The beta version of our new website is now available. Switch to beta – you can come back to our original site at any time.

News and analysis from The Center for Michigan •
©2017 Bridge Michigan. All Rights Reserved. • Join us online at

Original article URL:

Economy & competitive position

In Cheboygan, waiting for entrepreneurs to take a chance

Alcock’s Market in Cheboygan closed earlier this year after a Speedway expanded its offerings, including pizza by the slice. (Photo by Jacob Wheeler)

Alcock’s Market in Cheboygan closed earlier this year after a Speedway expanded its offerings, including pizza by the slice. (Photo by Jacob Wheeler)

Sometime early next year, Billie Livingston will close the doors for the last time to her eclectic clothing store, Billies Women’s Fashions in downtown Cheboygan. The 125-year-old building at the corner of Main and Division has hosted businesses longer than any other venue in this once booming logging and industrial town near the top of Michigan’s mitten.

The shop, which is 28 years old, will be one of nearly 20 vacant storefronts on a three-block stretch of downtown.

“I’m very pro-Cheboygan, and I don’t want any more empty storefronts,” said Livingston, who plans to retire. “But things are not getting better.

“The average income in Cheboygan is $22,000. The locals can’t afford to shop here, even though my prices are fair. They go shop at the Salvation Army.”

For nearly three decades Billie Livingston has watched Cheboygan empty, sometimes slowly and sometimes in bursts.

When the Procter & Gamble plant downtown closed in 1990, it eliminated hundreds of jobs. WalMart’s arrival two years later lent hope to some, but when it doubled in size and added a superstore in 2002, retailers downtown couldn’t compete and went out of business.

Cheboygan Memorial Hospital, which once employed 400 people, went bankrupt in 2012 and sat idle for six weeks before McLaren acquired it and re-opened it as a wing of its Petoskey hospital. The Cheboygan medical center is now a skeleton of its former self and employs only 150.

Billie Livingston is closing her Cheboygan clothing shop after 28 years.

Billie Livingston is closing her Cheboygan clothing shop after 28 years.

Debating the next chapter

The 2008 economic recession hit Cheboygan when she was already down. Since the mid-20th Century, this city has suffered a steady decrease in population; that figure dropped by another 7 percent between 2006 and today. Cheboygan has also lost a whopping 22 percent of its businesses and 16 percent of its jobs in the past decade.

“We used to be classified as a retirement community, but retirees can’t live here if they have health issues because we don’t have a (full-service) hospital,” said Livingston. “The nearest hospital is an hour away in Petoskey. What happens if you have a heart attack?”

Following the recession, Livingston has also witnessed fewer downstate auto workers come to spend their money. Back in the 1950s and ’60s many General Motors workers would buy retirement homes at nearby Mullett Lake.

Across the street from Billies, Zany Kitchen, a cooking accessories store, will close after Labor Day. Owner Susan Ball plans to retire after eight years in business.

“People ask me ‘You can’t close the store, where am I gonna shop?’” Ball said. “But I’m 65. I could go another five years, but I don’t think anything’s going to be different here.”

Ball said she hopes to spend her winters soaking up the rays in Mexico and visiting her son in Napa Valley, Calif.
Billie Livingston, meanwhile, will spend more time with her son who lives near Ann Arbor. “My son said he’ll never come back,” said Livingston. “Cheboygan needs jobs to bring back young people.”

As the workers have left, so have the town’s young families. Cheboygan once had five grade schools; now it has one. According to City Manager Tom Eustice, the number of students at the high school dropped from 720 to 559 over the past 10 years. The average age in Cheboygan County is 55, said Eustice.

Susan Ball is closing her kitchen shop, Zany Kitchen, after Labor Day. “I could go another five years,” she said, “but I don’t think anything’s going to be different here.”

Susan Ball is closing her kitchen shop, Zany Kitchen, after Labor Day. “I could go another five years,” she said, “but I don’t think anything’s going to be different here.”

Ball said she believes that Cheboygan needs to shed its identity as a manufacturing town and more fully embrace tourism. The city sits on Lake Huron, at the mouth of the Cheboygan River, just 20 minutes southeast of the Mackinac Bridge.

“Cheboygan has always thought of itself as a manufacturing town because we had Procter & Gamble, but it never recovered after they left,” said Ball. “We’ve been left out because we have not gone after tourism. And the young people who grow up here move away to get a job.”

