Long road back for the U.P. tourism economy

Jul 8, 2015

Credit Peter Payette

For many families in Michigan, high summer means a trip to the Upper Peninsula. But the number of people who cross the Mackinac Bridge has been declining steadily for almost twenty years.

It looks like that trend could turn around this year. But it also appears that many longstanding ties between visitors and the U.P. have been lost along the way.

Taleen and Marshall Jackson live in Mt. Pleasant but their hearts are in the U.P.

“We try to get up here as much as we possibly can,” says Taleen at the end of a June weekend in St. Ignace.

They’ve been all over U.P. and say they love the slow pace.

“We will stop five times in 10 miles,” says Marshall. “It’s just a different mindset up here.”

But the slow pace has been less of a draw in recent years. Compare 2014 to the late 1990s. The number of people who crossed the Mackinac Bridge was down more than two million.

There is no single explanation for this trend. But the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs in southeast Michigan may account for a lot of it.

Joe Durm opened Java Joe's Cafe in St. Ignace when the crowds were peaking 18 years ago. In those days, business would surge when the automobile companies shut down for a model change.

“It was huge,” he says. “It was a huge bonus for us.”

There are other issues. People take shorter vacations, and the U.P. is a long drive for many. Researchers at Michigan State University say fishing and camping aren’t as popular as they once were.   

Durm thinks another problem is people don’t want to unplug anymore.

“And quite often there are areas here where we can’t get the internet,” he says.

Credit Peter Payette

Go west out of St. Ignace on U.S. 2 and you can’t get cell phone service for long stretches.

Out here, the decline becomes visible in shuttered motels and abandoned restaurants. Weeds reclaim unneeded parking lots.

Bob Brodbeck is one of the owners of The Balsams Resort, just a few miles from the bridge. He’s watched the slow decline of this area for 30 years, as towns like Brevort and Blaney Park have lost most of their businesses.

The Balsams offers an experience that was a staple of U.P. travel in the 20th century - the log cabin.

“The first cabin was built in 1927,” says Brodbeck “The others were added a few years after that, in the 1930s, and every single cabin is different.”

There’s no internet in these cabins. No cable TV. There is a VHS player and you can borrow tapes from the office.

But Brodbeck’s wife, Sue, says customers who stay in in them become personally attached.

“It’s kind of their cabin,” she says. “And then they leave and someone else thinks it’s their cabin. So, I think people have really gotten a sense of ownership about the place.”

That might sound like advertising. But it was that sense of ownership that helped many people develop deep ties to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, ties that became traditions.

Chris Rector is with a development group based in Marquette called Northern Initiatives. She says people did this for generations.

“It was ... I would come as a child and then as I got married and had my own children I would be bringing my children back and even grandchildren in some cases,” she explains.

But Rector says those traditions have been chipped away. Some resorts closed. Some sold off the cabins to individual owners. And now there are fewer people with personal ties to the region.

Rector says that’s why the UP now has to pay close attention to travelers who come for other reasons, like paddling.

“So how do we let people know where the great places are to put in your canoe and what rivers there are to paddle?” she says. “And for those people who want to explore the big lake how do you access that?”

Major destinations in the Upper Peninsula still draw crowds. Rector says half a million people stopped at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore last year.

Joe Durm thinks some new attractions would help. He says the cultural heritage of St. Ignace would be a big draw today. When he was a kid, American Indians would exhibit their craftsmanship where everyone could see it.

“The natives were making black ash baskets, pottery and things like that and you could go watch them do this,” he says. "It's all gone."

Durm also thinks St. Ignace needs a brew pub. He’ll even tell you which shuttered restaurant you should open it in. He says his wife won’t let him do it. They already own three restaurants here.

It might the right time to invest. The Mackinac Bridge Authority says traffic over the bridge is up about seven percent so far this year.