Northern Express ‘Small Towns on the Rise’ Quarterly Part 2
By Ross Boissoneau | January 1, 2022
The location of the Grayling junction has been a blessing and a curse. Located at the junction of I-75, M-72, US 127, and M-93, the small town in north central Lower Michigan is a convenient stopping point on the way to many places. Yet it is also this fact that has contributed to its transient nature.
“Historically, it’s the gateway to the north, a great place to stop, shop and eat,” says Jillian Tremonti, Acting Director of Grayling Main Street.
Which is good, but not enough to make Grayling a place to go, rather than just a place to go. through. The town’s history, natural resources, and the famous AuSable River Canoe Marathon have kept Grayling on the map since the heyday of its logging and new highway, but in recent years a series of businesses new and improved, a slowly revitalizing downtown area, a commitment to the development of art and culture, and a growing effort to capitalize on the region’s outdoor recreation opportunities give passers-by a reason to s ‘stop and stay a while.
WIN IN TRACTION
Tremonti says the city is on the rebound. What happened? Some things. Erich Podjaske, the city’s director of economic development, says adopting Michigan’s Main Street program has helped spur growth. “It was really the catalyst,” he says of the program developed by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.
While the population of Crawford and Grayling County has declined slightly over the past decade, Podjaske says a housing study conducted through the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA) showed Grayling had need hundreds of homes.
Two major housing projects are on the horizon, one a development of 42 units and the other a project of 108 units which has just been approved. Both are slated to open this spring and be completed within 12 to 18 months.
Podjaske also highlights the installation of ARAUCO particle board outside the city, which opened in 2019, as a sign of the city’s renewed economic vitality. He says other small businesses have since opened up as offshoots. In the town itself, he says three new small retail stores and a restaurant have opened, and Ray’s BBQ, Blues and Brews recently opened on the river.
He admits that Grayling is not “here” yet. A former downtown hotel and restaurant remains vacant, but he says there is interest in the 10,000-square-foot building. “It’s a big boost,” he says, but he hopes the city’s continued growth will inspire someone to take on the challenge of reviving the property.
There has also been a renewed focus on arts and culture and on one, two, three new brewpubs over the past decade.
The first was helped by AuSable Artisan Village. It combines a commercial gallery with over 40 artists, art workshops for all ages and skill levels, as well as a stage and concert hall. Established in 2010 in the long-vacant Ben Franklin building, AuSable Craft Village is largely the vision of local artist Terry Dickinson, who is also the association’s new president. The Village’s mission: to initiate and support artistic and creative activities that enrich life and fuel the cultural and economic development of the community and the shadow region.
Add to that the affiliated Main Branch Gallery, which Tremonti describes as an upscale art and sculpture gallery. It features original works of art inspired by nature, limited edition Giclée reproductions, jewelry, pottery, and wood and bronze sculptures.
Another element has been the emergence of these three breweries: Paddle Hard Brewing, Dead Bear Brewing Company and Rolling Oak Brewing Company have individually added to the appeal of the region and together provided a huge boost.
“We have quite a few breweries for the population,” says Tremonti. So how does a small community like Grayling support three breweries? Tremonti says they each have their own personalities and offerings of entertainment, live music, comedians and more. Paddle Hard and Dead Bear are full restaurants; Rolling Oak has its own food truck.
While breweries give the city a boost, the city responds in the same way. In July, Grayling launched its Brew Avenue social district. A social district is a designated area where patrons can bring their alcoholic beverages open into public spaces. The rationale for such a neighborhood stems in part from the social distancing that prevails during the pandemic, as it provides a means of spacing between customers, who can also enjoy their drinks while walking between stops.
Of course, a city can only live on art and beer. So while Grayling has strived to offer more, Tremonti says the city continues to showcase its history. Its Crawford County Historical Museum, located in the restored railroad depot in the town center, looks back on the region’s logging history. It offers guests the chance to explore a former caboose, a military building dedicated to Camp Grayling and former local servicemen, a trapper’s hut, and an old-fashioned fire station.
Nearby is Wellington Farm Park, a 60-acre living history museum dedicated to interpreting farm life during the Great Depression. It has many historic buildings, including a blacksmith’s shop, a farmer’s market, a flour mill, a pavilion, a sawmill, and a summer kitchen.
More modern businesses add to the appeal. Among them is Northbound Outfitters, which is heavily invested in the area’s outdoor activities every season. It offers bicycles, skis, clothing including shoes, kayaks, canoes and accessories for outdoor activities, summer and winter. Store manager Mikaela Ashton says the store rents cross-country skis and snowshoes, useful on the many trails nearby, including the Hanson Hills Recreation Area, Forbush Corner (which has an artificial snow loop for conditions such as we are currently experiencing), Hartwick Pines, Mason Tract and Wakeley Lake.
Don’t forget the Northbound Outfitters food truck. Wait what? Yes, this store even has its own food truck, offering a variety of tacos, burritos, and sandwiches. He even smokes his own meats. “We decided to open this a few years ago just to bring traffic to the area, and in particular to our store, and it created a presence we never would have imagined,” says Ashton. (Note to hungry readers: The truck only operates in the summer, typically May through Labor Day.
NO WINTER HIBERNATION
While Grayling’s streams and forests may seem like a perfect summer destination, it takes pride in winter. Michigan’s first downhill ski area was… that’s right, Hanson Hills, which opened in 1929. Today it’s home to a 1,000-acre sports park, with downhill skiing, snowboarding, tubing. , snowshoe trails and more than 35 km of Nordic skiing. Trails. Ashton says the park is expanding its tube hill this year due to increased demand in recent years. (During the summer, Hanson Hills remains open; it offers disc golf, 3D archery, mountain biking, and hiking trails.)
Winter patrons can usually find an ice rink at Tinker’s Junction, another popular restaurant, when temperatures permit. And when the temperature drops, Paddle Hard offers igloos and ice cabins that you can rent and dine outside in style with a small group.
Of course, Grayling is best known for one outdoor sport in particular: the annual AuSable River Canoe Marathon. Every summer, hundreds of runners from around the world descend into the city to sprint 120 miles on the water.
The hope now is that this top notch race is just one of the things Grayling is known for. And with everything else popping up around the northern Michigan crossroads, it just might be.