Port Austin entrepreneur breathing new life into old buildings

A lawyer-turned-serial entrepreneur is helping to change the face of Port Austin, one downtrodden building at a time. Chris Boyle, 52, grew up in Troy, but like most suburban residents, got exposed to Michigan’s Thumb region through family vacations and a family cottage.

After law school and a stint in the Air Force, he and wife Kathy relocated to Michigan’s Thumb in 2005; she taught school and he practiced law. He opened a kayak rental shop, arranging tourism excursions to the stunning formations of Lake Huron’s Turnip Rock.

“I started as a lawyer, and things were slow enough I needed something to occupy my mind so I started a kayak rental business,” Boyle said. He was a big hiker and canoer and loved the outdoors. “I thought Port Austin needed more things for visitors to do when they traveled to the Thumb so I thought it would be good for the community to open a kayak/bike rental.”

That was only the beginning.

Who are you: Chris Boyle, 52, owner with wife Kathy of Port Austin Kayak, PAK’s Garage, PAK’s Backyard, Dark Sky Tavern and Lodge.

What is the project: When Port Austin Kayak started doing well, Boyle bought a marina on East Spring Street and moved the business there. “It was really rundown,” Boyle said; in fact, he describes it as a “boat graveyard.”

“I thought it was a really cool property overlooking Lake Huron. It was a perfect place to move the kayak shop and had room to experiment with. Since I was little I was fascinated with rundown buildings and loved to think about what I could do with them to make them useful and make some money. This was a perfect property to experiment with. So I bought it with the motivation to rethink what the marina could be, fix it up so it was not a blight on the town and start a couple businesses so it could (generate) cash flow.”

His wife started selling some retail clothing there; and after a few years, the Boyles took part of the building and opened PAK's Backyard Cafe and Beer Garden. “That place exploded,” he said. “We got away with just a grill for two or three years then had to build on a big kitchen.”

In 2018, the Boyle family purchased a long-abandoned scooter and bicycle factory kitty-corner from the marina. The 10,000-square-foot facility has undergone gradual fixes while being used as storage and parking for Port Austin Kayak and PAK’s Backyard. After a full renovation during the winter of 2019-2020, Boyle opened PAK’s Garage, a full-service bike shop offering sales, repairs, and rentals — a return to the facility’s roots.

PAK's Garage was another rundown, blighted building — broken windows, leaking roof, deteriorating quickly. “I needed it for parking is the main reason I bought it,” he said. “But I also loved the building itself and thought if I can fix it up I could put some businesses in it. So we got a new roof, replaced all the windows, cleaned it up and last year we started a bike shop in it and rented space to boutique retail vendors. We handled all the sales, the vendors just have to keep their space stocked. We are doing this for the time being to help pay some overhead while we come up with more permanent plans for the future.”

The goal this year is to offer space to 20 to 30 vendors and move the bike shop to the back — and add skating.

Why does it matter: Port Austin, and the rest of the Thumb, suffered from the collapse of the sport fishing industry. The question was how to replace that industry. A stint on the Michigan State Extension advisory council “kept me focused on how to create entrepreneurial communities,” Boyle said. “When I started, my biggest goal wasn’t to make money, it was to get out of being a lawyer because I didn’t really like it that much.” But he wanted to do something for the community. “I started thinking, how do I, with these businesses, make the area better, make it a place so my kids might want to move back here?”

How did it get done: First off, a whole lot of sweat equity. Boyle and his dad Terry do as much work as they can, then hire local builders, plumbers, carpenters and others. From the beginning, Boyle got some financial help from Port Austin State Bank. Along the way, there were collaborations, utilizing resources from Michigan State University, and his stint on the Michigan State Extension advisory council was influential. “As part of the advisory council we went around the state and saw all kinds of other projects – it was a great opportunity for me to get ideas,” Boyle said. Huron County Economic Development Corporation Executive Director Carl Osentoski has been a key collaborator. “He’s really into doing creative things with small downtowns to help them,” Boyle said.

What's next: For the short term, the goal is to nearly double the boutique retail marketplace this year, add some entrepreneurs and expand the bike shop. The Boyles purchased a restaurant and hotel — now called Dark Sky Tavern and Lodge — near Port Crescent State Park that hadn’t been updated or fixed up in 30 to 40 years. But it’s a stellar location about four miles out of town on the Pinnebog River, with 900 acres of hiking and beach right behind it in Port Crescent State Park (which is a dark sky park, giving the new spot its name).

Renovations are nearly complete and both will be open in the spring. Longer term, Boyle has plans for multiple uses of the old factory where PAK’s Garage is located. He’d like to get a brewery in there, maybe some food trucks; permanent shops, event and co-working space and housing – either short- or long-term rentals.

“I’d love to get people up here for the summer working, doing their telecommuting from Port Austin instead of their Detroit suburb,” he said. While that sounds like a pandemic pivot, it isn’t. “We’ve been talking about doing that for the past five years, the pandemic didn’t spur that. It’s a question of how to get people up here for the summer as technology advances, with the goal of someday relocating them. More creatives, more entrepreneurs to expand the economy here.”

What are some of the resource gaps: The seasonal nature of tourism towns is a challenge. “You only have 90 days up here to make money,” Boyle said. Supply is another hurdle; PAK’s Garage started selling Retrospec bikes in part because the company could provide bikes. Even now, bikes and kayaks are hard to come by, and employees can be an even rarer commodity.

“We haven’t been able to stay open much past Labor Day; my college kids go back to school, my high school kids have sports, and a lot of other employees are teachers,” Boyle said. The Boyles are in the process of purchasing a house outside of town, close to all of the businesses, to convert into housing for seasonal employees; it also has a bar they don’t plan to open, but hope to transfer the liquor license to a future restaurant or brewery.

What inspires you: “The reason I keep taking on these projects is because I really like the customer service side of things. I like to make people happy and these businesses really make a lot of customers happy. I also really enjoy the people I work with and I am trying to create more permanent positions for them. It is hard to have full-time, year-round jobs in a seasonal town. I am hoping that if I can get enough businesses I can continue to expand the number of employees I have year-round. Finally, I want to see Port Austin grow into a community that families and hopefully my own kids will want to live in year-round. Port Austin is already a great place, I am just hoping that some of these businesses will make it better.

Editor's note: Chris Boyle is a cousin of Brian Boyle, founder and co-CEO of Issue Media Group, which publishes Rural Innovation Exchange.