A Northern Michigan town waves as I-75 drivers barrel past

Mandi Chasey, Ogemaw County’s economic development director and a director of business services for Michigan Works in Ogemaw County, is leading a partnership with Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration to solve challenges from jobs to housing. (SLIDESHOW>>>)

Ethan and Erin Resteiner, who grew up in West Branch, opened The Highway Brewing Co. in January in downtown West Branch. The couple say their brewpub is the first in town, and are excited to be part of an effort to revitalize the city’s business district.

The exterior of The Highway Brewing Co., which opened in January in downtown West Branch.

The interior of The Highway Brewing Co., which opened in January in downtown West Branch. Owners Ethan and Erin Resteiner renovated the building after buying it in 2015.

The city may consider moving away from the Victorian brand it has used for years when describing downtown, in hopes of finding something more appealing to younger residents it wants to attract.

Part of the streetscape in downtown West Branch.

WEST BRANCH — In the fall of 2015, Ethan and Erin Resteiner bought a building in downtown West Branch that they pictured as the ideal home for the brewpub they’d dreamed of opening.

The building, which they think was built in the late 1800s, needed some TLC. They opened The Highway Brewing Co., the city’s first, in January, and Ethan says business already has exceeded the couple’s expectations.

A few weeks after the Resteiners opened their brewpub, Gov. Rick Snyder visited West Branch to announce the city had been chosen for the second round of the state’s Rising Tide program. The program targets economically struggling communities and provides state help so local governments and other community organizations can work together to remove barriers to their region’s economic growth.

By the numbers: Ogemaw County, West Branch

  Michigan Ogemaw County West Branch
Population 9,962,311 20,981 2,063
Change from 2010 0.9% -2.9% -3.6%
Owner-occupied housing 70.8% 82.5% 45.7%
College educated (bachelor's degree or higher) 28.3% 11.4% 16.7%
In poverty 16.3% 20.0% 29.8%
Median rent $799 $646 $596
Median household income $50,803 $36,941 $25,741
Unemployment (March) 4.6% 9.8% n/a

Source: U.S. Census, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

West Branch residents rattle off similar challenges: Not enough skilled, high-paying jobs, or training to fill them. Not enough housing, including middle- to upper-income apartments that could cater to younger residents. No doctors for expectant mothers after the local hospital closed its maternity ward; many pregnant women now travel to Midland, close to an hour away, for obstetrics care. Very little child care. Spotty broadband internet service.

Locals say the launch of Rising Tide here could be the turning point for a small town that has potential to become an Up North destination, not just a freeway exit.

“We’re at this kind of pivotal moment where we’re determining, really, who we are and who we want to be,” Erin Resteiner said. “Not only to our community that’s already here, but to the community we hope to reach and bring in via tourism or moving here and starting jobs and starting families.”

2018 Michigan issues guide:

Bridge visited West Branch as part of Bridge and The Center for Michigan’s 2018 Truth Tour, which aims to engage and inform Michigan residents on the biggest challenges facing Michigan voters ahead of this November’s election for governor, legislative seats and other statewide offices. The Truth Tour will return to the town on June 18 for town hall discussions on the economy and other issues.

Tiny West Branch is just off I-75, about 20 miles east of Houghton Lake. It’s home to roughly 2,000 people. It’s the seat of Ogemaw County, population 21,000, and got its name from the Michigan Central Railroad in the late 19th century. It thrived as a lumber town in its early years, in large part because of the convergence of three Chippewa Indian footpaths that today are state highways.

Locals say its location, near highways and rail and a general aviation airport, remains one of its greatest assets today.

Yet to many people, West Branch is little more than an Interstate 75 exit sign, a bathroom or meal break at one of several fast-food restaurants on a commercial strip known to locals as “Hamburger Hill,” before hitting the road again on the way to somewhere else.

Related: How to bring the Michigan Truth Tour to your town this election year
Related: Get Facebook reminders for upcoming Truth Tour events here

Related: See a full list of all scheduled Truth Tour events on our calendar

But what highway travelers see is actually a neighboring township, a fact that frustrates residents who say the city of West Branch has a lot to offer — mom-and-pop businesses, a quaint business district, outdoor recreation, public parks — if only people would drive a few more miles to see it.

“The majority of people who aren’t from this region who get off the expressway think they’ve visited the city of West Branch, and they’ve never entered it,” city manager Heather Grace said.

“We want to become the destination, not just the pit stop.”

That kind of change will be transformational, though Grace and other West Branch residents say the region is ready for it. Some downtown business owners had started to coalesce behind the idea before Rising Tide brought more people and perspectives to the effort, she said.

One potential change: Ditching the downtown’s marketing as a Victorian-era throwback. Local economic development leaders say the century-old branding might need to go, so younger generations don’t find it stodgy.

Several people said new branding, that highlighted West Branch’s natural resources and outdoor recreation activities (like trails for off-road vehicles), could make the region more attractive to tourists and potential residents.

But solving the jobs puzzle is the priority.

Just 17 percent of West Branch city residents have at least a bachelor’s degree. It’s higher than Ogemaw County as a whole, but still below the state average of 28 percent, data show.

