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Charlevoix’s message after fires: Don’t forget about us

Greg Tasker
The Detroit News

Charlevoix — It’s been a bumpy year for Charlevoix, but this northwest Michigan resort town is open for business.

Charlevoix's  downtown business district stretches several blocks along Bridge Street with a municipal marina and a waterfront park at its heart.

That’s what merchants and city officials want tourists to know, despite some recent blemishes on its postcard-perfect main thoroughfare.

A handful of buildings remain cordoned off, with boarded-up windows and charred doors, after two separate fires this winter destroyed or damaged six businesses. And at the north end of town, a rehabilitation project is underway on the bascule bridge over the Pine River Channel, occasionally causing traffic backups on Route 31.

Route 31, the main north-south route between Traverse City and Petoskey, remains open to motorists while the Michigan Department of Transportation continues the $1.9 million project, which began in December. The bridge will close overnight for several days in April, but that will not affect day-time traffic into the town of about 2,500.

The gutted remains of the downtown Cherry Republic store in Charlevoix, Michigan Friday, Frb. 17, 2017 awaits a decision to rebuild or demolish Friday, Feb. 17, 2017. A fire on Dec 24, 2016 gutted the building , built in 1910. (Special to the Detroit News/John L. Russell)

But that project, coupled with back-to-back fires late last year, has town officials and business owners concerned about public misperceptions that Charlevoix is shut down. So the community launched a media blitz — “Charlevoix is Open for Business” — on social media and television earlier this year to highlight that it’s business as usual for many of the shops, restaurants, bars, arts venues and a movie theater.

“A lot of people are assuming because of the fires that there’s no point in going to Charlevoix. The bridge work has made that even more complicated,” said Mark Heydlauff, Charlevoix city manager.

Long a summer resort town, Charlevoix enjoys a sweet spot on the Pine River and Round Lake, a stretch of water bounded on either side by Lake Michigan to the west and Lake Charlevoix to the east. Its downtown business district stretches several blocks along Bridge Street (Route 31) with a municipal marina and a waterfront park at its heart.

“There’s also a perception that businesses are open only in the summertime. We have some that are closed in the winter but many of them are still open,” said Lindsey Dotson, executive director of Charlevoix Main Street. “We realized the negative impact the fires and the bridge work were having on the businesses still open. There’s little we can do about the fires at this point but we can get the message out there that we’re still open.”

The scars of the fires — in mid-November and on Christmas Eve — remain visible along Bridge Street. The first fire destroyed or damaged five businesses, including Johan’s Café, a popular purveyor of doughnuts in northern Michigan. Six weeks later, another blaze destroyed a historic brick building housing Cherry Republic, a storefront staple for summer tourists seeking all things cherry from regional orchards.

“People drive through town and they’re like, ‘Oh, my God. What happened here? It looks like Baghdad,’ ” said Nancy Suzor, owner of Elements Gallery, which sells scenic photographs, posters, coffee mugs and other gifts with Charlevoix and up north themes and is located just a few doors from the burnt-out Cherry Republic store and a short walk from the draw bridge.

Nancy Suzar of elements gallery talks about the fire that gutted Cherry Republic in downtown Charlevoix.

Suzor, who opened her shop in Charlevoix 18 years ago because of its vibrant, walkable downtown, said the promotional campaign has had a positive impact, and she’s talked to customers who believed the town had closed up because of the unusual series of events. Those misperceptions, along with unusually frigid weather in January, got 2017 off to a slow start.

“We didn’t really have good weekend weather in January,” she said. “We didn’t have the number of skiers come in town from Shanty Creek or Boyne Mountain because it was super cold and windy, and the snow level has been up and down. If you don’t have snow down there in the Detroit area, people aren’t going up north for snow things.”

Across the street, the owners of Round Lake Bookstore also have noticed a drop in business. The store sits directly across from Cherry Republic and was affected by smoke the day of the Christmas Eve fire, forcing the owners to close on its second-busiest day of the year. The store, however, sustained no damage, thanks to an oxygen machine that removed all scent of smoke.

“I thought having Cherry Republic across the street was the best thing ever,” said Dianne Dupont, who owns the store with her husband, Bill. “Everybody would go in there and then they’d come out and look out across the street and see the bookstore. And then they’d come over.”

While her sales were initially down 25 percent this year, she has noticed an uptick, thanks to the marketing blitz.

“I’m not discouraged,” she said. “It’s too bad these things happened, but people are starting to come back through town. We’re a resort town, and we’ll be busy in the summer. I’m looking at the big picture.”

One of the major targets of the ad campaign has been locals. Charlevoix lies between Petoskey and Traverse City on Route 31, and also draws day-trippers from the regional ski resorts.

“Winter is slow anyway but now people think we’ve closed down the town,” said Brian Freund, who, along with his wife, Emily, owns That French Place, a small eatery also across from Cherry Republic. “People pass through town and see the burned-out buildings and think we’re not open. It feeds off itself.”

Freund, whose shop sells crepes, quiche, croissants, artisanal ice cream and coffee, has noticed a drop in foot traffic this winter as well.

“It’s definitely been slower — our numbers are the same as last year but they should be growing,” he said. “Now, every time a fire truck goes by, you hold your breath and think, ‘Oh, no. What’s next?”

Adam Engelma,  a partner in the Bridge Street Tap Room, draws a beer at the business.

The downtown fires were unrelated and the causes were undetermined, said Charlevoix Fire Chief Gerard Doan. Charlevoix has had fires downtown before, but never two so close together, he said. Adding to the sense of unease in this corner of northwestern Michigan is a spate of high-profile fires within the last several months, beginning with the Charlevoix Country Club clubhouse last summer. A fire erupted at a metal factory in Petoskey late last month.

“People are definitely wondering what’s going on around here,” Suzor said.

Some of the damaged businesses have already reopened, some in new locations along Bridge Street. Others are working toward resuming operations as the summer tourism season begins. The bridge work is expected to be completed by Memorial Day.

The big question on everyone’s mind is the future of Cherry Republic, which occupied 3,000 square feet in a prominent brick building known as the Trademark Building, constructed in 1884. Many viewed the food retailer as a downtown anchor, similarly luring shoppers like a department store does to a mall.

“We love Charlevoix, and we will be back,” said Bob Sutherland, owner of Cherry Republic. “Our goal is to rebuild bigger and better in Charlevoix. It’s really just a matter of timing and working out insurance company and our landlord.”

A Christmas Eve fire destroyed Cherry Republic in Charlevoix just weeks after another blaze damaged five businesses.

The question, he said, is a matter of insurance issues and whether it makes sense economically to open in a temporary location while the long-range plan is to reopen in a permanent spot, back in the Trademark Building, a year later. The Glen Arbor-based company also is working toward opening a store in Holland, Michigan, this year.

“We’re 50 percent sure we will get a store, a temporary store this year,” Sutherland said. “We’re 100 percent sure we’ll have a permanent store in 2018.”

Meanwhile, town officials just want to spread the word.

“We just make sure people know we’re here,” Heydlauff said. “We don’t want people who come here in the summer to worry about it. The bridge will be back to normal by then and most of the businesses will be back to normal by then too.

“What people see in the summer will be largely unchanged. We want to emphasize what’s here and that Charlevoix is still a great destination.”

Greg Tasker is a Michigan-based freelance writer.