In August 2011, the popular US television show Good Morning America named Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore the most beautiful place in the country. Since this announcement, the region surrounding the beauty spot – including Traverse City, which is the largest metropolitan area in north-west lower Michigan – has seen a huge rise in tourists, who come to swim in the azure inland lakes and hike the largest stretch of freshwater dunes in the world.

Traverse City mayor Michael Estes believes the region not only has growth potential for tourism, but for businesses as well, drawn by inexpensive real estate and a great all-seasons outdoor lifestyle. “People want to relocate their businesses where they have things to do other than work for a pay cheque,” says Mr Estes, a retired businessman who is serving his second term as mayor. “Traverse City is one of the places where you want to be, especially if we have a growing economy down the road.”

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Population boom

Though Mr Estes says the population of Traverse City has remained stagnant at about 14,000 over the past few decades, the areas surrounding the city have boomed thanks to jobs being created in sectors such as tourism, small, bespoke high-tech companies, convention centre business and agriculture. That has led to something of a renaissance for the city's central area, including the refurbishment of the State Theatre (spearheaded by film-maker and part-time resident Michael Moore) and several gourmet restaurants, which resulted in the city being named one of the top five 'foodie' cities in the US in 2010 by Bon Appétit magazine (celebrity chef Mario Batali is also a summer resident in the area.) 

“The city still needs to improve but we have done a good job in addressing this,” says Mr Estes, who worked for both Ford Motor Company and the State of Michigan before becoming the mayor of Traverse City. “For example, the warehouse district, which had been run down with old tyre stores, is being transformed with all sorts of shops, restaurants and offices.”

Mr Estes says that the international boutique hotel chain Hotel Indigo has made a recent brownfield investment (it has yet to break ground on the project) in the warehouse district and Hagerty Insurance, an international agent that specialises in insurance for vintage cars, has its headquarters also in the area and has recently built two new office buildings and a convention centre. “It could have moved to another state but it stayed,” he says.

Mr Estes also points to the recent refurbishment of the Village at Grand Traverse, which used to be the state’s mental health institution. Now it has restaurants, cafés, shops, offices and condos. “We have become the cosmopolitan centre of north-west Michigan,” he says.

FDI interest

Mr Estes says there is a push to get smaller, bespoke high-tech firms to invest in Traverse City and its surrounding areas. “When you compare our costs and structures to places such as California, we are dirt cheap,” he adds. “We have not drawn in big players yet but I see that coming.” There have been recent delegations from both China and Japan that have come to assess high-tech investment opportunities in the area, and there is also talk of expanding the airport (there are already direct flights several times daily from Detroit, Chicago and Minneapolis and direct service from New York twice a week).

Mr Estes feels this could be just the beginning of more international interest – and investment. There are many spaces for conventions in the city that bring in delegations all year round (there are several ski resorts nearby for visitors in the winter months) and Mr Estes believes this sector could have great growth potential. “I can almost guarantee when I put people on a tour of the area, they fall in love with the recreational opportunities,” he says. “[When] you drive by Sleeping Bear or up to Old Mission Peninsula with the sapphire blue water, it is breathtaking.” 

Cherry on top

The Traverse City area is also home to one of the largest cherry-growing areas in the US (each summer the city hosts the National Cherry Festival and the airport is named Cherry Capital Airport) and there has been a big move recently for value-added products around this agricultural crop. “We have done a lot to create a market around cherries – its not just about making things such as cherry jam and pies,” says Mr Estes. “Look at [cherry specialist food company] Cherry Republic, which sells everything from dried chocolate-covered cherries to cherry salsa; the owner has created a niche centred around what can be made from cherries and their by-products.”

Many old cherry orchards that were not profitable have been turned into vineyards in recent years. Pop singer Madonna’s father owns and runs Ciccone Vineyards in nearby Suttons Bay, where wine tasting tours have become a must-do for tourists and convention attendees alike. “It seems like a couple of new vineyards pop up each year,” says Mr Estes. “They are gobbling up the cherry orchards. So a lot of different groups have been contributing to make things better here in Traverse City and the region. Once you have seen this place, you just want to come back.”