Rogers City Renaissance

Foodies and art lovers are taking notice of this surprisingly vibrant Lake Huron port city
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Photograph © 2012 James L. Hopp

For years every spring, when Jo Gingras and her mother drove from Farmington to Rogers City to open the family cottage, she always had a lump in her throat on the first trip into town. She couldn’t help but wonder: Which businesses had survived the winter, and which ones had closed up shop?

“Seeing different shops close up — that was hard,” says Gingras, whose family has summered in the Rogers City area since 1948. “It was like seeing someone you love, and you haven’t seen them in a while, and maybe they were aging.”

The tide seems to be turning, though, for this city on U.S. 23, Michigan’s Sunrise Side Coastal Highway. New local businesses are starting to make Rogers City a destination for foodies and art lovers alike.

The newbies join longtime stalwarts like Plath’s Meats, a 101-year-old, family-owned market that smokes its own whitefish and thick-cut bacon; the Painted Lady, where visitors can get a print framed, shop for Polish ceramics, or sip an Italian soda; Knaebe’s Mmmunchy Krunchy Apple Farm and Cider Mill; and the Rogers movie and performance theater, constructed in 1937 and restored to full glamour by its current owner.

Seven years ago, artists Mary and Tim Pritchard opened Domaci Gallery to sell their work and that of more than 70 Michigan artists. In 2011, Lora Haske Schwab, formerly of Royal Oak, opened Three Heart Bakery. Three Heart shoppers can grab and go, but many choose to linger at their tables to wash down their Callebaut chocolate brownies with a coffee. “I have some people who are real foodies,” says Schwab.

While the city’s secret renaissance has unfolded slowly, the tipping point may have come in 2012.

“This last year, business is just up tremendously,” says Mary Pritchard. “Every [business owner] you talk to in town was way up.”

Photograph courtesy of Marge Beaver, www.photography-plus.com

Could it be that recession-weary vacationers wanted an affordable spot to slip into their flip-flops? Or maybe it was the opening of the organic, locally sourced Chicory Café, where vegetarians and carnivores nosh side by side. Perhaps it was because Knaebe’s had bushels of Jonathans, Cortlands, and Northern Spies when other Michigan growers’ blossoms were wiped out by a disastrous combination of freakishly warm early spring weather followed by a serious cold snap.

Whatever it was, Pritchard says, “There’s a lot of excitement about Rogers City.”

Things are looking up for the Nautical City’s 3,000 residents, too.

Six years ago, local officials approved the zoning for building a new coal plant within the town’s huge limestone quarry, which locals say is the world’s largest. But the project remains tied up in court, and even the utility pushing the project says construction is now unlikely because of changing economics.

Ironically, Moran Iron Works, 25 miles away in Onaway, Mich., has added 50 jobs since January 2012, and expects to add almost 100 more by the end of 2014. Moran specializes in technology for energy producers, and some of their jobs can be gargantuan.

Moran business-development specialist Marilyn Kapp says the company also plans to upgrade the dock and install a new crane in Rogers City’s port, originally built to service the quarry.

The crane will double the company’s lifting capacity for loading its custom welding and fabricating jobs onto freighters.

Iron Works owner Tom Moran has added his own artistic flair to the area with public artwork. A loose replica of The Lexington, a Revolutionary War ship, and a rendering of the Statue of Liberty’s torch-bearing hand stand near Rogers City’s expansive lakefront. Other works include busts of presidents Gerald Ford, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln; a rendering of the Liberty Bell; a giant ax; a hand-operated water pump; and more.

While Moran’s employee parking lot is full of more cars, and more visitors are shopping and eating in and around Rogers City, the area retains its very small-town, uncommercialized feel. And it seems to attract some very polite vacationers.

“A lot of times when people come in, they thank us for being here,” says apple farm owner Edward Knaebe, of a phenomenon that started about two years ago. “I guess I had never expected to hear that.”

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