Nearly 30 percent of city residents live in poverty, also higher than the state average.

The local hospital, which last month merged with Midland-based MidMichigan Health, was Ogemaw County’s top employer last year, according to the most recent county data.

The school district serving West Branch and nearby Rose City was among the five largest county employers. But so were retailers, including Walmart and an outlet mall near I-75.

Several people pointed to the need for more high-skilled industrial work, such as CNC machine operators, and higher-skilled positions in fields like health care to offset the reliance on service jobs.

“We need more reliable, consistent jobs. More living-wage (jobs) with benefits. Benefits are really hard to find around here,” said Mandi Chasey, Ogemaw County’s economic development director and director of business services for Ogemaw County for Michigan Works Region 7B, which serves six counties in the northeastern Lower Peninsula.

Among strategies being considered: The county’s new economic development plan identified the need for more educational opportunities through Kirtland Community College, apprenticeships and other training programs. So, too, for expanding the housing stock, increasing child care options and marketing available buildings or storefronts to investors — all of which are connected to job creation.

The state’s Rising Tide program provides mostly technical help on things like branding and marketing, developing an economic plan and identifying possible grant funding.

“It’s kind of the chicken and the egg situation,” said Scott Bell, a community planner who works for Lapham Associates in West Branch, a firm that provides planning, surveying, engineering and environmental services.

“(We need) opportunities to help the younger folks get some education and some training to do those jobs,” said Bell, who also serves on planning commissions in Ogemaw County and neighboring West Branch Township. “But you’ve got to have the jobs first.”

Chasey said one of the goals of participating in Rising Tide is encouraging cooperation within the greater region, and making the process easier for companies looking to locate or expand.

“I would like to see more help for working individuals that are doing the right thing, that are going to work every day and just don’t make enough money to make ends meet,” said Barbara Fisher, who lives in Lupton, about 20 miles northeast of West Branch.

Fisher, who said she works at Walmart, said she wants leaders in state government to find ways to increase job skills and opportunities in trades for students who don’t go to a four-year college or university.

“You don’t need a four-year college degree to be a carpenter, a plumber, an electrician,” Fisher said, as she played with her grandson at a park. “That could be learned right during high school and then do an apprenticeship after high school. We’re always going to need those jobs. Always.”

But attracting new employers, and jobs that pay living wages, also requires a community to have the necessary infrastructure to support business.

West Branch, like much of Michigan, has infrastructure challenges. Here, water is a major issue.

Nearly all of the city’s top road projects are on hold because the city doesn’t have enough money to fix “nearly failed” water mains that lie underneath the roads, said Grace, the city manager.

It doesn’t make sense to tear up a road to pave the surface, she said, only to have to tear up that new work once a water main breaks.

Grace said a recent study projected that West Branch would need about $19 million over 20 years to update its water infrastructure. Yet water rates haven’t increased in decades, she added, so revenue generally only covers operations — not upgrades.

This is the cost of deferred maintenance, she said. City leaders are studying how to raise the revenue they need without harming residents who might struggle to pay.

“It would be a very hard impact, because we’re so low-income, to dramatically increase those rates,” Grace said.

And yet, she added: “If we don’t have a strong infrastructure, we’re not going to be able to bring in any of the good-paying jobs, because you can’t expect employers to come to an area when the infrastructure can’t support their operations.”

Erin Resteiner, of the brewpub, said she pays more attention to local issues than state ones, partly because of her busy life — she has a 1-year-old son in addition to the new business. But she added that challenges often are easier to tackle when they’re local, because people can have more of a direct impact.

West Branch has much going for it, she added. “We have a lot to offer.”

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Comments

***
Fri, 05/04/2018 - 9:08am

After reading the article I have to honestly say I see nothing about West Branch that is appealing to me as a tourist.

Fred
Fri, 05/04/2018 - 10:13am

They truly have a insurmountable problem. No jobs, no money, no skills and no real vision (plan).

sjl
Fri, 05/04/2018 - 10:17am

Please reconsider....it is a very cute community, with lots to offer.

Katie
Sun, 05/27/2018 - 6:55pm

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judith
Sat, 05/05/2018 - 2:58am

I was lucky enough to stay in West Branch a few years ago , we stayed with a local family and I honestly did not want to leave, the place the people were so very friendly. It was beautiful.

V. Schmitt
Tue, 05/08/2018 - 8:20pm

If you come to our area, you can see the deer at the Game Refuge, Rifle River Recreation Area, attend our many well-planned festivals like the Victorian Art Fair or the Ogemaw County Fair, or just ride all the trails and back roads to view our plentiful game. You can attend the plays that Ogemaw Heights puts on, or just go to the movies. It's all a choice. If you look even slightly, you will find things to do here.

Lucille
Fri, 05/25/2018 - 10:51pm

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Paul Brunell
Fri, 05/04/2018 - 9:57am

One problem with West Branch is that the Sheriff department pulls people over all the time on I-75. This just gives the wrong initial impression when entering the county.

