NORTHPORT — A smallpox epidemic in 1848 was the impetus for creation of the tiny village of Northport, population 500 or so, that clings to the Grand Traverse Bay shoreline near the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula.
The fledgling community, originally known as Waukazooville, arrived by canoe and other watercraft, led by Chief Peter Waukazoo and the Rev. George Smith. It soon becoming the largest town on the peninsula and even served as the county seat for a time.
Now another disease is threatening to shutter Northport and small towns just like it across the state, but especially in northern Michigan, where so much of the economy depends on the three-month slice of heaven dished up every summer.
Tucker’s, named after a golden retriever whose paw prints are embedded in the front walkway, may be one of the first casualties of COVID-19.
The year-round restaurant, arcade and boutique bowling venue was struggling to make a profit before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, said Bill Collins, managing partner.
“This has pushed us over the edge and it doesn’t make sense to try and reopen,” Collins said.
The Small Business Association of Michigan has 28,000 members across the state. A recent survey of 1,400 members that responded showed that 56 percent of businesses are still open, either because they are deemed critical infrastructure or their employees are working from home, said Sarah Miller, vice president of marketing and strategic communications. About 27 percent responded that they have laid off at least six employees.
It is too soon to tell how many businesses won’t come back after the COVID-19 crisis has passed, Miller said.
Chris Andrus is part owner of The Mitten Brewing Co., which stays open in the off season. In the summer, though, people mingle on the patio listening to bands or getting a bite from a nearby food truck.
Andrus is the recipient of a Paycheck Protection Program loan to help keep his staff working. There are six employees in Northport and another 75 at the business’ main location in Grand Rapids. But most are receiving unemployment benefits that pay better than the job and it’s hard to lure them back, he said.
Andrus is hoping to re-open before the end of summer.
“The restaurant business is notorious for low margins and high overhead,” Andrus said. “We’re hoping we’ll have a July and August, which is when we make the vast majority of our income there.”
Since it’s been open, the brewery has become an important part of the community, he said.
“Now it’s about surviving and doing what’s right.”
Across the street from Tucker’s is North Shore Outfitters, owned by Will Harper. After much angst, Harper this week made the decision to keep the seasonal store closed for the summer.
“We don’t want to take the risk of purchasing inventory and we don’t want to put ourselves or our employees at risk via people coming through the store,” said Harper, who runs the business with his girlfriend Rachael Dean.
“It’s like we’re taking a retirement year early and will just have to work longer in future years,” he said. “It’s actually kind of a relief to make the decision and be done with it. No more pins and needles.”
Mimi Heberlein says social distancing measures are the worst-case scenario for businesses like the Willowbrook Mill, a wedding and special events venue she has owned for about six years.
“Our job is getting people in each others’ faces — dancing, eating and socializing,” Heberlein said.
Six months of payments have been suspended on a Small Business Administration loan she has on the business and will be tacked on to the end of the loan. But the business interruption insurance she carries does not see COVID-19 as a physical impediment to keeping her doors open — something she finds ludicrous.
But Heberlein is confident she will survive the crisis. She and other small business owners are learning to be creative in how they reach potential customers. For her that has meant becoming tech-savvy with the help of her adult children.
Northport went through an economic downturn nearly 20 years ago when Leelanau Memorial Hospital closed. The village has seen a revival over the last several years with the construction of Tucker’s and the Northport Creek Golf Course and the opening of several new businesses, including the brewery, Outfitters and the Willowbrook.
Tucker’s is up for sale and Heberlein said the entire community is pulling for the business to find a buyer.
“Our hope is that it will not be a long-time empty spot, Heberlein said.
She says Northport will come back from the pandemic.
“It will come back to life and it will be even better than it was last time,” she said. “It’s not about businesses. It’s about people, and that’s what will make it survive.”