A port of hope

Meanwhile, the city is working with the Cheboygan Downtown Development Authority and the Chamber of Commerce on a Port of Cheboygan project to develop a domestic and international deep water port. Eustice frames the initiative, underway since 2010 as a way to attract business investment and manufacturing back to Cheboygan.

Some business owners think this is the wrong approach.

“They’re putting the cart before the horse,” Livingston said. “We have no industry here. They need to go out and search for industry, first. The city needs to hire a publicist or marketing firm to promote Cheboygan.”

Ball thinks opening and promoting new businesses related to tourism is the path forward. Tourism is a large part of the economies of nearby Mackinaw City and Petoskey.

“Because we have not gone after tourism, we’re being left out.”

Some in Cheboygan are excited about Meijer breaking ground on a retail location outside of town in 2017, but others worry the big-box store will continue to bleed jobs downtown. Another cherished local business, Alcock’s Market, shuttered its doors this year after it failed to compete with the Speedway gas station one block away, which had expanded to add beer, wine and pizza by the slice.

Cheboygan does have a precious few examples of young people staying in town and running a business. But it’s not easy, said Alicia Stanford, 33, who together with her mother runs The Brick Oven outside of town near a Kmart. The pizza restaurant has reduced its service to 4 days a week in the summer and just 1 day a week in the winter.

“We’re not raking in the dough,” said Stanford. “We barely make it.”

Jacob Wheeler lives in Leelanau County. He edits and publishes the Glen Arbor Sun and Betsie Current newspapers.

47 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. Mark Dobias

    The Cargo Cult theory of economic development.

    Manufacturing is over unless an EMP hits North America and society goes 120 years backward.

    1. David Akerly

      We are still the second largest manufacturing nation in the world. Hardly a good time to give up on it.

  2. ***

    One possible problem with manufacturing is the Cheboygan is a long way from a good transportation network (unless a deep port could provide an answer) but that would be a slower way of moving a product.

    1. Chuck

      There was a rumor about P&G looking into a deep water port back in the late 70s or early 80s. Rumor had it that P&G backed out because of the union. Thirty or forty years later rail transportation is gone and a deep water port wouldn’t make much sense.

      As for manufacturing, the United States manufactures seventeen per cent of the world’s goods and does it with very few manufacturing jobs. The work is coming back from overseas, but the jobs aren’t. Maybe there are lessons that can be learned from other areas.

      1. Harold Hilborn

        It was not a rumor. My brother in law, Ellis Olson mayor at the time seen the prints presented by Homer Bullard plant manager. It all came to a end with the strike and the lady laying down in front of the train going into the plant. That’s was the beginning of the end with the union being unreasonable with there bargaining demands. Proctor and Gamble wanted to ship Pampers all over the world out of the port of Cheboygan. If P&G would have never pulled out the rail road would have never left either.

    2. madmatthew

      Transportation isn’t THAT bad. They’re only 20 minutes from I-75. Granted, four hours north of Detroit.

  3. Garry Asmus

    I live half way between Niles and Dowagiac, Downtown Died in both towns, when Walmart opened in Niles!

  4. James Flint

    Are store fronts being shuttered due to a lack of business or because the store front owners are charging such high rents that businesses can not make a profit?

    1. darin bedell

      there is nobody coming through the doors.

  5. Billie

    The businesses mentioned in this article are owned by the retailer. High rent is not the problem.

  6. ~.~.~.

    Both as a people and as a nation we have to realize that business and industry will never be as it was in 1900, 1920, 1950 or even 2000. Look at Michigan. First we had the fur trade, then fishing, lumbering, hard rock mining in the UP and stove manufacturing (at least in Detroit). And then of course came Ford, Durant and the auto industry and the thousands of suppliers that grew up to support it. I would assume that an auto assembly plant that employed 4,000 workers in 1980 today might only employ 1,750 and still manufacture the same number of vehicles daily.

