Boutique hotel leads redevelopment for historic downtown Port Huron

On a Thursday night in early September, about 130 men gathered in the grand old Michigan National Bank Building in downtown Port Huron, on the shores of the Black River. The occasion: a "high school block party" for grown-up guys looking for an excuse to tout their favorite high school programs. The guys good-naturedly competed to give the best two-minute program pitch, with the top three winners taking home a combined $10,000 for their causes.

The block party wasn't simply an excuse to raise funds for worthy high school programs in an economically downtrodden area where education budgets are perennially tight and extracurricular programs live under constant threat. It was also the best opportunity yet for the St. Clair Foundation, which organized the event, to show off a first-of-its kind get for Port Huron.

Port Huron Gets Its First Boutique Hotel

That get is CityFlatsHotel - Port Huron, a 40-to-44-room boutique hotel with a full-service restaurant, spacious ballroom (wedding planners, unite!) and meeting areas. If all goes according to plan, the property should be ready for occupancy sometime in 2017.

CityFlatsHotel will preserve and polish the bank building's ornate, high-ceilinged lobby, restoring it to the glory of its 20th-century heyday. The rest of the underutilized building, formerly occupied by Bank of America and a motley mix of small office tenants, will get a workover that adds modern, in-demand amenities without papering over the structure's heritage -- or interfering with the upper floors' great water views.

The developer's pedigree bodes well for the project, and for downtown Port Huron's resurgence. CityFlatsHotel is responsible for two other boutique hotels in Michigan: a 5-story flagship property in its hometown of Holland; and a smart, slightly offbeat property, also in an old bank building, in Grand Rapids.

Randy Maiers, CEO of the Port Huron-based Community Foundation of St. Clair County and unapologetic hometown booster, couldn't be happier about the Port Huron CityFlatsHotel project. Though it's far from the largest investment made in downtown Port Huron recently, he's convinced the hotel represents a turning point for the city -- a human-scale, 24/7 use that deftly repurposes an historic asset and injects life into a block that hasn't lived up to its potential lately.

"It's an exciting catch for this area," says Maiers. "We've never had a boutique hotel here in Port Huron, and we're pleased that developers from the western side of Michigan are seeing the potential in our corner of the state."

Location, Location, Location

The hotel's prime riverfront location is an added bonus. Port Huron is a popular destination for boaters, who in turn provide crucial support to its tourism economy. The city is the last stop for boaters heading north to the Lake Huron along the St. Clair River, and the first for those making the return journey. It's therefore a natural resting place for southeast Michigan boaters looking to load up on food, fuel, supplies and souvenirs before they hit the open water. Many circle back on the return trip too.

For residents of Port Huron and the surrounding townships, CityFlatsHotel's location is no less convenient. Located on the southern edge of Port Huron's downtown, the property is sandwiched between the shore of the Black River and two important commercial streets. Public docks line the river, so local boaters can tie up pretty much anywhere and walk over -- something that's worked well for downtown life in Traverse City, too. The Black River empties into the larger St. Clair just a few hundred yards downstream, providing a convenient outlet for an afternoon (or longer) on the water.

Things are looking up elsewhere downtown too. Chuck Reid, CityFlatsHotel's owner, is working on a second project: Sperry's Movie House, a high-end theater with stadium seating and upscale amenities, including a bar and restaurant. Appropriately located in the historic Sperry's Building, a few blocks north of CityFlatsHotel, the theater should be open by the end of the year.

Maiers estimates the two projects represent between $20 and $30 million of direct investment into the Port Huron area, plus dozens of permanent jobs and millions in ongoing economic activity once they're up and running.

"That's a huge impact for a town of our size," he says.

Signs of Momentum

Even in a smaller city like Port Huron, boutique hotels and luxury movie theaters alone can't produce enough economic activity to support a vibrant, self-sustaining downtown. But they can lay the groundwork for bigger investments with the power to shape the city, and region, for years to come.

That's what Maiers hopes is happening in Port Huron, where the most exciting real estate project on the docket has nothing to do with repurposed banks or movie theaters that sell craft beer. It's a luxury mid-rise condo project on a scale never before seen in this part of Michigan: 80 units in two eight-to-ten-story buildings on the St. Clair Riverfront, just blocks from the river's outlet to Lake Huron. Known as Bluewater View Luxury Condominiums, according to Crain's Detroit, the project is the brainchild of Port Huron-born, New York-based real estate developer Allen Stevens.

"Stevens is creating a whole new residential real estate market in the midst of Port Huron," says Maiers. "He's seeing that other investors have been drawn to the area and is really stretching the limits of what's possible."

According to Crain's, Bluewater View could begin construction within months. It joins nearly 150 units of condo housing proposed or under construction in and around Port Huron.

Where Else Is the Boutique Model Working?

Port Huron isn't the only Michigan community drawing interest from boutique hotel developers, of course. In fact, a certain major market to its south is enjoying a miniature boutique boom -- part of a broad, heartening resurgence after the economic carnage of recent years.

Downtown Port Huron has a handful of beautiful old buildings like Sperry's and Michigan National Bank. Downtown Detroit is positively choking on them. By 2020, boutique hotel developers are set to add hundreds of rooms to the city's already ample lodging capacity -- and that's just the projects already announced. That spells more -- and more distinctive -- choice for the thousands of fans who descend on downtown Detroit on game days, business travelers in town to make contact with the growing base of companies choosing to locate in the urban core, and ever-increasing crowds of tourists trading suburban hotels and motels for historic digs amid the city lights.

There's the Foundation Hotel, an historic firehouse getting new life as a high-end boutique property. There's the Element Detroit at the Metropolitan Building, a Starwood property set to revitalize the Gothic-style Metropolitan Building in the heart of downtown Detroit. And there's the Wurlitzer Hotel, a boutique property from New York-based rising star ASH Design. Like the Metropolitan, the Wurlitzer Building is a slender structure that has long suffered from disuse and outright neglect. All three projects are slated for completion sometime in 2017 or 2018, and could bring upwards of 350 unique rooms online.

Detroit is very different from Port Huron, and the Motor City's long-awaited, multifaceted comeback rests on much more than a growing lodging market. Still, it's heartening to see that all across Michigan, in communities large and small, ambitious developers are breathing new life into historic properties that have graced skylines through thick and thin.

Brian Martucci is a freelance writer for Second Wave Michigan.
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