Line of Flight
A longer runway at Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City, new golf courses and wineries, upgraded resorts, and revamped marketing campaigns are attracting more tourism in northern Michigan.
With an expansion of the east-west runway at Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City last September, the number of passengers increased 5.6 percent, a record year.
With two new golf courses coming online, a renovation of Main Street in downtown Gaylord, and a runway extension that accommodates larger aircraft at Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City, resort owners, hotel operators, and tourism officials are gearing up for another record recreational season in northern Michigan.
Last summer’s success of new daily American Airlines nonstop service from Dallas-Fort Worth to Traverse City has prompted the airline to revive another seasonal daily route. With already-scheduled direct Delta Air Lines flights from LaGuardia Airport in New York City and similar United Airlines flights from Newark, Kevin Klein, director of Cherry Capital Airport, says passenger traffic has increased 37 percent since 2011.
“We’ve had some amazing growth, especially in a time when the airline industry has contracted across the United States,” Klein says. “People are looking at our area not only from a visiting standpoint, but from second-home ownership. The cost of owning a home on our lakes compared with owning a home in the Hamptons in New York is completely different, so we’re starting to see (people from the East Coast) come here and buy second homes.”
In addition to the East Coast flights, Delta, the airport’s primary carrier, and United Airlines both offer daily flights from Chicago. Daily flights are also scheduled during the summer from Minneapolis-St. Paul, Denver, and Atlanta. Traffic on those routes almost quadruples in the summer.
Klein credits the state’s television, radio, and print marketing campaigns for putting the northern region on the tourism radar. “The Pure Michigan campaign has brought out the best in northern Michigan — our golf, our wineries, everything that’s northern Michigan,” he says. “Years ago, it was a challenge to get that word out. But with the Pure Michigan campaign, not only is that word getting out to the United States, it’s going out to the rest of the world.”
Last year was the airport’s busiest year on record, with a passenger count of nearly 477,000 people — a gain of 5.6 percent over the previous record in 2016. For 2018, Klein and the airport are determined to set another record. Eyeing a 515-foot extension of the 24-year-old east-west runway, the work under a traditional construction schedule was estimated to take 162 days to complete.
Instead, Team Elmer’s, a 62-year Traverse City concrete excavating firm, developed a plan that saw 300 workers on the site day and night for 21 days last September. “Overall, for the different phases of the project, we spent $21 million,” Klein says. “The men and women of the community made that project happen. Three hundred people gave up three weeks of normalcy to work day and night on the project.”
To complement the added travelers, officials from tourist and convention bureaus in Traverse City, Petoskey, Gaylord, and Mackinac Island pooled their resources and formed DiscoverNorthernMichigan.net to promote what they’re billing as the Pure Michigan Lifestyle in Texas.
“This is the first time we’ve ever joined together on an effort like this, and we’re going to do an extensive three-month marketing campaign,” says Paul Beachnau, executive director the Gaylord Area Convention and Tourism Bureau, noting that the combined tourism budget of the four convention bureaus is $10.6 million.
Another collaboration this year to boost tourism is the uniting of 41 wineries on the Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas under the joint marketing banner of Traverse Wine Coast.
“I think you’ll see more (news) going out about this region as a wine destination — a wine hotbed, if you will,” says Trevor Tkach, president and CEO of Traverse City Tourism. “We’re getting far more global recognition for the wines we’re producing.”
Even though Mackinac Island is the most remote property from the Traverse City airport, Tim Hygh, executive director of the Mackinac Island Convention and Tourism bureau, says tourism is up 55.8 percent since 2011. He says room revenue on the island grew to $67.4 million last year from $43 million in 2011.
Farther south of the island, last year the city of Gaylord undertook a dramatic makeover of its Main Street and adjoining South Otsego Street. New, wider sidewalks that eliminated one lane on either side of Main Street slow traffic, while other upgrades included deco-rative street lamp posts, benches, trees, and landscaping.
Civic leaders in downtown Gaylord made streetscape improvements along Main Street and South Otsego Street.
“That renovation of the street kicked off a new vibe for us in our food scene, which was fairly limited,” Beachnau says. “Where people seemed to be in a hurry to drive through town, now they’re slowing down and looking at what all the excitement is about.”
The streetscape improvements have attracted Iron Pig Smokehouse; Snow Belt Brewing Co.; Tap Room 32 Pub and Grill, which features 24 rotating taps of beer; a Chinese restaurant called Ah-Loy Bamboo; and Crave, which serves American fare.
A longtime staple among the new kids on the block is the nearly century-old downtown landmark, the Sugar Bowl Restaurant, which was closed for six months last year as new owners completely remade the facility.
As the centerpiece of the Gaylord Golf Mecca, the Bavarian-themed town punches above its weight in northern Michigan tourism circles. The Mecca handle is the marketing moniker for a consortium of 15 golf courses at four resorts, as well as 20 lodging properties.
Over the winter, a group of investors acquired the Otsego Club and Resort in Gaylord. Opened in 1939 as a private facility, it’s the state’s oldest ski club. Mike Bedells, Otsego’s general manager, says the new ownership team saw more value in opening the club for public use, and is in the process of spending $2 million to improve the slopes, two PGA championship-level golf cours-es, and dining, lodging, and convention offer-ings. “The old private club membership was dwindling every year, so it was time to make this move,” Bedells says.
Nearby, Treetops Resort in Gaylord undertook an extensive $4.5-million remodeling of its campus that included renovating all 190 rooms, replacing heating and air conditioning systems, adding new roofs, and making upgrades to the public areas. With four 18-hole championship cours-es and the nine-hole “Threetops” track that all play up and down steep ravines, the Treetops complex is the state’s busiest golf center, recording close to 200,000 rounds per year. It also offers 23 ski runs.