Sue
Fri, 05/04/2018 - 12:18pm

Hmmm.. Why do you think drivers are being pulled over? Maybe because they're breaking the speed law?

Cheryl
Fri, 05/04/2018 - 1:30pm

If you are not breaking the law while going past a sheriff's car then you have nothing to worry about. Ridiculous comment.

John Q. Public
Fri, 05/04/2018 - 2:14pm

(paraphrasing) "If you aren't breaking the law, you have nothing to fear from the police. "

Talk about your ridiculous comments. That's not even counting how difficult it is to drive five (or even two) miles without violating a section of the motor vehicle code.

Your mileage may vary, but I don't know a single person who thinks, the legitimacy of it notwithstanding, "Hey, the local police are diligent enforcers of the traffic code. Now, THERE'S a place I'd like to visit."

Kevin
Sun, 05/06/2018 - 6:22am

Laws are not made to only apply when you might get caught breaking them- try thinking a little deeper Cheryl.

Renee
Mon, 05/07/2018 - 8:26am

My grandpa was pulled over for simply going over the white line by Brian's fruit market and got slapped with a $90 ticket. This town goes to the extreme when it comes to trying to suck money out of poor people. Also I don't think there is anything friendly about the majority of the people. I was born and raised here so I know all too well how it is.

sjl
Fri, 05/04/2018 - 10:15am

West Branch is a wonderful community with fun events. I hope that people will stop by and see all of the great locally owned establishments in the area.

Fred
Fri, 05/04/2018 - 12:30pm

The sheriff is a real problem, setting a negative tone for the entire community. "Marketing" the value in WB takes a team effort and that includes the sheriff. It is worth finding out how much revenue the sheriff generates for the county (his office).... Strikes me as "We want tourists" on one hand but the sheriff acts counter to this desire.

Gary
Fri, 05/04/2018 - 5:59pm

This is only my opinion but Downtown West Branch is never going to survive until the stores, Restaurants, and other Businesses can compete with West Branch Township Businesses. I lived in Ogemaw County for 62 years and have seen more Businesses come and go in the Downtown District and it is all because the average person in Ogemaw does not have the money to shop there. The Mill End is gone the Dime Store is gone so there is nothing there to lure the poorer people of the County Downtown anymore. I don't believe it is just a problem in West Branch either drive through Prudenville and Houghton Lake and you will see vacant buildings all through each of those towns. St Helen where I live now has 10 or more vacant buildings and we just lost another Restaurant this spring closing after 20 years in business. It is a Michigan problem not a County or City problem and I won't even go to the Political problem which is the main problem. Thank you for listening to me because that also helps too!

Lyndon
Fri, 05/25/2018 - 9:35pm

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Aaron K
Fri, 05/04/2018 - 11:33pm

They need a lot more going on to attract the critical mass of people needed to revitalize the downtown. If only they could get a Trader Joe’s in there somewhere that would be a start.

Wally Townsend
Sat, 05/05/2018 - 12:00am

I'm sorry but living in the Upper Peninsula and hearing people use the term "Up North" offends me and the thousands of residents in the true "Up North" of Michigan. Michigan does not stop at the Mackinaw bridge, and I find it offensive that people in the Lower Peninsula feel that it does. They say that "well we go to Mackinaw Island every summer." Big whoop! We have far more to offer on the west side of the Upper Peninsula. Come See.

Yeah Right.
Sat, 05/05/2018 - 7:42am

This article is wrong on so many levels. Seems like Mandy, or whoever provided information, should do their homework. The victorian theme was dropped years ago. Thats why buisness like Bubbles & Burritos can display a sign that..... well.....each to their own. The article also failed to mention the 3 police forces our small town posesses. No wonder people choose to leave or choose to never live here in the first place. As A born and raised native of west branch, i was personally offended with the article literally starting out as a plug for The Highway Brewing Co. Good for them, being born a silver spoon. Others have worked their entire lives to provide for their families. And yet no mention of those buinesses. And then you chose to close the article with more of Highways info.... A plug , paid article comes to mind. Not much mention of the buisness that have held on for decades. Like our Bakery! Every small town has financial issues. Big cities must be way worse. Anyone can rattle off supposed facts & numbers of poverty levels, where did Mandy get her data? Overall, shame on bridgemi for printing such a awful article.

Jen
Sun, 05/06/2018 - 10:06am

With all due respect, a bakery doesn't attract new business off of I-75; a brewery does. The point of the story is about creating economic development opportunities, and businesses such as breweries do that. One of the main takeaways from this story is that the true downtown West Branch is not pulling visitors from the highway; the township is where they're stopping and shopping. And even if the Victorian theme may have officially been dropped from the downtown development's marketing plan, evidence of it is still everywhere, including signs directing people to visit "Victorian downtown West Branch." The reason a business such as the Highway Brewing Co. is featured the way it is in this article — it's an example of the direction downtown should go in to attract shoppers beyond residents.

xxxxxx
Sun, 05/06/2018 - 1:26pm

When they put the expressway through, maybe they should have done like Grayling did. Only one exit for exiting and one for entering, that way they would have to go through West Branch.