The economy of Port Huron and St. Clair County was hit hard by the Great Recession, but it survived and has steadily improved with the rest of the country over the past few years.
But who knows what's to come in 2017. Will the economic waters do the usual ebb and flow, maybe stay placidly level? Or will they be churned by vicious storms? In uncertain times, the Blue Water area needs anchors for its economy, local economic leaders say.
However, if some of their aggressive plans come to fruition, it could dramatically change the St. Clair County landscape.
To hunt for the new developments that may anchor the economy in the coming year, we spoke with Randy Maiers, president of the Community Foundation of St. Clair County
; Dan Casey, CEO of the Economic Development Alliance of St. Clair County,
and Randall Fernandez, city manager of Marysville
In a nutshell: Look for more jobs in the county's automotive and manufacturing industry, and more efforts to increase tourism. Plus cities will continue efforts to develop economic anchors to their downtowns.
Randy Maiers: Working on Port Huron's core
County-wide, Maiers says, "since the recession of '08-'09, things have been more-positive, and progressing better than they ever have."
The county had "kind of an ironic turn of fate--the recession really forced stake-holders to realize that if we didn't start working together, we wouldn't change our own fortunes."
He and partners are focusing on the region; "nobody focuses just on the city of Port Huron," Maiers says.
But a stronger Port Huron "will obviously impact the region."
Port Huron, at the heart of the Blue Water area, can't be ignored. At the worst point in 2009 its unemployment rate
was in the mid-20s. Now it's at 7.5 percent, much lower but still higher than the national average.
The economic life of the city is "far from perfect," but it is dramatically better than the last several decades, Maiers says.
"Port Huron, like many small core downtowns, struggled in the '80s and '90s to find their new identity." Shops closed, and city residents had a vacant downtown core. Residents moved to the suburbs as the shops moved to the malls.
"When all of the big retailers left downtown Port Huron for the mall, Port Huron struggled to find out who it was. It took quite a while. But now, thanks to west side developers like Chuck Reid coming to town, that identity is changing dramatically," Maiers says.
A Holland-based developer and owner of furniture manufacturers Charter House Innovations, Reid has been working on giving historic downtown Port Huron buildings new lives. The Michigan National Bank building is on its way to becoming the boutique CityFlats Hotel
. The Sperry's building is now Sperry's Moviehouse, which opened in mid-December, with more renovations continuing.
Then there's Allen Stevens' high-rise condo project, Bluewater View. On the old YMCA site, a building of 60 river-view
condos should begin construction this spring and be finished by the end of the year. Depending on demand, another building could be considered.
Reid's and Steven's projects will "change the city in ways that they've never seen before," Maiers feels.
Bluewater in particular "will have the greatest impact because -- I don't know how far south you've got to go, maybe Macomb County or the Point, to find a high-rise condo on this side of the water," he says.
And getting more people living downtown is the goal.
The new condo project and the $170 million expansion at McLaren Hospital could create a perfect storm of supply and demand. The proximity of the hospital to the new housing could make it an attractive option for doctors seeking a shorter commute.
And as the population continues to grow in the city, so does the need for small businesses like coffeehouses, restaurants and stores.
Maiers compares the strengthening of Port Huron's core with the work improving Grand Rapids' downtown.
Randall Fernandez: Marysville planting seeds for future growth
"We're small, we're not as wealthy, we don't have Fortune 500 companies here, we don't have big mega-foundations here, but we're trying to follow that blueprint of how do you build sustainability."
City Manager Fernandez says there are two big things happening in the next year. But the biggest is the redevelopment of the old DTE power plant.
“We're looking for a tax base and jobs," he says.
For the land once occupied by the plant for nearly a century, plus a nearby tank farm, "our concept is a mixed-use development which includes a hotel, a marina, shopping, some high-rise condos, a walkway along the waterfront to make it walkable for everyone..... That's what we'd like to see," he says.
When they'll see that is still up in the air. It's been a slow step-by-step process. The Commercial Development Corp. of St. Louis, Mo., bought the plant, demolished it and cleared the land over the past few years. The final clean-up was accomplished in 2016.
CDC is looking to sell the property to yet-to-be-found developers for $2.25 million, Fernandez says.
