The economy of St. Clair County has long lagged those of its metro Detroit neighbors to the south. But its biggest hurdle may be moving the mindset of its own residents.
High school graduates are as likely to head for the county border in search of greater opportunities as to stay, and residents see local leaders as just as likely to get in the way of new ideas as to encourage any.
“The city didn’t get along with the county. The foundation stuck to itself. Everyone just did their own thing,” said Randy Maiers, president of the Community Foundation of St. Clair County.
But a spate of recent projects, totaling $234 million in planned or underway investment, has development officials touting a reversal of that trend. They say there’s a new appreciation for collaboration and making better use of the area’s natural asset, its water geography, to attract business. They aren’t predicting a massive economic boom or large-scale influx of new residents, but instead simply want to capitalize on what exists to create an improved quality of life for those who are there.
“We’ve been failing in promoting our area for investment and as a place to live,” said Daniel Casey, CEO of St. Clair County’s Economic Development Alliance, which has been following Blue Meets Green, a strategic plan to boost the economy (blue referring to the Blue Water Area identity the county has long used).
“What we’re trying to do is improve the quality-of-life assets we have, increase economic development efforts to take advantage of some of the lower business costs available in our county and improve the overall economic future,” Casey said.
Water frontage on the St. Clair River and Lake Huron runs alongside the whole eastern stretch of the county, which has a population of 160,000. Most of the new development projects are in Port Huron, the county’s seat and largest city. One of the more notable projects there is the transformation of the site of the former Thomas Edison Inn.
The inn had been one of just a handful of restaurants, and even fewer higher-end restaurants, on the entirety of the 35 miles of the St. Clair River — odd for a collection of towns that calls itself the “Blue Water Area” after the striking blue tones of the St. Clair River and Lake Huron. It sits right in the shadow of the Blue Water Bridge, which crosses the the turbulent point where the river and lake meet. The inn had been locally owned and was doing poorly until a group of investors bought it and turned it into a DoubleTree by Hilton hotel with a destination restaurant called Freighters Eatery and Taproom.
The county followed with the building of a new $9 million convention center there, and Baker College installed a culinary school and continues to expand it with a new set of dorms. Baker’s investment in the culinary school totals $5.9 million.
A Hilton brand hotel was a step up from the Thomas Edison Inn. “When Hilton blessed that site, people started to raise their eyebrows,” said Gerry Kramer, head of Port Huron-based Kramer Realty Inc. and one of the investors.
The Hilton deal was the work of investors Robert Schermer, CEO of Grand Rapids-based Meritage Hospitality Group Inc.; John Wheeler, director of business development at Orion Construction Inc., also in Grand Rapids; and Kramer, along with seven other investors from the Grand Rapids area. Meritage holds the lease for Freighters. The investors formed the Grand Rapids-based entity JB Realty LLC for the venture.
Hilton demanded 105 changes to the hotel to bring it to the chain’s standards, costing JB Realty $6 million, including $1 million just for the kitchen. They plan to spend another $2 million on further renovations.
Of the $234 million in recent projects, the biggest on the list is a $162 million expansion of a McLaren hospital in downtown Port Huron that will include building a 70-room patient tower and a Karmanos Cancer Institute center; Flint-based McLaren Health Care Corp.bought the hospital in 2014.
In years past, development money usually came from locals and efforts to seek outside investment focused on attracting manufacturers. But the past few years have seen outside money coming in for projects on the waterfront like hotels, restaurants and condos. An important aspect of that, county development boosters say, is participation of outsiders drawn to the area’s scenery and seeing opportunities in an overlooked area.
“The difference now is we have a lot of out-of-town investment. That’s a big pivot here,” Kramer said.
Other hospitality and residential projects include:
- Revival of the St. Clair Inn in St. Clair. The historic inn had been a mainstay and rare spot for a higher-end dining experience in the county until mismanagement led to its closing in 2014. The inn originally opened in 1926 with money raised by the local Rotary Club. This year, California developer Jeff Katofsky bought it for a price “in the range of” $8 million. He plans to spend $40 million renovating it and building a structure across the street that will have nine retail shops and another roughly 40 rooms, in addition to the nearly 100 rooms at the inn. He is seeking historic building grants and plans to reopen the inn in the summer of 2017.
- Chuck Reid, owner of CityFlats-branded hotels in Holland and Grand Rapids, has purchased two downtown buildings, one for a third location for his boutique hotel chain and another for a restaurant and movie theater. That will bring the small downtown, which many feared would go dead during the mall-frenzy of the 1990s, to near full occupancy. His total expected investment comes to more than $20 million, according to the foundation.
- LeRoy and Allen Stevens, two brothers who grew up in Port Huron, plan to build an 80-unit riverfront condominium building, the Bluewater View, on the site of a former YMCA, and they’re leaving open the possibility of adding up to two more buildings if the demand is there. The project is billed as luxury, though no price points have been floated yet. The investment comes to about $14 million, according to the Community Foundation of St. Clair County. Construction is slated to begin in 2017.
- St. Clair County Community College this year bought the McMorran Pavilion, a small arena, from the city of Port Huron next to its campus downtown, and plans to renovate it into the SC4 Fieldhouse, housing the school’s athletic programs. The project cost is $3 million. The move will make way for the school to raze its current gymnasium and use that space to build a new home for its health and science program.
OTHER PROJECTS IN THE WORKS IN ST. CLAIR COUNTY
- A Holiday Inn Express opened in Port Huron this year.
- Consumers Energy Co. invested $165 million in a natural gas storage and compression station.
- Other once-vacant buildings in downtown Port Huron are getting new attention, pushing down the vacancy rate. This includes the former headquarters of the hometown newspaper, The Times Herald, where Southfield-based Michigan Mutual Inc. is setting up shop at a cost of $3 million.
- Farther downstream on the St. Clair River, Marine City’s downtown has become more vibrant with new shops and restaurants. Marine City Fish Co., a restaurant opened by Melissa and Jeremy Fisher in 2008, has steadily expanded and this summer will add a patio that can seat about 50 people.
- Tom and Kathy Vertin have opened two live theaters and plan to break ground this fall on a $4.19 million, 24-room hotel that also will have one floor of condos that will sell for about $300,000 each. It will be the only hotel in the southern end of the county.If people think Port Huron is an unlikely place for a mini-cultural and tourism renaissance, then Marine City’s is even more surprising. The town was long viewed by the rest of the county’s residents as even more insular and backward than their own towns. “Five years ago, this place was dead,” said Daniel Casey, CEO of St. Clair County’s Economic Development Alliance.
- Manufacturers such as International Automotive Components and SMR Automotive Systems have expanded operations, adding jobs. Gerry Kramer, head of Port Huron-based commercial brokerage firm Kramer Realty Inc., would like to see a move away from industrial parks in favor of research parks and food processing. Port Huron’s industrial park, a bellwether for the local economy, is at 7 percent vacancy now compared to 40 percent at the bottom of the downturn.
- A key redevelopment site is the 20-acre site of a former DTE Energy Co. power plant in Marysville, just south of Port Huron, that was imploded last year. There is no firm plan yet for the site on the St. Clair River, but candidates include a hotel, condominiums, a restaurant, a marina and a water park.