Fort Gratiot Township may seem like a sleepy outpost or Port Huron suburb to outsiders; but for many, it is quickly forging its own identity as both a hotbed for large corporations and small businesses and agricultural dealings alike.
"A third of our zoning is agricultural,"says Community Development Coordinator for Fort Gratiot Township Kristy Jones. "But we still have lots of room to build and grow."
She says that a lot of people don't realize how many opportunities there are for waterfront residential development, and now much space there is for corporation expansion or for small business.
"There is a little bit of everything in the area that helps the township to foster a delicate balance, including recreation, trails, bike paths, kayak launch,"says Jones. "We've remained pretty steady in Fort Gratiot. We've been able to see retail and residential growth."
Birchwood Mall was instrumental in branding Fort Gratiot as a supreme shopping corridor in the area when it opened and Birchwood Mall helped put Fort Gratiot on the map as a shopping destination.flourished in the 1990's, but has since suffered some of the same issues as other malls around the country and has closed several stores.
She says that there is great potential at Birchwood Mall, and the fact that Birchwood Luxury Cinema 10 recently underwent an $800,000 renovation to keep investing in movie goers that will want to shop at the mall is a big sign of that.
Jones is hoping for the mall to focus more on entertainment services and fitness rather than trying to stuff the structure full of stores. She is also hopeful that a specialty grocer, or experience dining establishment, like that of Black Rock, would come to the mall.
"People still need that physical store—even though online shopping has changed consumer culture, people need that enjoyment of physical shopping,"says Jones. "I was at the mall on a Sunday and there were lines at Bath and Body Works and I was surprised it was busy and surprised to see that.”
"I think the key is to be open minded and not be afraid to change,"says longtime Fort Gratiot community member and Independent Floor Covering owner Wing Thiele.
"Entrepreneurs and business people need to be able to change on quick notice and not allow themselves to spin their wheels in a rut.”
Thiele also says, "Fort Gratiot is the largest commercial corridor in the area, while maintaining a small town feel for the residents who live here. You can drive along M-25 and see lots of big retailers and restaurants, yet just a short distance away, you can go to the beach or find bike paths and parks for family activities.”
As a member on several area boards, including the Fort Gratiot Business Association, Board of the Friends of the Fort Gratiot Dog Park, and the Blue Water Cruise Weekend, Thiele says the township works hard to keep conversation about improving the community open.
Fort Gratiot leaders hope visitors and residents see the community as more than a place to shop."I think Fort Gratiot does a wonderful job working with businesses in the area. The township is very open to conversation and ideas with the business community, which is so important in creating a flourishing business community... which in turn is good for creating new jobs.”
Jones says that while its friendly neighbor to the south Port Huron may be the place for a hip trendy person now, Fort Gratiot could be viewed as the next step.
"We might be the next stage, when someone is thinking of settling down—the family phase. We play off of one another with Port Huron."
Because of the family-friendly vibe, a lot of national trends are taking shape in Fort Gratiot that are helping drive people to the area.
"Fast Casual dining is so trendy right now,"says Jones. "It's the lifestyle we all want. We are very excited for the upcoming Panda Express, and we are hoping for a Culver's soon, as well."
Jones credit support from the Blue Water Chamber of Commerce, the Economic Development Alliance of St. Clair County, and other community collaborations with continuing to create interest in local activities such as Blue Water Cruise Weekend, Chili Fest and even other events.
Most of what Jones expounded on about the past and present of Fort Gratiot also came with future plans as well. Panda Express is almost ready to open in Fort Gratiot.
"We have recently acquired land for little league—not just as a field, but as a sports complex,"says Jones.
The township has also garnered land in order to create an historic centerpiece to the landscape in Fort Gratiot to create one thing they seem to lack—a downtown.
"We do not have a downtown,"says Jones. "We are not known for being a downtown area, but we are hoping to create a kind of community gathering space, like Gardendale Market Place."
She mentions that she wants to take inspiration from highly successful farmers markets around Michigan and has ideas for sheds, courtyards, bistro seating, and more.
"It's that historical piece, a grassroots, community gathering space," says Jones. "Once you create community, growth will follow.”