How gutsy entrepreneurs rebuilt downtown Marine City on 'a wing and a prayer'

Marine City has come a long way from the days when you never had to worry about getting a good parking spot.

It was not for lack of beautiful scenery that the downtown district looked so forlorn. The St. Clair River to its east has some of the bluest water in the state. Yet the water, a beach, parks, antique stores and some good restaurants and bars alone could not bolster the languishing downtown on Water Street.

Less than 10 years later, Marine City's downtown is bustling, thanks to some gutsy, forward-thinking entrepreneurs who saw potential in its historic architecture, vacant storefronts, and tourist appeal.  

It's harder than it used to be to find a parking spot downtown. And that's a good thing. 

Small town with big ambition, gourmet tastes

The Marine City Fish Company was the first to start turning the city around in 2008 when they opened their doors at 240 S. Water St. Could a gourmet seafood restaurant catch on in a small town? The population of the once-thriving ship-building town was about 4,200 at that point. Co-owner Melissa Fisher (with husband, Jeremy) admits it was a gamble.

"Marine City is my hometown," Melissa Fisher says. "We always wanted to open a seafood restaurant in a small, quaint area. This was across from the water and there wasn't anything in town like it."

Their goal was to draw people from an hour and a half away. It took a while, but now they do it easily. Their secret? They have never veered from their mission to provide made-from-scratch, gourmet meals in an atmosphere people can relax in, says Fisher. 

"Our goal was to have a small place that reminded people of a place they've been to before while on vacation," she says.

Since then, they've acquired the store next door to their eatery, doubling their space. For their latest expansion, they were able to buy the whole building and break out the dividing wall to add a roomy hostess and waiting area for guests. Guests can order drinks while waiting for their tables and sample the Fish Company's famous smoked salmon and beef jerky. They also expanded their outside seating. There is a general store planned, as well.                                                                                                                                                                                          
Bigger space, more sweets

The Sweet Tooth of Marine City candy store came next in December 2009. Owner Todd May says he opened his shop on a "wing and a prayer."

It was in the midst of a long, long stint of very poor economic times for the whole county and state. He did his research and noticed that people were still buying the necessities, like putting in quarters at the laundromat because, well, you have to have clean clothes. In a similar way, May figured that something sweet to eat is a relatively small investment, well worth the payoff.

"Basically, they say, 'We don't need candy; we just want it. So, let's go get it," he says.

From there, he put in an ice cream counter. Since he opened in December, he knew he had some time before there would be a need for something cold to eat in the warmer months.

"We started up minimally," he says. "Never have any merchandise that you don't immediately need."

His counter of chocolates, from chocolate-covered bacon to scrumptious truffles, slowly grew, and he also added a line of salt water taffy. To satisfy the dieters, he offered some sugar-free products as well.

"We don't add too much at once. Once you get it going, it pays for itself," he says.

People come from everywhere to get their share of his sweet eats. This year, May was able to enlarge his store by moving across the street to 312 S. Water St. May is a very active participant in the city and usually has tickets for sale at his shop for any number of functions around town. The Sweet Tooth of Marine City was voted the best candy store by WDIV Click on Detroit Best Sweets and Treats Contest twice in a row.

Marine City gets its Stratford on

Kathy and Tom Vertin wanted to bring the arts to St. Clair County and found an ideal spot in an empty storefront at 1605 S. Water St. in Marine City. The Snug Theatre opened in July 2013 to an intimate audience of 100.

Kathy Vertin had a hunch a theater in the small town would succeed. Actually, it was more than a hunch, the Harsens Island resident says.

"A couple things appealed to me," she explained. "It's a walkable town and still has some of the old architecture. Even the freighter-watching that goes on is a form of art."

It's also at an international border crossing, attracting patrons from Canada.

"Being on the river didn't mean I had to have an 180-degree market," she says.

In the meantime, the big, historic Marine Savings Bank down the block stood empty. The Vertins wanted to be the start of a cultural renaissance in the area, like Stratford, but never thought they would own the next theater to open its doors. But with the bank just sitting there empty for months, the wheels began to turn in their minds to have a larger venue for bigger shows. The Riverbank Theatre opened December 2015 in the former bank building at 358 S. Water St.

They also are reaching out to the local youth.

"There is a huge void for the arts for children in kindergarten through eighth grade," she says. "The funding is disappointing for drama—even choir and band. What's troubling to us is if you aren't introduced while you are young, by age 13-14, chances are you won't pick it up later."

Their Youth Drama Camp sells out each summer. Their newest program, the Riverbank Performing Arts Academy, will launch this fall. The program will offer workshops, private lessons and off-site educational opportunities for students of all ages. A Musical Theatre Workshop Series for students, grades 3-12 will be starting up soon.

Refurbished theater becomes home to world-traveled scale model

A year ago, another piece of the puzzle locked into the downtown Marine City when Gary Kohs and Laura Scaccia bought an empty storefront on the southern end of town. 

Kohs says they were originally looking to move his Royal Oak office closer to home in St. Clair when he made the offer to buy the building at 430 S. Water Street.

When they learned about the building's unique history, they began refurbishing the historic Mariner Theater. Kohs decided to build some galleries to display the high-end models he makes for his company, Fine Arts Models—including an 18-foot builder's model of the Titanic he was commissioned to make by the Titanic's original designers, Harland and Wolff. The model was traveling to different locations around the world for National Geographic, but Kohs thought the theater would be the perfect spot for its new home, and had it moved into The Mariner. Now, Kohs says, the model is bringing the world to Marine City.

"It has attracted people from all 50 states, 11 countries, every province of Canada," he says.

Kohs and Scaccia have led some great community events since settling their business in town and are planning on breaking the world's record for the longest string of popcorn this fall. Their civic-mindedness and ability to rally a crowd has made a huge impact on the town. 

Jeri Packer is the editor of The Keel.
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