42.7195° N, 82.4921° W
Marine City, Michigan
Economic development spurs growth in Marine City
By Dale Hemmila
While small cities and downtowns struggle to remain viable in an era of big box stores and super malls, one Blue Water Area community has found a path to recover a relevancy that has been missing for years.
Marine City, a village of less than 5,000 residents, has become what one local visitor called the “cultural mecca of the Blue Water Area.”
Relying on a downtown renaissance revolving around entertainment and dining combined with boutique and antique shopping, the community has drawn county residents and tourists from southeastern Michigan to visit and return to enjoy the small town charm.
In the span of two blocks downtown, Marine City offers three theaters.
Recently restored from a 1927 era vaudeville theater, The Mariner shows classic movies in its cozy 48-seat auditorium. West Side Story and the original King Kong were recently on screen. And though the movies shown will change from time to time, its main attraction is a world class collection of ship and train models that remain on display year-round, featuring an 18-foot long model of the RMS Titanic.
The Mariner is owned by Gary Kohs, owner of Fine Art Models, a high-end scale model company founded in southeastern Michigan and now based in Marine City.
“We are bringing in people within an hour to an hour and half away with a lot coming from the south,” said Laura Scaccia, director of the Mariner Theater.
Just up the street, The Snug Theatre and the Riverbank Theatre, which were opened in 2013 and 2014, respectively, feature live theater productions 12 months a year.
“We offer professional theater,” said Valerie Heath, managing director for both venues. “We pay the actors and musicians so audiences really get a professional performance. Within the third show of opening The Snug, we were sold out.
“Many of them say ‘I never knew you were here’ and now they are loyal. Some buy season packages and commit to coming back all year.”
Foodies salivate over Marine City. Locals order up burgers and beer at Gar’s Lounge, or a few doors down, wait for a table at the popular Marine City Fish Company, acknowledged as one of the finer seafood places in southeastern Michigan. And for those whose palette prefers coffee or pizza or something else, there are many other quality food choices throughout the city.
Antique & Boutique Shopping
The change in Marine City has also included new retail with small shops and stores popping up over the past several years.
Long time business owner Donna Tebeau, whose Vera Grace Emporium Gift Shop and Antique Store has been around for 20 years, has watched the retail-scape in Marine City change in recent years and likes what she has seen.
“The town was struggling,” Tebeau recalls. “We did not have a good base.”
When additional stores began to open, residents asked Tebeau if she was threatened by the competition. Her reaction was just the opposite.
“People would say ‘another antique shop—just what we need’ and I would say yes, we did need it. Our business struggled early and I had been waiting and was overjoyed when new stores opened. With only two antique stores we didn’t have that draw. Now, the more we have, the better.”
Community Cooperation, Collaboration
Erika DeLange recently was named executive director of the Marine City Chamber of Commerce following a stint on its board of directors. She credits the community and businesses working together as a reason for their success.
“It’s very easy to get the word out, to talk about the theater, the food, the great destination,” she said. “The community has really embraced this and the businesses work to promote each other. There’s really a lot of collaboration.”
The chamber leadership has become more committed, as well.
“We have an exciting vibrant board,” said Cheryl Devereaux, chamber president. “We are meeting more and we have people willing to do things and not just come to meetings. We work together, not just the businesses, but everyone in the community. We accomplish much more working together.”
So while many other cities struggle to re-purpose a dormant downtown, it seems that Marine City has hit on the right formula to pull it all together. Along Water Street and its adjacent blocks, retail, dining and other services have prospered.
“The true charm,” said Scaccia, “is you have the old buildings, you have Main Street, you have the river and you go in a store and you have one-on-one interaction with the owner. Every year there’s something going on and I can’t wait until next year.”