Last year, Treetops began selling residential lots, although it has actively offered lot sales since 2000.
“With all of the improvements we’re making, it was time to look at selling some of our land — we have 2,400 acres overall — for residential uses,” says Barry Owens, general manager of Treetops Resort. “In addition, we’re going to actively pursue group business among corporations, associations, government, and travel groups. We’re at the center of Michigan, so the logistics for our guests are ideal.”
To the west, the South Course at Arcadia Bluffs in Arcadia is scheduled to open on Aug. 1, while in the Upper Peninsula, Sage Run opens June 1 at the Island Resort and Casino in Harris. Both courses are complementary additions to established and highly rated clubs.
Last year, a group of investors acquired the private Ostego Club and Resort in Gaylord and converted it into a public facility for golf, skiing, lodging, and other activities.
The inland South Course teams up with the Bluff’s layout — one of the state’s most glamorous golf attractions, overlooking Lake Michigan. Sage Run is the companion to the highly acclaimed Sweetgrass Golf Course at the Native American casino resort.
William Shriver, president and COO of Arcadia Bluffs, says when the club first opened 21 years ago, it was a single daily-fee golf course. “Now Arcadia Bluffs is 36 holes, with three different lodging options, a fitness center, and new dining (facilities). It’s been fun to watch it grow,” he says.
Apart from the original 18 holes that play along the bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan, the South Course is located 1.5 miles inland. Dana Fry, principal of Fry/Straka Global Golf Design of Dublin, Ohio, designed the new tract on rolling land that was formerly occupied by an orchard. It’s the same design team that produced Erin Hills Golf Course in Erin, Wis., which hosted the 2017 U.S. Open Championship.
Shriver says construction will begin after Labor Day on a pro shop and a restaurant for the South Course. No lodging is planned for the site; Shriver says golfers will be shuttled back and forth between Arcadia Bluffs and the South Course.
Last season saw the opening of the 16-room Bluff’s Lodge, complementing the 15 guest rooms in the existing Main Lodge. Before the season ended, however, resort management recognized the need to expand even more. Over the winter, crews went to work on the third floor of the building, adding five more guest rooms that will be ready this season. In addition, guest cottages that can accommodate parties of up to eight are available.
The Sage Run course at the Island Resort and Casino, 13 miles west of Escanaba, will give that resort a top-tier running mate to go along with its original Sweetgrass layout. The new course represents a growing trend across the country of new golf courses springing up on Na-tive American-owned gaming resorts. National golf publications like Golfweek magazine have taken note, as they now regularly include the Top 100 Indian casino courses among their golf course listings.
Sweetgrass currently ranks 20th on that Golfweek listing. It was designed by Plymouth resident Paul Albanese, the architect of Sage Run. Where Sweetgrass, named after one of four traditional medicines used by the Potawatomi, is a more open prairie-style course with big greens and long fescue grass outlining its margins, Sage Run is built on a ridge and cuts through treed hillsides.
Not only will the new course be another attraction to keep gamblers staying longer and spending even more money at the resort, but it will be a drawing card for golfers making
the trek to play courses in that part of the UP.
Tony Mancilla, general manager of Island Resort and Casino, says even as his facility attracts more customers from northern Illinois and Wisconsin, he has noticed a growing number of downstate golfers crossing the Mackinac Bridge to play Sweetgrass. “Gaylord is a great stop, but what we’re finding is that more people are starting to move farther north to play our courses,” he says. “We’re having a growing number of people coming up from lower Michigan.”
Island Resort offers 328 hotel rooms, a 1,300-seat showroom, a convention center, a full-service spa, five restaurants, 1,200 slots, and 26 table games.
The original Sweetgrass Course at Island Resort and Casino near Escanaba, above, and its new sister course, Sage Run, offer challenging play that helps attract golfers and entice them to stay for more than one day. Tony Mancilla, general manager of Island Resort, says the two courses, complemented by 328 hotel rooms, draws players from across Michigan, northern Illinois, and Wisconsin.
“One of the great secrets of casino golf is we don’t have to price it (high) to make money. We price it to break even,” Mancilla says. “A Sweetgrass golf fee of $70 would get twice as much if we put this course in Chicago. Casino courses make up the money when the golfers go into the casinos, eat, drink, and gamble, so you don’t have to charge exorbitant green fees.”
For Albanese and his Plymouth-based Albanese and Lutzke firm, designing golf courses for Indian tribe owners across the country is becoming a specialty. Sage Run is his fourth project on a casino site and he has a couple more in the hopper, he says, adding his respect and knowledge of the Native American culture works to his advantage.
“What we try to do is create another level to the golf course that’s beyond golf,” Albanese says. “At Sweetgrass and at Santee Sioux Golf Club in Nebraska, we take the stories, heritage, and history of the tribal nations and use that to inspire the design. It’s an artistic process where we take the history and culture and infuse it into the design so it’s not kitschy or Disney-like, but it has a meaning to the tribe.”
Albanese got his start working for Jerry Matthews Natural Golf Design in Lansing, one of golf’s most prolific design groups, in the 1990s.
His educational background also is an asset among golf course architects. He earned an engineering degree at Cornell University, followed by a master’s degree in landscape architecture from Harvard University.
“At Cornell, I learned how to put things together and build as an engineering student. Then I realized I didn’t want to just build things — I wanted to design them, as well,” he says. “So I went off to Harvard, where I learned to think outside the box, to think of concepts, ideas, and the bigger picture. I’m very fortunate to be able to put together the creative side and the practical construction in creating golf courses.”