Thursday, July 5, 2007

Tourism on the Sunrise Side

How can Michigan become a national and global tourism destination? That depends on whom we are trying to lure to this splendid land.

I just visited the town of Lexington for a few days and stayed in a cottage community on Lake Huron. The place was pleasant enough with a sense of rural neighborliness that harkened back to my childhood--dirt roads, hand-painted lawn ornaments, grandparents and babies, meat-laden grills, smoky fire pits, barefoot children, lots of barking dogs, men drinking beer, fireworks on the beach. Clearly, families had spent the Fourth there for generations. It felt familiar and comforting, but not quite a national destination. More like anywhere U.S.A. on the Fourth.

Sitting on the beach was different, though--a combination of sand and large rocks, inhospitable to beach volleyball, yet good enough for sitting in the wind with a book. We saw lake freighters pass on their way to and from Port Huron. These are huge vessels, 600 to 1000 feet long--spectacular sights as you glance up from your trashy summer beach reading. When the weather was especially clear and the wind low, we could see across Huron to Kettle Point in Ontario, about 35 miles east.

Lexington's downtown has shops and restaurants in a small area near the harbor. The official brochure describes Lexington as "the charming little Harbor Village on the shore of Lake Huron." Clearly, the Lexington Business Association is working hard to develop the downtown. There is a sense of budding tourism and an effort to create a festive destination atmosphere. Family-oriented, inexpensive restaurants predominate--Lakeside A & W, The Flying Taco, and Wimpy's Place, to name a few. Just south of town, on M25, you can find the very hip Oasis Coffeehouse complete with Wi-fi for a dollar, vast permutations of coffee, and good eats. Try the blended iced coffee for a real treat.

But Lexington feels in transition, like so much of our state. There is the old economy--cottages handed down in families, the bounty of good-paying auto industry jobs. And there is the new economy--the same cottages changing hands in a soft real estate market, becoming rental properties of a new class of owners. There are remnants of the old economy--vacant retail space along M25--boarded-up auto repair shops, restaurants, and farm stands. And there are signs of the new economy--For Sale signs on practically every other building.

The shore of Lake Huron, Michigan's sunrise side, has a beauty that cannot be bought, sold or enhanced by any commercial human activity. Facing east across Huron's shifting blue greens, for a moment, you are complete-- complete as the Great Lakes are without the temporary human presence of politics, commerce, industry, or shipping. The Great Lakes, a natural wonder, need no improvement. It is our economy that begs for help.