    Across the entire arc of our past, Michigan has always been undergoing change. Some of it was slow, some fast and dramatic, but change was always occurring.
    A better question might be this: What does Cheboygan have to do to survive and possibly thrive? Not necessarily grow but just survive! Bay City seems to have found some direction while Saginaw, Flint and Pontiac appear to be still searching. And Grand Rapids has left it’s history as a furniture manufacturer far behind. I don’t have any answers for a very rural Northern Michigan town but they are surely out there. Possibly in Upper New York State, some of the suburbs surrounding Pittsburgh, Lane County in Oregon and possibly Northern California. Again, possible templates are surely out there.

    1. Jammie

      The Cheboygan leadership need to change and to embrace change as well. Instead of pushing out those that want to grow and bring the community into the 21st Century emvrace rheir ideas. If the community wants to keep the young in the community listen to them!!

  7. ronald phillips

    I have often heard that Meijer, Walmart, and other big box stores kill small towns. It is true that mom and pops don’t compete. But why? The answer is not a mystery or even complex. Sell me something I want/need at a price I can afford and guess what, I buy and you thrive. Why does manufacturing leave the small town. Technology, skill sets, logistics and a voice in the market. Plus the two ingredients above. Something I want/need at a price I can afford. Solve those fundamental economic issues of any biz and you’ve got a success.

    1. local business owner

      It is not as easy as you portray Mr. Phillips. As small business owners we do not have the buying power of the big box stores. They buy such large quantities at much cheaper prices than any mom and pops place can. We cannot price match with them. The real problem is that the community is so poor that they will go to walmart to save a dollar versus supporting the local economy and keeping their money here. Most people don’t realize that spending that extra dollar at a local business helps keep the jobs and money here in our economy and not ship it out to some corporations that care nothing about us. I refuse to shop at walmart because of this (only a handful of times in 4 years and only because there was no local source for the products I needed). The next issue is ecommerce. With sites like Amazon and Ebay taking over most markets that small local businesses would cover, there is no way to compete with the prices they offer based on their buying power.. We really need to get rid of the big greedy corporations to see our community thrive again.

      1. Ron P

        BS. I have spent the last 12 years, in my 2nd career, working on gas drilling rigs. Most often in rural communities, including 6 years in SE KY-SW WV-SW VA. Walmart is a godsend for these areas. Plus, the new super Walmarts built in Pikeville KY, Hazard KY, and Wise VA are all built surrounded by a strip mall. Yes, there’s Lowe’s but also numerous small businesses who are savvy enough to offer what Walmart does not . Sure, if you try to sell what Walmart does, you will get killed. And you probably can’t pay any non-family employees the pay & benefits that Walmart offers. Corporations, by definition, are not “greedy”. Their job is to make money for their shareholders. The residents have FAR more choices, for a better price, than the small stores, to the benefit of the consumer. You need to find the niche, and there are many if you ever wandered around a Walmart and studied it.

      2. Colleen Crossey

        Big box stores like Walmart have far more power & economic advantage compared to local business. I think local businesses can increase their online business sales. If small local businesses get together and list themselves in a one page online directory it would help customers find them and shop local. Look at the Amazon model. One main page then you search for what you want. This can direct customer traffic to local businesses. When you have an easy way for customers to see what local stores have, then they’re going to shop locally.

    2. madmatthew

      I know a man who once ran a small bookstore in downtown Dearborn. He wound up making most of his money selling lottery tickets, cigarettes and snacks, and finally had to close. The problem? Amazon and chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble were selling books for less than he could buy them for. Big box stores kill downtowns, period. That’s why virtually every successful “redeveloped” small town downtown in Michigan is chock-full of bars and restaurants — something Walmart and Meijer can’t do — rather than old time retailers like clothing stores. Successful redevelopments also tend to feature high-end clothing and gift shops, resale shops and the occasional hippie store (Old Town General Store in Lansing and other stores like it). I would imagine Cheboygan doesn’t have enough upper-middle-class people to support shops like that.

  8. Michelle

    One difference that Wal-Mart gives is the convenience of times. There are so many times that I walk downtown on nights or weekends, especially Sundays, that the shops are all closed. I realize the costs of labor and expenses to have the stores open make it difficult to compete with hours of big box stores but if they aren’t open people can’t walk through the doors… But should’ve could’ve scenarios won’t change what is done at this point. Could we get a I-75 business loop and correct the decisions of the past? It would make truck transportation a little easier to have a direct route into town and encourage tourists on their way north to stop here before hitting the UP. It helps in those cases that we have big box stores that everyone is familiar with. What traveler really wants to take an exit that you have to drive 10-20 minutes off the highway to reach a store and then 10-20 minutes back to continue on your route? I know if I can’t see the store signs I don’t take an exit if it’s not my destination. If we can’t make Cheboygan the ultimate tourist destination we could at least make it a convenient place to stop and spend money on their way…then eventually they may see how great the lakes and rivers here are too.

