Not long ago, Jacksonport boasted a downtown district that bustled as much as its Northern Door peers. But the past decade has seen a decline in businesses and, in turn, visitors. A downward spiral took hold and today, many of the few staple businesses that are still open are for sale.
“Businesses have been for sale for years and no one wants to buy them,” said Bob Kufrin, chair of the newly formed Plan Commission. “The hotels are struggling to keep occupancy and these are small businesses that provide jobs for local residents.”
“It’s time to get together and make this town grow,” said commission member Al Birnschein. “When you bring tourist money into this area, it benefits everybody. But if you don’t have anything here, you don’t get this money.”
The creation of a Plan Commission is one of the few moves that Jacksonport is making to help gain momentum behind economic development. The new lakeside park project is another.
“The Plan Commission views the lakeside park as a tremendous anchor,” said Kufrin. “It will hopefully grow into an attraction for tourists and visitors when they come out of Sturgeon Bay and it’s the first public access to Lake Michigan. The Parks Committee is moving ahead but the Plan Commission is going to try to help with both the planning but more with the economic development.”
“We want more businesses in the town,” said Lisa Bieri, commission member, at a meeting held Oct. 12. “We want the town to make some improvements.”
But outside of the lakeside park project, the commission and town board don’t know what those improvements are yet.
“I don’t really have an answer to that,” said town board Chair Randy Halstead.
To make things more complicated, there are many groups in Jacksonport that define improvement differently. Contrary to many other municipalities in Northern Door, Jacksonport exists not only in the tourism industry, but also in agriculture. The farms outside of town do not rely on tourism dollars the way downtown businesses do. But Kufrin is quick to promote the idea that, farmer or not, the downtown district needs more life.
“Agricultural influence is extremely important and the farm communities make Jacksonport what it is. However the downtown area has been struggling for years,” said Kufrin. “We spent some time on the issue of manure spreading and recommended the board do some things on that. Now we are trying to capitalize on the town’s investment in an expanded lakeside park to help the existing businesses grow and prosper.”
Also touted as the “quiet side” of the county, Kufrin stated that there are things that residents want that are different from what would attract tourism dollars. Although there are no plans for a big tourism development project, Kufrin thinks downtown needs a bit more life.
“We don’t want to become a Fish Creek or an Egg Harbor or Sister Bay… But there are concerns over keeping what is there going and trying to get some new things in,” Halstead agreed.
At the commission meeting, Birnschein brought up the events that other municipalities host every week to draw the crowds such as auto shows, movies and markets. In discussing what Jacksonport could do, the question turned to who would host them.
There are four different organizations in Jacksonport that have a hand in community event planning.
The Business Association hosts the Easter egg hunt and weekly farmers market. The Advancement Corporation runs Maifest during Memorial Day weekend. The Jacksonport Historical Society is in charge of Cherry Fest and the Women’s Club has its hand in small projects like the Little Free Library and various funding projects for local programs.
With the exception of the Historical Society, whose goal is steeped in educational programming, all of these organizations have similar mission statements to improve and promote events and the community. But their event planning is isolated and Kufrin believes this is due to a simple lack of communication.
But Little Bit LeClair, plan commission member and owner of the Square Rigger Galley and Resort, thinks these groups feel in competition with one another.
“There is, I would say, animosity,” said LeClair at the Oct. 12 commission meeting. “There needs to be a bridge… To unite all the little groups in this community because we’re not that big and we’re not going to survive without it. There has to be a community feel and it’s like us against them.”
In an interview after the commission meeting, Kufrin stated that just because these events are held by separate organizations without the help of one another, doesn’t mean that they are not willing to work together.
“There’s no reason to assume that the groups will not work with one another, that they are not cooperating,” said Kufrin. “There are a lot of reasons why they all have their own projects. If there was a better understanding of what all the goals were and how they fit together, the more likely that picture will actually occur.”
Kufrin suggested the Plan Commission create a leadership group to bring together all the leaders from each individual organization and open communication lines. The increased communication is part of the Plan Commission’s greater goal to hear from all business owners about how they can improve the town’s business climate.
“Even though those groups may have the same goals in mind, I’m not sure how often they talk to one another and whether they are aware there are two other groups that want to do the same thing,” said Kufrin. “There’s no current mechanism in place to get them to talk together.”
“How do we get the Advancement Association, the Business Association, the Women’s Club, the Historical Society, everybody pulling in the same direction?” said Bieri.
The Plan Commission will host a business forum, inviting all Jacksonport businesses to participate the night of Tuesday, Dec. 1. Kufrin emphasized the importance of inviting all businesses, regardless of their affiliation with any of Jacksonport’s organizations. The commission will collect ideas from the business community and present them to the town board, hopefully opening up communication lines between businesses, the Plan Commission and the organizations seeking improvement in Jacksonport.
“What would they have the town board do to help their businesses grow?” said Kufrin. “If there were three or four or five more businesses in downtown, that probably represents 10-20 jobs and that’s what helps people live here. Ultimately, it may need to come from the town board supporting some different idea or different direction. But certainly the Plan Commission can try to do a lot of the groundwork.”