Passion for theater encouraged couple to invest in Marine City

Harsens Island resident Kathy Vertin cannot remember a time growing up where she wasn't singing or performing. While her friends were listening to popular music, she was playing show tunes from "The Sound of Music," "Oliver," "Annie," and "Cats."

 She was in the theater and the choir, and worked in resort bands in college.

"Cabaret club singing on weekends paid for my MBA," says Vertin."Then it was time to focus on a business career."

But in the past few years, Vertin has figured out how to bring her love of the performing arts back into her life.

In 2012, Kathy and her husband, Tom, went to a production at a small theater in Dexter, and she was struck by how the theater company was able put on professional, large-scale productions in such a small space.

As president of the St. Clair Theater Guild at the time, Kathy often heard from staff and members of the guild that there was not an ample space to put on shows.  The trip to Dexter inspired her to find it.

"On the ride home from Dexter," says Vertin."I told my husband,"I want to do that kind of theater in our area. I think it would go over like gangbusters.'"

Tom was apprehensive, but the very next day, they drove up River Road looking for real estate.

"We were drawn to Marine City because it had such a quaint downtown with historic architecture still intact," says Vertin."And it had the ferry crossing to Canada, which we felt increased our market opportunity."

The Guild surprisingly said no to the proposed site the Vertins found, so instead they started their own production company.
Opening night for The Snug Theater was in 2013, and the Vertins have been busy ever since. The first play was a one-act show called "Black Comedy." After that, the houses were always full, but the Vertins wondered if it wasn't just curiosity, or the "honeymoon" period.

"Our first musical, 'Hello Dolly!' played to sold out audiences for three weekends and we knew that we had brought something to the area that was needed," says Vertin.

Once it was evident that the theater was going to be a hit, the Vertins realized they were quickly running out of room for theater-goers. They saw the historic Marine Savings Bank Building sitting empty and decide to buy it, renovate it, and turn it into a second venue.

The Riverbank Theater opened in December 2015 in the renovated space that has carefully preserved and rehabilitated the over-90-year-old bank building.

It is part of a universal revitalization of Marine City and the Blue Water area in general. Starting with the Marine City Fish Company, which was opened in 2008 by Melissa and Jeremy Fisher, the city has enjoyed a vibrant downtown scene.

'We have a business community like none I've experienced," says Vertin."It is such an informal cooperative--everyone cross-promotes and truly wants to see each other be successful, even competitors."

The Vertins are lucky to have a small"family" at the theaters that have helped them along the way, including Nancy Arnfield, who came out of retirement to assist with artistic direction for the launch; and married couple Aaron and Brittany Smith, who worked as the director and choreography team behind "Hello Dolly!" and also played the leads in the production. Brittany is now the production manager, and Aaron started the Riverbank Performing Arts Academy, which offers youth arts and education to area children.

Their daughter Valerie Heath, who moved home from Chicago, is now marketing and financial adviser to the enterprises.
"Marketing is one of the most underfunded and overlooked elements of business and you can't be successful without it," says Vertin.

The Vertins are currently in the process of building a 26-room boutique hotel at Bridge and Water Streets in Marine City that will accommodate guests to the region.

The Inn on Water Street is slated to open in the beginning of 2018 and also includes four luxury condominiums, which have already sold.

That isn't the only project in the works for them either. They also plan on implementing a stage festival to encourage participation all the way up the blue water coast.

"Since 2013, we have seen 15 new businesses open and pioneers like The Sweet Tooth and Marine City Fish Company have expanded to double their capacity. It's a renaissance we would like to see all the way up the river, so we are working to launch a stage festival, similar to The Stratford and Shaw Festivals in Ontario."

The Vertins met when Tom hired Kathy to open an England arm of his business Visioneering, Inc., an automotive and aerospace tooling and engineering firm. They were able to sell the company and slip into early retirement before becoming restless and starting The Snug.

"We have been a team over since," says Vertin."When we were knee deep in our second season of eight productions and doing a renovation of the bank building, I will admit there was some anxiety as to how we would keep two of these things going, but that's where having a terrific team has made all the difference."

They are both truly excited for the future of Marine City and the Blue Water area.

"We enjoy bringing entertainment to the stage and new people to our beautiful little corner of the world," says Vertin."We have met some truly wonderful people in the process and love calling the Blue Water Area home."
For more information on the theater district in Marine City, visit https://www.riverbanktheatre.com/.

 
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