  9. Sharon Schleif

    It started when they said no to I-75.

  10. Juliann Murphy

    If you want to promote tourism then you need to welcome your visitors. After coming off a 55 mile bike ride from the north central trail my greeting was being yelled at to watch where I was going in a parking lot when I didn’t see a small car backing out from behind a big truck. For having 3 amazing bike trails coming into Cheboygan the town does not feel bike friendly. I doubt people realize how expensive tour bikes and equipment is and that the people touring eat ALOT. I suggest embracing the biking culture as a starting point for increasing tourism. I was turned off enough that I don’t have plans to come back. I’d rather go to Alpena.

    1. Gwynn

      Am I reading this wrong?
      Sounds like the “rude” Cheboyganite possibly saved you from harm of health or financially. Can’t eat much if you’re dead!

  11. Lisa

    Does anyone know why the downtown business don’t stay open when there are events going on in the pavilion?

    1. Karen

      From what I hear and see over the years, local people and visitors, go downtown to events for whatever is going on….not to shop after business hours.

  12. Kate

    Speaking of thinking as a tourist town, I work and try to but downtown. However, when the business hours are the 10- 4 or 5 during the week, it’s hard for the people who can afford to shop to shop. Very sparse hours on weekends and evenings, if at all. You have to do it … Appeal to those who can afford it.

  13. RC drivish

    The problem is really a product of the economic downturn of the eastern half of the state. Cheyboygan prospered when it combined both a industrial side and the tourism of people coming up 23 and 75 from the Southeastern corner of the state. With that well dryed up, the area needs to embrace an “all hands on deck” approach to revitalization. Embrace the Millennials, their values, and start moving forward.

  14. D Danger

    I believe Cheboygan is not thriving for all of these reasons. But the new Meijer is not the solution, and local businesses are not going to do well until there are jobs. I agree-Cheboygan needs to do some serious tourism promotion. We don’t capitalize on Lake Huron, the river, or Mullett Lake, and people could be drawn year round.

  15. Greg

    we have a river loaded with fish and do not even have a bait shop, unbelievable, the city wasted a ton of money on the bridge that crosses the river, by the post office, what is going on here !

  16. Cheb Bizz Owner

    Ball is correct – tourism is not taken seriously enough by the City – or DDA leaders. Hell – we could have a dandelion fest every spring given the lack of attention to the common areas around downtown. Make it look nice – and maybe someone will consider calling downtown home !!! The city’s woes are NOT due to lack of people – there is plenty of traffic rolling thru downtown Cheboygan on any given day – more than we have seen in years !! The problem is – we give these people no reason to stop. The look of downtown is unappealing to say the least. Frankly – the DDA needs a breath of fresh air – new ideas to promote business ownership downtown are long overdue. Retail space is available – and for a good price. What Cheboygan is lacking are YOUNG business owners that will commit to work at owning a business.
    The people are already here – especially in the summer – give them a reason to stop.

  17. Ken Milne

    If you’re not talking about bringing a $150 million manufacturing plant to Cheboygan (a mid-sized plant), you’re wasting your time. NOTHING will bring back Cheboygan faster, and have a more lasting impact than a good manufacturing site, particularly one that requires access to water such as a steel or aluminum manufacturer.

  18. dave

    Cheboygan has among the nicest trails and waterways in the state. Boating, kayaking, paddleboaring, snowmobiling, ATV riding, dirtbike riding, mountain biking are all awesome here. Yet most of the time the trails and the waterways remain empty at peak season because so many people don’t even know about them. Go just 30 miles South or East and the towns are booked up a year in advance. The people running Cheboygan need to wake up and do something to save this town.


