Boosting the Blue: Tourism helps drive Port Huron Economy

With its famous Blue Water Bridge and proximity to Canada, it's easy to see how Port Huron can be accused of being a stopping point on the way to bigger cities and bigger waterways.

The relaxing shoreline and quaint feel give visitors an "Up North" vibe upon visiting the "Maritime Capital of the Great Lakes."
But don't let the charm of Port Huron fool you: it is a major Michigan powerhouse city, and many people in the area are working hard to ensure that Port Huron is a destination town for years to come.

"There's been a whole lot of growth,"says Blue Water Area Convention and Visitors Bureau President Marci Fogal. "And we've really come alive.”

Situated at both the northern point of the St. Clair River and the southern edge of Lake Huron, Port Huron was originally established as a French fur-trading outpost in the 17th century before the United States established Fort Gratiot after the War of 1812.

The principal original economies were lumber, fishing, and shipbuilding; today, they are paper, metal, and perhaps a not so surprising entity: tourism.

More than just blue water

Fogal agrees that the water is the main draw for visitors, but also tells tourists there is so much more to Port Huron than the water.

"We tell people right on our website--choose your passion!" she says. "Are you looking for wineries? Breweries? We have the oldest working lighthouse in Michigan, kayaking, trails, biking, walking, the Riverwalk, the theater--we have so many things."
Lately, a revival of sorts is happening around Port Huron, which includes a spate of downtown building developments and restorations.

One of those places is Sperry's Moviehouse, site of the former Sperry's department store, which features an array of modern movie-going amenities.

"There is a definite feeling in downtown Port Huron of revitalization and a can-do spirit," says Sperry's general manager Scott Beedon. "We feel strongly that this has become a great economic driver for the downtown.”

Beedon says that business has been great since opening last December, and additions like the Second Floor Dinnerhouse in February and the Gourmet Popcorn and Gift Shop in July have helped Sperry's take hold the top spot of their market share for several months now.

"Business is good and continues to grow!" says Beedon.

Sperry's joins St. Clair County Community College, the Blue Water YMCA, the CityFlats Hotel, the Blue Water Convention Center, the Hilton DoubleTree Hotel and others in the continuation of renovation and revitalization in not only Port Huron, but all of St. Clair County.

Port Huron Downtown Development Authority Director and McMorran Marketing Manager Natalie Watson believes there are many factors working together to get Port Huron back to a thriving area.

"I don't think it can be defined by any one person, business or event--it's a multitude of reasons," says Watson. "I think the comeback is the result of several smart and resilient business owners, investors that were willing to take a chance, and the people.”

Watson is looking forward to all of the developments, but one in particular is leaving her on the edge of her seat.
"CityFlats Hotel downtown is a development I'm really looking forward to,"she says.  "Having lived in Grand Rapids and stayed at the CityFlats, I can attest to the fun and unique experience the hotel provides. I think many people will be drawn to the hotel because it will be centrally located and within walking distance to all of the city's exciting downtown entertainment. I imagine staying at CityFlats during Mackinac weekend will be a pretty spectacular experience for a lot of people for many years to come.”

Mackinac weekend is of course referring to what many in the area consider the highlight of the summer--the Port Huron to Mackinac boat race that takes place during the Blue Water Festival at the end of July.

Sailors come from all over not only Michigan and the States, but also the world to compete in a weekend-long race from the starting point just north of the Blue Water Bridge and ends at Mackinac Island.

The influx of boats and sailors brings people from all over the area to visit Port Huron leading up to and after the race.
"We really are a warm weather destination because of the water," says Fogal. "It's a resort experience without being a resort. We are selling our shoreline--the water, the bridge the freighters--there's so much, and it's so beautiful."


Plenty to do in cold weather, too

Despite being known as a warm weather destination, there is plenty to do in the city that involves being indoors.

"Port Huron is a hockey-loving town,"says Watson. "So in the winter, hockey season is in full swing. The International Silver Stick tournament is a definite winter highlight for the community. Hockey players and their families flood into the area for about two to three weeks to live, eat and breathe hockey."

There are also numerous theaters, museums, and other attractions to enjoy during the cold months.
"ChillyFest is another winter highlight--an outdoor event that includes ice sculptures, a chili tasting competition, live music, outdoor heated tent, bed races and plenty of kids' activities," says Watson. "Our local theater groups also keep the entertainment going throughout the colder months with a diverse selection of plays and musicals. Many local bars and restaurants keep a steady schedule of live music and comedy- so there's always something going on.”

Another part of Port Huron that people agree about is the quality of unique and flavorful restaurants in the area.
"There's The Raven, Casey's [Pizza and Sub Shop], so many unique atmospheres," says Fogal.
Seattle resident Lisa Larchyk was born in raised in the Port Huron/Marysville area and currently resides in the area. She tries to visit every summer to visit old friends and see some of her favorite places.

"I love The Raven," says Larchyk. "I have an old connection to the building and some fond memories associated with the place. The Raven is a great place. I've always felt like I've been treated like family by the owner, Sadaat [Hossain, owner of The Raven], and my favorite server, Carol. The menu is great. Good sandwiches and soups and salads with fresh ingredients. I have said before that the coffee at The Raven is the best coffee east of Seattle."

Many also agree that what makes Port Huron a unique draw is that it's close enough to the major Detroit Metropolitan area, yet far enough away to make the excursion feel like a road trip or long vacation.
And the community itself is doing everything it can to make sure that it is a favorite destination spot for people all over Michigan and Canada.

"We do have some great followers and guests from the greater Sarnia area,"says Beedon.

"It's really inspiring to be around people that have loved Port Huron through the good and the bad and only want to see it grow and flourish," says Watson.  "A lot of the comeback is due to a shift in perception, as well. No matter where you live, your town or city is only a great as you perceive it to be. I think more and more people are beginning to see the greatness in Port Huron. Obviously investors are!”

Larchyk is a little more cautious.

"So many individuals are working like crazy to make things work. I can see what they are doing and know how difficult it is. I owned--and lost--a restaurant and bar in the 90s. My customers complained about my prices yet would gladly pay more at one of the chain places."

Beedon is excited for the future for Sperry's and the city.

"We feel strongly that this has become a great economic driver for the downtown. It helps create some extra foot traffic to the downtown area. Restaurant and shop owners should be able to take advantage of this opportunity to offer some great dining and shopping experiences to these guests that may have not been in our downtown for some time. It is a great time for folks to visit and walk around and experience downtown Port Huron!”

As the city and contributing benefactors continue to spruce up the shoreline and beyond, one thing is clear--thanks to the draw of the St. Clair River and Lake Huron, people are investing and re-investing in making Port Huron memorable for many."

"We have a fun tagline in Port Huron," says Fogal. "For a great vacation--just add water!"




 
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