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In Cheboygan, waiting for entrepreneurs to take a chance

Sometime early next year, Billie Livingston will close the doors for the last time to her eclectic clothing store, Billies Women’s Fashions in downtown Cheboygan. The 125-year-old building at the corner of Main and Division has hosted businesses longer than any other venue in this once booming logging and industrial town near the top of Michigan’s mitten.

The shop, which is 28 years old, will be one of nearly 20 vacant storefronts on a three-block stretch of downtown.

“I’m very pro-Cheboygan, and I don’t want any more empty storefronts,” said Livingston, who plans to retire. “But things are not getting better.

“The average income in Cheboygan is $22,000. The locals can’t afford to shop here, even though my prices are fair. They go shop at the Salvation Army.”

For nearly three decades Billie Livingston has watched Cheboygan empty, sometimes slowly and sometimes in bursts.

When the Procter & Gamble plant downtown closed in 1990, it eliminated hundreds of jobs. WalMart’s arrival two years later lent hope to some, but when it doubled in size and added a superstore in 2002, retailers downtown couldn’t compete and went out of business.

Cheboygan Memorial Hospital, which once employed 400 people, went bankrupt in 2012 and sat idle for six weeks before McLaren acquired it and re-opened it as a wing of its Petoskey hospital. The Cheboygan medical center is now a skeleton of its former self and employs only 150.

Debating the next chapter

The 2008 economic recession hit Cheboygan when she was already down. Since the mid-20th Century, this city has suffered a steady decrease in population; that figure dropped by another 7 percent between 2006 and today. Cheboygan has also lost a whopping 22 percent of its businesses and 16 percent of its jobs in the past decade.

“We used to be classified as a retirement community, but retirees can’t live here if they have health issues because we don’t have a (full-service) hospital,” said Livingston. “The nearest hospital is an hour away in Petoskey. What happens if you have a heart attack?”

Following the recession, Livingston has also witnessed fewer downstate auto workers come to spend their money. Back in the 1950s and ’60s many General Motors workers would buy retirement homes at nearby Mullett Lake.

Across the street from Billies, Zany Kitchen, a cooking accessories store, will close after Labor Day. Owner Susan Ball plans to retire after eight years in business.

“People ask me ‘You can’t close the store, where am I gonna shop?’” Ball said. “But I’m 65. I could go another five years, but I don’t think anything’s going to be different here.”

Ball said she hopes to spend her winters soaking up the rays in Mexico and visiting her son in Napa Valley, Calif.
Billie Livingston, meanwhile, will spend more time with her son who lives near Ann Arbor. “My son said he’ll never come back,” said Livingston. “Cheboygan needs jobs to bring back young people.”

As the workers have left, so have the town’s young families. Cheboygan once had five grade schools; now it has one. According to City Manager Tom Eustice, the number of students at the high school dropped from 720 to 559 over the past 10 years. The average age in Cheboygan County is 55, said Eustice.

Ball said she believes that Cheboygan needs to shed its identity as a manufacturing town and more fully embrace tourism. The city sits on Lake Huron, at the mouth of the Cheboygan River, just 20 minutes southeast of the Mackinac Bridge.

“Cheboygan has always thought of itself as a manufacturing town because we had Procter & Gamble, but it never recovered after they left,” said Ball. “We’ve been left out because we have not gone after tourism. And the young people who grow up here move away to get a job.”

A port of hope

Meanwhile, the city is working with the Cheboygan Downtown Development Authority and the Chamber of Commerce on a Port of Cheboygan project to develop a domestic and international deep water port. Eustice frames the initiative, underway since 2010 as a way to attract business investment and manufacturing back to Cheboygan.

Some business owners think this is the wrong approach.

“They’re putting the cart before the horse,” Livingston said. “We have no industry here. They need to go out and search for industry, first. The city needs to hire a publicist or marketing firm to promote Cheboygan.”

Ball thinks opening and promoting new businesses related to tourism is the path forward. Tourism is a large part of the economies of nearby Mackinaw City and Petoskey.

“Because we have not gone after tourism, we’re being left out.”

Some in Cheboygan are excited about Meijer breaking ground on a retail location outside of town in 2017, but others worry the big-box store will continue to bleed jobs downtown. Another cherished local business, Alcock’s Market, shuttered its doors this year after it failed to compete with the Speedway gas station one block away, which had expanded to add beer, wine and pizza by the slice.

Cheboygan does have a precious few examples of young people staying in town and running a business. But it’s not easy, said Alicia Stanford, 33, who together with her mother runs The Brick Oven outside of town near a Kmart. The pizza restaurant has reduced its service to 4 days a week in the summer and just 1 day a week in the winter.

“We’re not raking in the dough,” said Stanford. “We barely make it.”

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