New Ideas Wanted: Same Old Not Working for Sister Bay

Door County needs new ideas.

That was the theme sounded in most of the conversations I had with business owners and managers I spoke to last week for my report on Sister Bay’s business climate. There was certainly a sense of exasperation with the idea that all an entrepreneur can do in the winter is put up an open sign and pray for snow. Then, when it doesn’t come, hope for a booming summer season.

Sure, there are some that don’t think there’s much to be done, that when you open your doors in Door County you know what you’re getting into, but the majority want at least a little bit more than that. For that to happen, they’re coming to the realization that it will take a critical analysis of how the community defines itself, and a lot of imagination.

“There’s a lot of shuffling around of businesses, but there are not necessarily a lot of new ideas for businesses,” Sister Bay Advancement Association Coordinator Paige Funkhouser astutely pointed out. “We need different types of businesses, and we need the people willing to do it, to gut it out.”

Funkhouser is dead on. Too often new businesses in Door County simply mimic existing ones, over-saturating a market without adding to our offerings. There are exceptions. Czarnuszka Soup Bar in Ephraim presents a new concept offering the type of small-scale, low-overhead business that can afford to stay open in the winter. Blue Horse Bistro and Base Camp Coffee are two others that brought new menus and flavor to Northern Door.

(Full disclosure: I once opened a restaurant with my brother. We were mimickers when we started. We thought we’d make enough money to pay for college. We thought it would be easy. We were wrong on many fronts. I apologize.)

Sister Bay’s business community is not without ideas. Karl Bradley, the general manager at the Mission Grille, suggested that businesses work together more to offer packages and create winter attractions. The Door County Trolley is a good example of this, partnering with Lautenbach’s Orchard Country Winery as well as with several restaurants for its progressive dinner trolley tours.

Packages may not seem exciting, but in the winter when so little is available, having specific things for guests to do helps to eliminate time that they spend wandering, Googling, and asking innkeepers “What’s open?” or “What is there to do?”

Every business owner I talked to said the area needs more experience-based businesses like Hands On Art Studio. Then there’s the idea sure to elicit instant gagging from many – a water park.

“I know everyone is against it, but tell me why we shouldn’t put one in Sister Bay?” a restaurateur once asked me. “If it will draw families and customers up here for a couple of extra months, or give us a dozen good winter weekends, why not do it? I can fill my dining room, I can keep people employed, and those employees will have more money to spend in town. People say it’s ‘not what we are all about,’ but what’s the point of saving ‘what we’re all about’ if what we’re all about is dying and doesn’t allow us to make a living here?”

Other business owners said a small-scale indoor water park or family attraction could work, but as Nora Zacek at the Open Hearth Lodge told me, “If there were an easy answer, it probably would have been done already.”

But the problems in Sister Bay, and Northern Door in general, aren’t limited to the winter. After all, you could double winter business and not make nearly as big a financial impact as you would from growing summer returns a few percent.

Casey St. Henry, the Program Manager for Bayshore Outdoor Store, turned his eyes to the peak season. Bay Shore Outdoor Store has operated its Off the Beach outlet across from Sister Bay’s Waterfront Park for several seasons, but he said they may close it because of the lack of progress on beach improvements.

“In the summer, improving and expanding the beach is going to be the big thing,” St. Henry said.

The village bought Helm’s Four Seasons in 2007 to expand the public beach, but five years later the beach itself hasn’t changed at all. It now looks like the work needed to make that happen could be several years away.

As it sits today, St. Henry said the spot open for kayak launching at the far end of the park, not on the existing beach, is not a great place to launch.

Sister Bay also suffers from a general lack of traffic. The village core looks like a hockey player’s smile, missing teeth everywhere. The Walkway Shops, which once housed several retail stores and Beanie’s restaurant, was empty for several years, then torn down, leaving a gaping hole in the heart of downtown. Passtimes Bookstore moved down the street and its old building sat empty in 2011. Moretti’s restaurant abruptly closed in September.

“There really isn’t a lot of retail in Sister Bay anymore, even in the summer,” St. Henry said. “Sister Bay needs to define itself somehow, and I’m not sure what that is anymore.”