals and campgrounds also are back in business, Lorenz said. 

City and tourism officials across the state — including in Grand Haven, Saugatuck and Muskegon — have been working behind the scenes so they are ready to welcome visitors. As local officials have explained, tourism is a key source of revenue for local governments. 

“People greatly underestimate the financial impact of travel and tourism and what our industries do to support the state,” Lorenz said, adding “it won’t be a year to make money, it will be a year to survive.”

Lorenz helped coordinate a statewide effort of more than 100 volunteers in the travel industry — divided into eight subgroups — working on protocols for safe reopening procedures to keep employees, travelers and local citizens safe, he said.

“As important as jobs, the economy, the freedom to travel are, I really hope people will follow those directives to safely open the state,” he said. “If we do this right, we won’t go backwards.”

Grand Haven tackles outdoor dining

The varying forms of tax revenue from travel, tourism and retail businesses are vital to lakeshore communities. 

Roger Bergman, chairman of the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners, said most retail stores are “dream” businesses and operate on slim margins, and many of them were left in a precarious position from COVID-19.

“If people don’t come back in the numbers they did before, the lack of business is going to be detrimental,” said Bergman, who lives in downtown Grand Haven and was a longtime shoe retailer in Grand Haven and Holland. 

Bergman worries that many businesses will have a hard time reopening or staying open a year from now, especially bars and restaurants that can only operate at 50-percent capacity.

“The county is going to be impacted, but we have a fairly good rainy-day fund to tide us over,” he said. “But the problem is we don’t know how long this is going to go on. If restaurants can only serve half of their customers, for a lot of restaurants, that is not sustainable. They can’t operate on only half of their revenue.”

In response, Grand Haven officials created a one-page application and streamlined the process for expanded outdoor dining, including serving alcohol, until Oct. 31.

Grand Haven City Manager Pat McGinnis said one side of Washington Avenue between Harbor Drive and First Street will be closed to traffic so restaurants can set up tables on the street. Stanz Café, Snug Harbor, Porto Bello, Odd Side Ales, JW’s Food & Spirits, Morning Star and other restaurants also want to add or increase outdoor dining areas.

City officials have worked with Lorenz and others on a “Pure Michigan” pledge for businesses to assure patrons they are following guidelines established by the state and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We want to make sure people feel comfortable,” McGinnis said. “There is still some anxiety about being in large groups. We want to ensure all these safeguards are in place. It’s not just something we’re saying, it’s something we’re doing.”

Flooding continues

Meanwhile, high water continues to cause problems and put a damper on boating. Grand Haven officials closed the city’s Harbor Island boat launch last year because of flooding, and repairs are expected to cost $1 million. The city is losing $80,000 annually from launch permits and faces more than $5 million in direct costs because of the high water, including tearing down Chinook Pier retail stores because of mold and repairing damage at Linear Park, McGinnis said.

The city council approved a temporary administrative order prohibiting boat mooring along the city’s popular channel seawall this summer, effective until Aug. 20, but the order is flexible and can be lifted if water levels recede. As an alternative, boaters can temporarily dock at the Grand Haven Municipal Marina for free and go have dinner, if the slip is not rented, McGinnis said.

All of Ottawa County has been affected by the cancellation of major events such as Tulip Time Festival and Grand Haven Coast Guard Festival. Bergman thinks downtowns will be much quieter this summer with other art fairs, car shows and weekly entertainment also canceled. 

“My hope is that as many as possible of those people that were planning on coming to the west side of the state for a week of vacation, or two or three days of vacation, will still come and order food and find a nice park to eat it in or down by the waterfront,” he said. “That is the optimism I have. We still have Lake Michigan, and we have parks and a beautiful waterfront and a beautiful boardwalk.”

Saugatuck ready to welcome tourists 

The Saugatuck-Douglas area, known as Michigan’s Art Coast, relies on tourists to support  downtown specialty shops, restaurants and bed and breakfasts. A handful of restaurants opened for takeout, and retail stores recently opened their doors on a limited basis. But the evenings have been quiet due to the bars and lodging being closed since mid March, said Lisa Mize, interim executive director of Saugatuck Douglas Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“I know that everybody is struggling,” she said. “There is a lot of frustration (among) business owners.”

Community leaders, business owners and residents formed Saugatuck Douglas Together to develop a safe reopening plan, including an Art Coast Safe seal of approval for businesses, and to brainstorm ways to come out of the extended closure. Whitmer’s lifting of the stay-home order was welcomed news. Prior to the announcement, Mize said people were calling the bureau to ask what was open and if they could visit.

“My gut is people are going to come, and I think they’ll be concerned for safety protocols to be followed by restaurants and lodging,” Mize said. “I think the pent-up demand is such that they are still going to come. People want to get out. They want to go out and eat and get a drink.”

Since last summer, some Saugatuck businesses along the river have experienced flooding and added sandbags, but the beaches, parks and boat launches remain open, Mize said. 

‘Social districts’ could help in long run

In Muskegon, officials also plan to allow restaurants and other businesses to apply to the city to use public streets, sidewalks and parking lots for dining, shopping and other activities. The city may allow outdoor dining districts on Western Avenue, between Second and Third streets, between Fourth and Fifth streets, and in the Lakeside district.

“I do feel there is a significant segment of our population that is ready to travel, and they will prefer a location that is within just a couple of hours,” said Cindy Larsen, president of Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce. “Muskegon is in a great position for that.”

Although the cancellation of Muskegon’s major festivals — including Lakeshore Art Festival, Rebel Road, Unity Christian Music Festival, Burning Foot Beer Festival and Michigan Irish Music Festival — won’t bring large crowds to the area, it will give people a chance to explore new attractions or visit museums and public art. The one bright spot is Muskegon County still has beaches, lakes and rivers and plenty of access for kayaking and other outdoor recreation, Larsen said.

“We are fortunate to have those expansive beaches at Pere Marquette as well as Muskegon State Park,” Larsen said. “That in combination with the plans for downtown to provide an outdoor eating district should help significantly.”

As a growing cruise ship port, Muskegon tourism received another blow with the announcement that Great Lakes cruising is off this year due to COVID-19. Michigan’s Adventure, the state’s largest amusement park, also remains closed. Both of those losses will have negative economic impact, Larsen said.

“It’s not too early to tell, but it’s too early to measure,” she said. 

Larsen said local officials have been advocating for outdoor “social districts” for a number of years and changes at the state level to cut the red tape could help bars and restaurants in the long run. State Rep. Terry Sabo, D-Muskegon, is co-sponsoring a bill that would allow local governments to create areas where people could buy to-go drinks from bars and restaurants and consume them anywhere in designated spaces.

Until now, bars and restaurants faced a “long laundry list” of requirements to have an outdoor event space with beer and wine, Larsen said.

“This is exciting,” she said. “This could be a big deal.”

At Pere Marquette Beach, visitors also will experience detours and rerouted traffic because of construction on a roundabout and new pay-to-park machines. High water has eroded portions of the beach along Beach Street and closed the city’s Hartshorn Marina and portions of the Lakeshore Trail from downtown to Lakeside.

Heavy rain in May caused severe erosion at the county’s Pioneer Park campground, and Muskegon State Park’s channel campground only will take walk-in reservations if high water goes down later this summer.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources plans to reopen state park modern campgrounds and lodging by June 22. Ron Olson, chief of the DNR’s Parks and Recreation Division, said campground reservations after June 22 “are pretty strong.”

“A lot of people who had reservations over Memorial Day, some of them rebooked for later in the summer,” he said. “We’ll have to see how things play out. Obviously, the public will decide what level of comfort they feel to go out once things resume.”

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