Rethinking Algonac's future: How a city with no downtown becomes a destination

Waterfront activities are popular in Algonac.
Situated on the St. Clair River, the city of Algonac's big draw is its waterfront, including its 2,400-foot boardwalk, the largest one on the river. Recently, the city has made some changes that have created new opportunities for both residents and visitors to enjoy Algonac, from a slow roll bike ride to spiffed-up public spaces.

Unlike some other waterfront destinations, Algonac doesn't really have a downtown—the waterfront itself functions as the heart of the community. In the past year or so, the city has found ways to beautify the waterfront, bring art into public spaces, enhance parks and other public areas, and add to its community events.

Algonac is a great place to spend a day relaxing and watching the water."We're all about placemaking and making Algonac an awesome place to live, work, and play," says City Manager Denice Gerstenberg. Placemaking is a collaborative, people-centered approach to designing and managing public spaces in a way that strengthens people's connections with the spaces they share. Thanks to these efforts, Algonac looks welcoming and the community is more engaged.


Algonac, with a population of just over 4,000, is known as the birthplace of Chris-Craft boats, and it was home to other boat manufacturers as well. Decades ago, the city began to shift from boat manufacturing to more of a bedroom community and vacation destination. But it remains a strong boating community. The Algonac Harbour Club operates one of the largest deepwater marinas accessible by the Great Lakes. And fishing is big in Algonac, which is dubbed the pickerel capital of the world.


The Algonac-Clay Historical Society tells Algonac's story in its Community Museum and Maritime Museum. The Maritime Museum, which opened in 2013, focuses on the lakes, rivers, and boats built in the area. It has seen progressively more visitors, because "we have more to offer them," says Pamela Allen, president of the society. The city also established a visitors center in the Maritime Museum, so that people who come in looking for something can get help finding it.


More events for diverse interests

The city hosts several events that bring people into the community, including "Free for All" family events with music, dancing, Leaders are working to make Algonac a collaborative, welcoming community.and other activities, as well as "Music in the Park" on the waterfront. New additions include a beer, wine, and cocktail festival, which drew more than 500 people in August. "It's the first time we've had anything like that," and people came from all over, Gerstenberg says. Another first was an Algonac-Clay Township slow roll bike ride in October, which attracted Millennials. These various events aim to appeal to different generations both in and outside of Algonac. "People want to live in attractive communities where there are things for them to do," Gerstenberg says.

A collaborative of 50 to 70 nonprofit organizations in Algonac and Clay Township meet quarterly and work together on projects such as holiday events, including a Halloween event and a Santa Parade. In the last couple of years, Allen says, "I've seen churches and businesses be more involved in what's going on in the town." She attributes this to the city leaders' collaboration with nonprofits so that different organizations and businesses help with projects like decorating the waterfront. "There's a slew of nonprofits that have come together" to get this kind of work done, Allen says.

Beautiful spaces

The city redid its landscaping on the waterfront, replaced all the lights with nautical solar lights, installed public art, and started a memorial Adirondack chair program. "When it looks attractive, people want to stop—they want to be here," Gerstenberg says. "The idea is that more people want to move here and more people want to start businesses here because it's a happening place to be."

Algonac has found creative ways to beautify the city with a nautical theme. It has stepped up its blight enforcement and, in the process, brought art into the community. For example, "along the boardwalk, there were these gray bollards that the Coast Guard boats would wrap their lines around when they docked. They were all gray and rusty-looking, and we had an art program where local artists came and painted them" with nautical-related designs such as fish and freighters, Gerstenberg says. Algonac also started a street art program that invites people to transform unsightly objects around the community into public art—such as painting an ugly fire hydrant with the image of a tall ship.

Algonac has also upgraded its Lions Field and Smith Field, which now houses a skate park. "The skate park is full all the time," says Chris Hiltunen, president of Algonac Youth Football & Cheerleading League. He also says the city is becoming "a more tight-knit community."

Strengthening the sense of community

Bringing the community together is a priority. Algonac recognizes people who contribute to the community by bestowing "Nice Neighbor" and "Algonac Asset" awards to outstanding members of the community.

The Maritime Museum hosts a program called Title VI Indian Education Program, which provides instruction and materials to First Nations families so that they can speak Anishinaabemowin (the native language of the Ojibwe/Chippewa, Pottawatomie, and Ottawa/Odawa).

"We believe that our students are more likely to succeed intellectually and academically if they are given the opportunity to create a sense of identity and belonging by learning their native language," explains Susan Wrobel, director of the Algonac and Anchor Bay Schools" Native American education.

Visitors love learning about local history at the Algonac MuseumMany Anishinaabeg attend Algonac schools and live and work in the city, Wrobel says. Since the program moved to the museum and started bringing in fluent speakers of Anishinaabemowin from Walpole Island, attendance grew. "It certainly has contributed to the essence of Algonac," Wrobel says. "It is a reminder to all the locals about a time when boundaries didn't matter much and the First Nations community existed on both sides of the river equally."

Algonac just passed a golf cart ordinance to allow people to drive carts around to visit businesses. This change contributes to Algonac's friendly environment, Hiltunen says.

For new businesses and new business owners, the city holds welcoming ceremonies. Gerstenberg says she hopes Algonac will attract more restaurants. Hiltunen says he sees the potential for new small businesses to come in, as the economy continues to get better.

"Our progressive city council has been working together as a team, and with their thoughtful leadership, we have accomplished a lot over the past year," Gerstenberg says.

Allison Torres Burtka is a freelance writer and editor based in metro Detroit. You can read some of her work here.