"We are very optimistic that we will identify a developer and something will start happening on the site in 2017," Fernandez says. "The city administration has made cold calls to Mike Ilitch, to Dan Gilbert, to the Trump organization, to .... who else has money?"
His point being, the city isn't waiting for investors to come calling.
"We don't mind making the cold calls,” he says. “It only takes one."
If they can get a developer to start building in 2017, that will be "one of the highlights for Marysville."
Another big development for Marysville: Last year, the city bought a 57,000-square-foot office building at 1515 Busha for a dollar. The city plans to move the city hall, the library, public safety, the department of public works, and the recreation center into a one-stop shop. They'll sell the then-vacant city buildings, and so far have a few potential buyers.
But the transformation of the DTE site is the key improvement for Marysville, he feels. A reminder of the area's rustbelt reputation may turn into an attraction for tourists and new residents.
Plus, the looming coal plant no longer puts a damper on the river's natural scenery. "We received close to $8 million in grants over the last three, four years, we've completely remodeled our waterfront, put money into our park."
All efforts go toward Marysville's goal to make the city "a nice place to visit, but a better place to live, work and play," he says.
Dan Casey: The big picture includes manufacturing
What's in store for the county's economy in 2017? Casey gives his big picture answer: "We're going to see continued investment in commercial and retail development, and also in automotive investment."
St. Clair County has seen continued investment in the automotive industry since the recession ended. “And every year that goes by, I think it's going to slow down, but it really hasn't,” Casey says. The county has six industrial automotive projects in the works for this year.
Casey can't give many details, since most of the projects are still in the confidential phase. One that was recently announced is PJ Wallbank Springs, Inc., in Port Huron. They'll be adding 68 new jobs to their current 90 positions by expanding their technical and research and development space.
Casey's EDA forecasts “a pretty decent year for industrial investment and job creation. Not as strong as it was two years ago when the automotive industry was really starting to make a lot of investment ... It's kind of flatlined a little bit."
He thinks growth will continue "to be generally level, but like in any industry there's going to be winners and losers, and nearly all of our companies seem to be winners and are landing contracts with the Big Three."
Casey also notes the efforts to bring more people to live in the region’s downtown cores, not only of Port Huron, but of the smaller cities of Marysville, St. Clair and Marine City.
"You see this all across Michigan now, with the big push in the traditional downtowns to do loft developments, and Port Huron is no exception." There has been a boom in lofts in the past few years, and "they continue to be ramping up in 2017."
More people living in traditional downtowns means more business for local retail, Casey says. "Commercial and retail investment this year is going to be very strong in our market."
Blue Water placemaking
There are projects on the horizon "that will really change the landscape in both St. Clair, Marine City and Port Huron," Casey adds.
Some that he can mention are all about placemaking. In Marine City, construction on the Inn on Water Street is underway -- with few hotels in that part of the county, "it's going to fit a need that they have in that area. The PTM Corporation president was saying how important that would be to their company, they have a lot of out-of-country guests from Honda, Toyota, Nissan, plus Chrysler, Ford and GM. Clients and customers need a place to stay in the county."
A lot of Canadians come across the river to attend plays at Marine City's two theaters, so an inn would allow them to stay on this side of the river overnight, he adds.
The St. Clair Inn revitalization efforts in St. Clair is another way to draw tourists and their money, Casey says. A "huge wedding venue" since 1926, closed for years, will undergo a $40 million facelift with an expansion and an outdoor wedding venue. Casey hopes to hear an announcement on final details in the next few months.
In the past year, tourism has hit a rough patch, Casey says. Because of a decline in the exchange rate, Canadians haven't been crossing the river as much as before. It's uncertain if there will be any improvement in that area.
"With the new Trump presidency and a lot of his talk about redoing NAFTA trade agreements and other things -- and, of course, the price of oil itself is going to have a big influence in what's going to happen with the exchange rate .... Honestly, I don't know," Casey says.
Casey does know that the area needs to keep building and improving, creating an environment where people will want to visit, stay, live and work.
(Mark Wedel has been a Michigan-based freelance journalist who's covered a bewildering amount of topics since 1992. For more information, see: http://www.markswedel.com)