Inspiring Signs of Economic Progress in Manistee County

Just before deer season 2013, a gentleman by the name of Tim Ervin called me to see if I’d like to do another Manistee Day. Manistee Day is the informal name we have given to an occasional—maybe once every few years—rite in which Tim Ervin drives Jeff Smith around Manistee and shows off some of the latest stuff Tim loves about his home county.

Tim Ervin is a connector in the fullest sense of the word. “I’ll have to put in you touch with…” is a phrase that comes from his mouth about 20 or 30 times during the course of a Manistee Day, and the name that follows could be anybody from, say, the governor’s right hand man to a good baker Tim happens to know.

Tim doesn’t tell me there’s a theme to any given Manistee Day, but it seems there tends to be some kind of vibe that is shared among the places we visit. And I’d call the 2013 tour Daylight in Manistee. Reason being, I sensed a confident optimism among the people we met, a quiet but strong forward looking sensibility that seems to have turned away from the dark days of the 2008 economic crash and Michigan’s state-hit-worst experience. The people were hopeful, working hard and inspiring. We met people working to unify townships along the Manistee–Frankfort Lake Michigan coast to shape a vision for the region’s future and save what they love most. We met staffers at the Vogue Theatre, in downtown Manistee, who were racing to finish construction for the scheduled opening this Friday, December 6 (expect a stellar premier!). We met a young man who is starting two businesses, one a fish lure company and the other a business that makes handcrafted wooden stand-up paddle boards. And we ended the day talking to a gentleman who has zero experience in the hospitality industry but who fell in love with the long-troubled Portage Point Inn and has vowed to invest in it, resurrect it’s beauty and fulfill its gracious potential. Yes, there is a feeling of daylight in Manistee.

Here’s a quick look at a good day in Manistee County.

From left: Brad Hopwood, Betsy Evans and Tim Ervin at the beach park in Arcadia. Lifelong residents of the area, Hopwood and Evans helped capture the community activism sparked by a proposed wind turbine project (that has since gone away) and steered the dialog to a broad look at what residents want for the future of their townships in Manistee and Benzie Counties and how best to achieve that vision with smart master plans. Currently 18 townships have joined the planning. Learn LOTS more at

WOW! The Vogue Theatre, shown here just a few weeks prior to its opening on December 6, 2013. With inspiration and support from Michael Moore and his State Theatre team in Traverse City, the Manistee community launched their own “said it couldn’t be done” restoration of their downtown movie house. Traverse City’s State Theatre brought remarkable energy, fun and spark to downtown, and people in Manistee have every right to expect the same from their renovated theater. Get to Manistee for the opening show!

Vogue Theatre staffer Elizabeth Wallace and colleagues are keeping the final look of the interior under wraps to get the biggest wow-factor out of the unveiling on December 6 … but, here’s a peek at what it looked like a few weeks before opening. Vogue staff like to point out that it’s going to be the most technologically sophisticated theater in Michigan (which would put it near the top nationwide as well). Look for a feature story about the Vogue in the August 2014 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.

Fishing devotee, charter boat hand and entrepreneur KJ Scarpace intends to revolutionize the cut bait lure market with these little guys. The user attaches a small slice of fish to the lure and drops ‘er in the water. He designs and paints the lures in a small shop along a Manistee backroad. Good reviews in Great Lakes fishing magazines have helped Scarpace Lure Co. get shelf space in several stores, and KJ is looking for investment to go bigger.

KJ Scarpace, Manistee entrepreneur in his plastic-lined paint room.

KJ Scarpace’s other venture is making handcrafted wood stand-up paddle-boards. He works with a single colleague, and both trained at the Great Lakes Boat Building School in Cedarville, east of St. Ignace.

One of the Great Lakes’ legendary resort properties, Onekama’s Portage Point Inn has struggled financially for many years. A bankruptcy filing and subsequent dealmaking allowed Bob Gezon to pick up the beautiful but weary property, and he set about making a sustainable business plan that will give the resort the best shot it’s had in decades for a financially viable future.

Bob Gezon built a business dredging harbors of the Great Lakes, and by now has spent time in just about all of them. He has no history in the hospitality business, but became enchanted with the Portage Point Inn as a guest and while doing some dredging work for the inn. He intends to invest heavily in the inn to re-create and preserve that sense of the classic Great Lakes resort experience.

The wraparound porch on Portage Point Inn’s main lodge, Portage Lake in the distance.

Bob Gezon, Portage Lake behind, seen from the second-story porch. Portage Lake opens to Lake Michigan through a deep channel, so an expanded marina designed for big-lake boats is in the plans.

Portage Point Inn is nearly a small community in size, with a number of lodges and tiny one-room cabins in addition to the grand main hotel and dining hall.

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