    One of the worst parts of down town cheboygan is how awful it looks broken down buildings. Bricks falling off the sides, disturbingly hideous bunny graffiti on the side of a building next to the new pavilion. Empty not maintained store fronts with dirty Windows. Then there is the lack of businesses Polly joes when they opened had great food at a good price and they were open late so people with 9-5 jobs could eat; then they raised the prices of food dropped the proportion size and started closing the doors before 7pm so it was inevitable for them to close down. I am one of cheboygans youth who would love nothing more to see our small town thrive. I have looked into opening a Bakery/restaurant for the last 5 years but everyone wants way too much for rent in the down town buildings. It saddens me because I make pretty good money from promoting my baking skills on Facebook. The little guys around here who want to make a difference can’t afford to…

  20. stacey

    Big Box is not the answer – we’ve witnessed this with Walmart for all of the reasons mentioned above. There are not new jobs created, merely job shifts. Conveniences are made and saved money. I cringe when I “have” to go to Walmart. The “have to” is due to no option due either due to time of day or basic need at hand. I have sat in the DDA seat and know for a fact aesthetics says a lot. Energy spent on making the downtown feel vibrate with well maintained help welcome folks. I have shared places to visit and things to do in Cheboygan with friends traveling through and most focused on natural features and outdoor recreation. These needs to be packaged and promoted and then cross promoted. BUT it also needs the support of the community.
    The Economic Development Director/DDA/City Manager and community need to seek out and encourage businesses that support the fabulous outdoor treasures we have. No one person can do this task. The mentality needs to change. There should be a welcome mat at everyone’s door. If you travel about and have a great experience at a local bike shop or tackle store, ask them if they would consider opening an second location, get their contact info and share it with the EDD/DDA/City Manager. I was not surprised to learn there was’t a bait shop downtown – I know I’ve seen Walt’s Crawlers in my parents’ fridge.
    I feel hypocritical responding for I live downstate for the past 25 years. It seems easy to criticize and offer advice from affar, but in reality it is going to take a change in action and attitude. Building pavillions and pedestrian bridges are great, but imagine the impact that money would have on the reinvestment of a building or supporting an small business incubator space, or investing in a port that brings industry and tourism. NO “woe is me” is not going to attract businesses. Looking at the bigger picture, being supportive, taking risks and being open to opportunities will bring in entrepreneurs for they are risk takers themselves.

  21. susan ormsbee

    i agree box store are hard to compete with. But they do bring jobs. But no event organization downtown does not allow for business downtown to bring in the customers. I love when we have music nights or kids days at art in the park i makes people want to go downtown to be a part of what is going and then being there allows the downtown some business. One thing i have noticed is hardly anything showing(ad, flyers,etc.) events going on downtown , did anyone know about the event to support the local churches . Most the time the way i know about it is after the fact when it shows it on the front page of the newspaper. I moved up here to cheboygan to be with family, so cheboygan is my town now too. I worry about no jobs and no training for those who can work. I volunteering is the greatest but you wonder where how can i help with my community. I work a full week but still would volunteer if need arose because its about giving back to help make our community better. Its sometimes i feel that everyone has the poor me syndrome if you want something you have to work towards it . I think cheboygan needs to get a goal to make this town better something we can work towards for a greater good. I for one would help how many in cheboygan would? It takes something like this to make people realize this is my town how can i help?

    1. Patricia

      Thx for you comments! I liked everyone’s input! I ! love that you mentioned our Ottawa Art Park as a favorite. I have been on the Board since it started 10 yrs. ago. I welcome you to volunteer with us to keep it up and going. It is a true community effort and we need lots of help! Call me 627-9366 or email Cheboygan residents work hard on our little town but it is a struggle!. Keep the dialogue going with City leadership and Chamber of Commerce. Thank you all!

  22. Patricia

    No! I had not made a previous comment and I have no idea why my reply to Susan Ornsbee didn’t go thru?? Disappointed as I thought there was a great dialogue going on here!

  23. kathy

    I closed my business in 2014 after 13 years we went as long as we could I was glad we made it that long. it is the sign of the times I think. things are changing and we need to change with them or be left behind. we need to be innovative. I am also tired of seeing closed store fronts.

  24. Frank Rogala

    Cheboygan does have a lot of potential for tourism with the river and lakefront. Right now it looks pretty industrial from the river mouth on up. It doesn’t need to cost a lot of money to start beautifying this. Planting (fast growing hybrid hard wood) trees, some that turn beautiful colors in the fall, to hide those boxy structures and fences would be a low cost way to start making it a beautiful entrance to the city.

