Optimism in Mancelona as growth, development replaces blight
The town of Mancelona in Antrim County has had its share of woes.
Large manufacturers and local businesses closed, leaving behind abandoned, blighted buildings.
Some people moved away as the village struggled to attract new residents and business.
But residents say the town is now changing for the better.
Mancelona village is home to 1,300 residents, off US-131, marked by a green welcome sign with directions to a snowmobile trail.
There’s a strip of storefronts on West State Street, where you can find anything – clothes, cannabis, a slice of pizza, tattoos.
Until recently, most of those storefronts were pretty empty.
“There was a time where, what was there, three businesses downtown that were actually doing business and the rest of them are just gutted. I mean there was nothing there,” said Craig Hart, a lifetime resident of Mancelona and public works supervisor.
“As a kid everything was prosperous, everything was growing. But it never got bigger than what it always is. But when you grow up, everything changes. Everyone gets older, retires and moves out. It never stayed the same,” he said.
Jamie Fisher who moved to the village from Grand Rapids in 2007, said it’s been like a ghost town.
Mike Allison, the village president, said that was mostly caused by losing one of its biggest employers. The Dura Automotive plant closed in 2008. About 300 people worked there.
“Our two biggest manufacturing plants closed and moved labor to the south," Allison said. "We had two huge auto parts manufacturing places, one the building is gone and other the one the building is semi-blighted."
The other large company to shutdown was Maverick Metals. It shut down a couple decades ago.
Those events were the recipe for a ghost town. Storefronts and homes stood empty and other buildings started to decay as interest in Mancelona withered.
But things changed when the village decided to clean things up.
Allison worked with Rotary Charities in Traverse City to fix a damaged sidewalk near a school bus stop.
That relationship led to the hiring of a grant writer and then --
“People got roofs, they got siding, they got windows. But it’s called the Neighborhood Enhancement Program and like I said I think we’ve done over 20 houses now,” Allison said.
More grants were acquired by the village were used to renovate some of the municipal buildings in town and other infrastructural needs.
Allison said that spurred serious investment in Mancelona. Over the last few years, developers at Anchor Management Group of Michigan have renovated downtown apartments and added 12 additional units in the village center.
The developers bought some of the abandoned homes in Mancelona.
“I think they’re on house number 12 or 13 that they bought, gutted, new siding, new windows and then it’s affordable workforce housing,” he said.
Donna Gundle-Krieg at Mancelona based DEK Realty said that it used to be impossible to sell homes in the area. Home prices have doubled since 2019, which Gundle-Krieg attributes in part to the improvements Mancelona has made.
She also said that like everywhere else, there’s now a shortage of affordable housing.
Other folks in the community have invested in some of the empty store fronts downtown.
Antrim Outfitters is a new store owned by Jeff and Mike Nygren-Weaver. It’s a shop that plans to offer outdoor gear. Right now, it’s mostly things like mugs and clothing, but they plan to tap into their outdoor-focused inventory this year.
They also own the Iron Skillet Restaurant and the coffee shop, Rooted. Jeff Nygren-Weaver said it’s a personal goal to uplift Mancelona.
“The place has really gotten a bad rap since everything left. If you haven’t been here in a few years, things have changed, drastically in the past two years, if you haven’t been here come back," he said. "Check it out. There’s a lot of things up and coming."
Like the two new outdoor sports parks. 10 Pines Ranch on Elder Road hosted its first cross-country dirt bike race in fall. It drew more than 4,000 people. They hope to attract some national attention this summer.
Lifelong resident Craig Hart said seeing his hometown return to those days of prosperity has been encouraging.
“People actually coming in here, building more of a business, putting something into storefronts and actually doing something about the town, makes you feel a little proud to actually work in this town. Like I said, I’ve lived here my whole life. And I like the area I’ve never really planned on leaving and I love the people here,” Hart said.
There’s more projects in the pipeline too, including a sewer expansion just north of town to supply new restaurants and housing. With so much going on, they hope more people stop by on their travels.