Northern Treasure

Otsego County, MI

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Nestled among the lakes and forests of northern Michigan, Otsego County is a rapidly growing community known for its tourism as well as its thriving business opportunities. This northern treasure may be off the beaten track, but it has as much to offer as better-known metropolitan destinations…
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“Often when people think of Michigan they think of Detroit, Lansing, and Grand Rapids,” says Lisa McComb, Executive Director of the Otsego County Economic Alliance. “I think it is important that people recognize that there are thriving, active, beautiful communities where you can really make a great living and have a lower cost of living and an active life without having to be in a larger city.”

Otsego County’s many attributes are attracting significant interest and development. “We have a vibrant tourism industry and we have a great rural community as well as downtown development. Everything is seeing some sort of growth in Otsego County right now.” This growth and development sets the community apart. “We are one of the few counties in Northern Michigan that is seeing this private investment come into their county,” Ms. McComb points out. “It is a struggle in other areas [of Michigan] but we are seeing unprecedented growth here over the last two years, and into the foreseeable future; that is not being seen in other areas throughout our state. We have a great community that is really working with our investors and developers and new businesses and existing businesses to not only bring in new businesses, but to retain existing ones.”

In 2015, the county saw $13 million in private investment. In 2016, this figure jumped to over $20 million. “And, we already have developments that are planning to break ground in 2017 that we anticipate will probably bring another $20 million.” These developments cover multiple sectors, from healthcare and retail to residential and industrial. There are six building projects currently underway, including a new Marriott Hotel, a 42-unit apartment building, and a new retail shopping center. “That will bring in additional businesses that we in the north do not typically see, like Panera Bread and Aldi,” Ms. McComb predicts. “So we are seeing more access to resources for people who live in northern Michigan.” In addition, Otsego Memorial Hospital—the county’s largest employer—has almost reached its goal of raising $3 million to fund an expansion.

Gaylord, the county seat, is currently undergoing a major streetscape renovation that will reinvent the downtown. Locals are supporting the project by contributing private funds to supplement public funding. “Our community came together and contributed almost $200,000 dollars to this project to see it happen.” The county is already reaping the benefits. “What we are seeing is that as [the downtown has] evolved over the last few years, new business has started to want to be in that area. They want to be in this walkable, placemaking space. In 2016 alone we have had a new microbrewery open—which is the first microbrewery we have had in our downtown—a new market, a taproom, and new yoga studio. And we’ve got other businesses developing right now because of the investment into that new infrastructure; the water and sewer and sidewalks and islands that allow and encourage people to stop and walk around and get to more businesses.”

The county’s development plan looks at the whole picture to encourage development at every level of the community. “We have really tried, through the Alliance, to look at this as community development, not just economic development. Because your community consists of so many resources—healthcare and education and walkable places and a downtown and infrastructure—when you look at that as a whole, your economy will be driven by it.”

This holistic development effort is drawing new residents as well as new businesses. “We have a well rounded plan that is attracting families and Millennials and even baby boomers that want to retire here because of what we can provide.” The county’s scenic beauty and outdoor recreation opportunities are also a major attraction. “The Millennial generation really wants to have that active lifestyle,” Ms. McComb points out. “It is not [about] how much you are making as much as what the quality of your life is. We have that climate that the Millennial generation wants to be in: thriving downtowns, but to still have the ability to get out and hike and bike and walk and get to areas that are still serene and untouched. You can come here and live, make a great living and have a low cost of living, and still be able to ski and golf and snowshoe and boat and sail. And, we have access to the resources that larger communities have as well.”

The community’s recreational options have made the county a major tourist destination. “There are few areas in southern Michigan that really provide that four season activity level that we have here,” Ms. McComb explains. “You no longer get a lot of snow in southern Michigan; we get a lot of snow here in addition to a beautiful fall and summer and spring, so you can really be active all year round.”

Residents and tourists alike spend the year skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, hiking, boating, biking, rafting, kayaking, and fishing throughout Otsego County. Often used as a base camp for exploring northern Michigan, Otsego County alone boasts over 100 lakes and 18 golf courses. “We are known as the golf mecca of the north,” Ms. McComb adds.

The rural community has managed to develop a diverse economy that is not fully dependent on tourism. “Otsego County is fortunate that we are not just a tourism industry. Unfortunately, in some of the other northern communities that is what oftentimes happens. But we are large enough and we have done some planning to incorporate manufacturing, retail, commercial, healthcare, and education.”

Situated in the heart of Michigan’s northern Lower Peninsula, Otsego County is ideally located for business. Interstate 75 and a major railroad run through the county, whisking goods to points south. “We have an active railway that continues to provide service that some of the other counties in northern Michigan do not have. It is very convenient to ship from our location.” A commercial airport also provides easy access to major population centers.

The county has a commercial park and two industrial parks that are “active and growing.” One of the industrial parks is already completely full, while the second is still developing and has room for a few more incoming businesses. “We have some vacant parcels in it that we would like to see developed with more manufacturing,” Ms. McComb shares. “[This industrial park] has some great space with access to the rail and access to the highway within a mile and it is right next to the commercial airport. It is well suited for the manufacturing industry for shipping via rail, road, or air.”

Otsego County is also looking for eclectic businesses that would bring character to Gaylord’s revitalized downtown. “We are recruiting those small businesses that have a product that isn’t mainstream [and attracts you] to northern Michigan because you can’t find that somewhere else.”

Of course, the community offers plenty of support for incoming businesses. “Our city and our county are great in looking at incentives, in working with our investors and developers and new businesses and facilitating their opening or expansion. We always try to work with them in ways that may be creative to get the project done here.”

Otsego County’s diverse economy, multiple development projects, and outdoor lifestyle combine to create a promising future for the rural community. “It was tough for us in 2006 through 2008; we lost two major employers. The county has really rebounded well from that and we are seeing continued growth.”

People continue to pour into the community, bringing new businesses and young families with them. “We have an excellent school system. We have a great healthcare system. We are a well-rounded community that can meet growing needs,” Ms. McComb summarizes. “We are very fortunate we live in what we call God’s country.”

November 22, 2017, 9:26 AM EST