  25. Wayne

    Nestles should increase fresh water exports to the limit.

  26. Billie Livingston

    Cheboygan, is a fantastic town !! I have had my business for 29 years. I have seen P &G close. The hospital close. Walmart come and become a super Walmart through all of this I have made a living and put my son through college. Cheboygan has been good to me. The people of Cheboygan have patronize my business and been loyal customers and friends. I will miss Cheboygan. I am retiring. My health isn’t the greatest and I’ve gotten older. As I look at the comments posted I see a lot of Miss information. The walking bridge did not cost the tax payers one penny. It was built so that the city could qualify for grants to improve the east side. It may be many years before we see progress there but some time it will happen. Our city is basically run on grant monies there are always lots of hoops to jump through but the city does try. As a business owner I can tell you from experience. Staying open late doesn’t pay every business downtown had at one time or another stayed open at least 7 and some as late as 9 I personally stayed open every Sunday for 15 years and lost money every year on Sunday’s. Cheboygan is going through a rough patch right now I think it’s going to get worse but I also think it will come back. It’s important to get involved. Go to the DDA meetings go to city council meetings express your opinion become informed. Quit complaining volunteer for a committee get involved. My clothing store will close the middle of next year. I’d love to see someone open a new women’s clothing store. Cheboygan needs one. You can have my fixtures. You can have my help and knowledge of you want it. I want to see someone love this town from a business stand point as much as I do. Help be part of the solution. Get involved.

  27. Mike

    Cheboygan needs to concentrate on the tourist industry. You have a Great Lake out your front door and are not using it. As a boat owner that lives on the west side, we keep our boat in Duncan Bay because of its close proximity to Mack Island, Drummond Island, Les Chenaux and the North Channel.
    Start catering more to the boaters. We are looking for places to get better quality food than Walmart, parts for boats, cleaning supplies. Restaurants for something other than burgers, yes there is some good restaurants but need more variety. Need to offer transportation to get from the marinas to town.
    We like to bring our boat in town for dinner but the dockage is pretty rough along the river. Remember some of the boats that are coming in or staying at the marinas are worth more than million dollars. These people have money to spend but they spend it wisely on something that they want. Give them what they are looking for. Make your self a destination! Don’t be overlooked.

  28. Rusty

    Look to Muskegon as your model.

    Had the same problems with manufacturing leaving. Spent years and years trying to attract manufacturing without much luck.

    Now they have been focused on tourism and the city and area are starting to take off.

    Use the natural and added items you have, like bike trails, to your advantage!

  29. Carrie Bethel

    Well, here I am a relatively newcomer to town. Bought here 11 years ago and have been in every store in Cheboygan. Really like the town, but not the appearance of the buildings. My biggest wonder is why all the shops are not on the waterside. Here is a beautiful little “up north” town with all the building facing the road that goes through it. How nice it would be to use the waterfront as the focal point. A bookstore on the waterfront with a place to read while watching the boats pass through or a clothing store we could stop and shop at while boating through town. Restaurants with dockside seating. Hurray for Pier 33 and it’s great view and great food and using the waterfront as an asset. Billy, I love, love, your store but it is too crowded to see everything inside. The kitchen store is great but pricey. My favorite store of all times was Alcotts and I was so disappointed to see them close. Please someone in town hire the lady that made their sandwiches and let us know where to find her. Most of all make use of your waterfront!.Congratulations to whomever made the decision to take the cars off the street for the 4th of July parade this year. How about a welcome to my store as we walk in, make your customers your number one priority. Give free rent for half the year to the store owners. So much you could do to liven up the town. I love this little town but lets get busy and make it work. Use that waterfront for family friend businesses not for boat storage and a toilet paper factory, move those things out of town. Make this town a destination point. Don’t try to copy Mackinaw with fudge and Tshirts, let’s make it more like Harbor Springs and hold our heads high and go for the business. We have a lot to offer in Cheboygan, now let’s just make it work!

  30. ***

    The tourism business appears to be underdeveloped all along the Lake Huron shoreline compared to Lake Michigan. One reason might be because the beaches seem to be not as attractive as Lake Michigan.

Leave your comment...

Your email address will not be published.

Invest in non-partisan journalism.

Donate to The Center for Michigan. Find out why.