Great Lakes Festival a Fit for Door County?

For an area that thrives on tourism, and could use some business during the winter and early spring, Door County and Sturgeon Bay might be missing an opportunity to develop a Great Lakes Ships Festival.

While the Great Lakes Warriors show on the History Channel was drawing more than a million viewers a week last year [see story on page 9], you could drive through Sturgeon Bay and never know that some of the celebrity tugs were tied up in front of the Door County Maritime Museum, or that the exquisitely refurbished John Purves offers tours of a real Great Lakes tug.

Egg Harbor draws thousands of people for a festival themed around pumpkins, so why couldn’t Door County showcase its waterfront features, like the Purves, that visitors might want to stop and see? Maybe the city could catch a few people on the way to the festivals up north who would enjoy an hour to stretch their legs and see a bit of history. How much would it cost to put up a couple of large banners along the highway?

Lakers are popular.

Boatnerd, a website which shows where ships are along the Great Lakes, reported 75,962 unique visitors and 1.8 million page views in September 2012. The site got 709,861 visitors last year. Its total by autumn was 23,242,621 page views.

Arrival of the lakers is predictable only within an estimated time, but that is part of their attraction for the rest of the county. A Great Lakes Ships Festival would require taking advantage of the internet and smartphones.

The bridge tenders, who are on part-time duty during the winter for obvious reasons, get 24 hours notice of a two-hour window when the lakers are expected.

The Door County Visitor Bureau or the Door County Maritime Museum could post pending arrivals with a loose schedule on a website and then update it when the bridge tenders get their notice. That would allow visitors who come to view the ships time to explore the rest of the county. They could check in on their smartphones, tablets or computers to find out when they should get to Sturgeon Bay to see the ships.

And, this is an event the county’s wineries could support. Tourists coming up for three or four days or a week while waiting to catch an arrival could go shopping up north, tour wineries and do tastings, support the restaurants that are open during the winter knowing that they can check the progress of boat arrivals in real time. Hotels could offer some deals that recognize the viewing schedule isn’t exact, while still making the deals attractive, like five nights for the price of three. That way visitors have an opportunity to see the ships even if the fleet is hit by a day of bad weather.

Sturgeon Bay has enough hotel and motel rooms that with a trolley making the rounds it could accommodate busloads of travelers and provide enough places to eat, drink and shop to make waiting for the boats comfortable. Trolleys could also take visitors on wine tours, to Fish Creek for shopping and lunch, or to explore the other towns. Hardy souls could head over to Washington Island for a glimpse of lakers navigating through Death’s Door.

Stone Harbor and Bridgeport provide excellent viewing sites for laker traffic; for boats coming in from Green Bay Waterfront Mary’s offers close-up views.

Perhaps the Door County Economic Development Corporation could reconsider its development plans for Sturgeon Bay’s West Side, which call for removing the tugs and putting in another pretty marina – or it could abandon the proposal to put a Panera Bread in the food court of a four-season market, a move that puts us right up there competing with rest stops on the Ohio Turnpike. The economic development plan seems blind to some of the city’s existing real attractions, including excellent local restaurants within a block or two of the redevelopment area.

Sturgeon Bay has an impressive industrial heritage that carries on with the tugs and barges, the lakers, Bay Ship and Palmer Johnson. It could do a lot more than a one-day open house of the shipyards in the summer to take advantage of it.