St. Clair River at center of Bluewater region’s rejuvenation

From river walks and boardwalks to retail and dining to high-end housing developments, the St. Clair River has been at center of increased development activity from Algonac north to Lakeport. These projects are helping transform towns and cities that may have relied heavily on industrial enterprises as drivers for the economy into destinations, engaging residents and out-of-towners alike. Newer businesses such as yoga studios, breweries, coffee shops, boutiques and restaurants--par for the course in bigger cities, but not so much in smaller communities--are choosing to set up shop in the area.
 
“There's such energy in the Blue Water area right now,” says Marci Fogal, president of the Blue Water Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “There's so much going on and so much growth, just a lot of excitement.”
 
Fogal attributes some of that energy and excitement to the new DoubleTree, formerly the Thomas Edison Inn, as well as the 2015 opening of the $9 million Blue Water Convention Center, which increased the area’s capacity to play host to hundreds of people gathering for large events. This summer, the center will be the site of the MSAE’s ORGPRO convention, which is an educational and networking event for not-for-profit professionals.
 
Inspired to set up shop
 
Happy Dog Yoga studio offers a space for yoga that is uniquely St. Clair: the river.
 
“The beach and park yoga classes allows us time to get some fresh air and enjoy the Michigan summer and what landscapes our cities have to offer,” says Cecilia Warchol, co-owner of the Happy Dog Yoga Studio in St. Clair at Riverview Plaza.
 
“Paddleboard yoga is something that takes your traditional yoga class to a whole new experience. You truly get immersed in Lake Huron and here in St. Clair, our local rivers. You get to slow down, have fun, and maybe go for a swim. As a business, we need to use our resources to make the studio stand apart from gyms and fitness studios, and what we have is: beautiful waterways, beaches and parks.”

 
When deciding to locate the second Happy Dog in St. Clair, Warchol, who has lived in St. Clair since 2014 and is from Marysville, says she saw an opportunity with an active community looking to continue their yoga practice after another studio closed--and also saw the city’s potential.
 
“We [had] seen the updates to the Riverview Plaza courtyard, which was drawing people back down to the main street. War Water Brewery opening really got me excited about collaborating with them, which we have [done] twice now for yoga and brews classes. There was just a buzz going on in St. Clair and new events happening, like the beer and wine festival.”
 
Warchol and her business partner, Rhonda Jones, who opened the first Happy Dog Yoga studio in Port Huron, are just a couple of many entrepreneurs in the area leveraging the natural beauty of one of the area’s top assets: the nearly 40 miles of shoreline of the St. Clair River.
 
Building on nature's beauty
 
“There's more vibrancy in this town, more than in a long time,” says David Haynes, Port Huron’s planning director. The new Blue Water River Walk is a popular site for walking, running, kayaking and biking. The area’s biking culture also got a boost recently with the city’s announcement it is rolling out a bike-share program this summer. Now “you're starting to create a lifestyle and I think that lifestyle is starting to be the attraction,” he says.
 
The one-mile river shoreline, which is owned by the Community Foundation of St. Clair County, features a historical observation deck that overlooks the river; a walking trail, which is an integral part of the Bridge to Bay Trail system; a wetlands park; fishing pier; and public art. Recently Port Huron and county officials accepted the inaugural Regional Showcase Award that recognized the Blue Water River Walk, the Blue Water Convention Center and the Island Loop National Water Trail, a 10-mile trail that can be accessed at North River Road Park in Fort Gratiot. The loop is “a true asset to our community and to our residents as well as nonresidents,” says Kristy Jones, zoning administrator in Fort Gratiot. “That park and launch is busy as soon as it goes into the water,” adding kayaking has soared in popularity in recent years.
 
Investing in communities
 
Recreational river opportunities aren’t the only things to have taken off in recent years.
Major development plans are breathing new life into cities such as Marysville. St. Louis-based Commercial Development Company purchased the historic power plant from DTE Energy in 2014, cleaned up the former 30-acre DTE property on the riverfront and created an initial vision in partnership with the city to bring a multi-use riverfront development that would include a marina, hotel, condos, restaurants and pedestrian walkways. They have since notified the city they will not be developing the site.
 
City Manager Randy Fernandez says there are a couple of parties interested in developing the site, but the property is tied up in federal court because of lawsuits stemming from a subcontractor walking off the job last year. “There is interest. [We] just need the liens to go away,” he says.
 
Over the last three years the city has put in more than $7 million to improve the waterfront, including a boardwalk, a new fishing pier and upgraded playground equipment. Marysville is also changing out every street light in the city, including along the waterfront.
 
New retail has also brought buzz to Marine City, which is “growing, growing and growing,” says the Blue Water Area Convention and Visitor Bureau’s Fogal. Unique businesses such as Sweet Tooth have a fun atmosphere, she says, and other businesses such as Marine City Fish Company, Roasted with Perks and the Riverbank and Snug Theatres are making the city a destination.
 
The theaters’ owners Tom and Kathy Vertin also own the upcoming The Inn on Water Street, a $4 million boutique hotel. The project will add a whole new dimension and open up opportunities for the city, says city manager Elaine Leven. She says she has been receiving calls from parties interested in bringing new business and some of these calls are from people outside of the city.
 
'With the added amenities not only are people coming to visit the region, but they are also putting down roots, whether they are returning or are new to the community. High-end lofts and condo developments will bring more housing options to Port Huron. Haynes says a proposed high-rise condo development along St. Clair River will add about 60 units right along the river, offering “fantastic views.” The development is being built on the former YMCA site.
 
The city has seen the most growth with loft development, Haynes says, with about 100 lofts in the downtown area right now and another 38 in the pipeline. There’s also been growth with restaurants, such as the recent opening of Rix’s Rooftop in the former Fogcutter space.

One area of possible future development could be the 17 acres of waterfront property owned by the Bay Mills tribe, Haynes says.
 
Port Huron will continue to see new growth over the next couple of years.
 
“Over the last 24 months we've had $239 million in investment in the community and so far I don't see that stopping.”
 
 
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