NORTHPORT — The secret may finally be out in Northport.
The village at the northern point of Leelanau County is a quiet, charming place even by northern Michigan standards. It’s a place where the small grocery store is still vibrant, where the tiny public library is still used by people who want to read books and where you can catch up on community goings-on by walking through town -- as opposed to logging into Facebook.
But business leaders say despite Northport’s sleepy, could-hear-a-pin-drop reputation, there’s no ignoring a change unfolding in the village these days. There’s an entrepreneurial shift afoot, they said, and those behind it are bringing with them new investment and excitement about Northport’s future.
“I think we are definitely on the upswing,” said Tom Van Pelt, a lifelong Northport resident and business owner who also chairs the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners. “We were on the downswing for a lot of years.”
New businesses began to blossom in Northport as regional tourism exploded nationally. A newly revamped, nautically themed restaurant called the Soggy Dollar opened in the village on Memorial Day and is doing quite well with solid word-of-mouth reviews.
A 63-acre golf course, Northport Creek, is expected to open next year, and there are rumblings a new brewery could come to town.
The most noticeable change is the rise of Tucker’s of Northport. The 12,000-square-foot business at 116 Waukazoo St. is being built from the ground up by Ben and Kathy Walraven. The business will feature a restaurant, bar, arcade and bowling boutique offering six lanes of bowling.
“The idea is to serve the Leelanau Peninsula with this type of property,” said Ben Walraven. “We know we’ll get real good traffic in the summer, and the bowling lanes gives us a chance to have reliable winter hours for both entertainment and food.
“We’ve done a feasibility study and we contracted with someone from the bowling industry – there’s enough population to support this facility from Northport to 15 miles south,” Walraven said.
Community members certainly endured their fair share of tough blows over the last couple of decades. The loss of the Northport Hospital was especially harsh, Van Pelt said, and the closing of a popular recreational campground that brought tourists and other out-of-towners north didn’t help either.
Ryan Beyer, general manager of the Soggy Dollar, said it’s clear changes afoot in Northport.
“Now’s the time’s to get in in,” Beyer said. “In 10 years it’s going to be next to impossible. It’s a hidden treasure that’s being slowly found, especially with the new businesses... a lot of new things are coming.
Beyer said the community also is capitalizing on a novel tourism lure. Northport, he said, is a place that is pet friendly. It has a big dog parade every year and there are ongoing discussions aimed at creating a state-of-the-art dog park and dog run to town. Ben Walraven said he even named Tucker’s after the family dog.
“We are a huge dog community and we want to be an animal-friendly town,” Beyer said. “You can always bring your pets to Northport. They are welcome.”
There’s no denying the new buzz in Northport, said Jim Metcalf, owner S&G Landscape/Northport Nursery. Tucker’s of Northport has many people talking, he said, but Metcalf suspects Northport will still cling tightly to its small-town charm.
“(The future) looks bright right now ... we are seeing a lot more traffic,” said Metcalf. “I came from the city and it’s quite a bit safer here. A good place to bring up your kids.”