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Adam Johnson / Brockit Inc.
New Boom in the KeweenawThe Michigan Tech Enterprise Corporation SmartZone has four “incubator” buildings – in this historic Power House on the Houghton side of the the lift bridge, in the nearby Lakeshore Center, on the Michigan Technological University campus and in the Jutilla Center in Hancock.
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Western Upper Peninsula Planning & Development Region
New Boom in the KeweenawMichigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula is the “Thumbs Up” on Lake Superior on this topographic map.
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Bob Berg / Lake Superior Magazine
New Boom in the KeweenawCommunity investment in recreation and visitor amenities, like this new overlook at Copper Harbor dedicated in 2012, has been key in attracting customers to the new and the old enterprises around the Keweenaw Peninsula’s community.
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Bob Berg / Lake Superior Magazine
New Boom in the KeweenawAlong with his sister, Christine Voelker, Tim Bausano is taking over Copper World in Calumet from his father, Tony Bausano.
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Bob Berg / Lake Superior Magazine
New Boom in the KeweenawChristine Voelker at Copper World in Calumet. With her brother, she's taking over the business from her father.
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Bob Berg / Lake Superior Magazine
New Boom in the KeweenawMoney put into a 25-mile trail system has attracted mountain bikers from around the world to Copper Harbor.
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Bob Berg / Lake Superior Magazine
New Boom in the KeweenawAt the Laughing Loon in Copper Harbor, founder and owner Laurel Rooks is transitioning the gift shop and bookstore to her daughter, Hannah Rooks.
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New Boom in the KeweenawAdam Johnson graduated with an engineering degree from Michigan Tech, helped to start a high-tech business and then found his true love was photography. Both endeavors were supported by the SmartZone.
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Adam Johnson / Brockit Inc.
New Boom in the KeweenawPresident and Owner Glenn Simula’s GS Engineering is a “graduate” of the MTEC SmartZone and his company remains in Houghton.
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Courtesy Bohemia Printing
New Boom in the KeweenawAmy Fisher, a U.P. native, moved from Florida with her husband Jeff to transplant their T-shirt and printing business.
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Bob Berg / Lake Superior Magazine
New Boom in the KeweenawOmphale Gallery & Café owner Julie Johnson, left, and former employee Heaven Hawkins, pause amid the lovely wood accented décor of the café in Calumet.
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Bob Berg / Lake Superior Magazine
New Boom in the KeweenawThe deck at the Fitzgerald Restaurant in Eagle River has become a hopping site for guests thanks to investments from Mike LaMott, sitting here, and business partner Mark Rey.
Next generation owners & high-tech entrepreneurs bring economic energy
These days, the northernmost “Thumbs Up” on the U.S. shores of Lake Superior might be indicating an economic boom in the making on Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. Booms and busts are familiar cycles around the Lake Superior shores, where natural resources often ignite economic surges. The Keweenaw knows this well, from its rocketing 1840s copper rush that drew thousands and made Michigan the nation’s top copper producer for four decades, to the declining 1960s, the mine closings and the exodus of people and businesses.
Now energizing changes are mining other resources – the skills, knowledge, tenacity and creative spirit of the Keweenaw’s people. The new boom may build a stable base to weather changing economic winds.
Exciting innovations are coming out of the peninsula’s population hub in Houghton and Hancock with creation of a “SmartZone” focused on kindling high-tech enterprises, attracting ventures with links to powerful international companies and developing ways to keep the students educated at Michigan Technological and Finlandia universities in the peninsula community.
Meanwhile, in rural towns, the arrival of young newcomers attracted by the beautiful region and business opportunities, and the return of children from families with long roots in local towns and businesses, is creating its own economic sea change for the region.
The thread that ties it all together – urban or rural – is the human resource and how tapping that can bring a new boom to the Keweenaw.
New branches on the family tree
One positive trend in the Keweenaw has been the return home of younger people to take over family businesses or to start their own.
“To see a little bit of a cultural shift, some new energy, that’s really exciting to us,” says Mike LaMott, who returned to Eagle River about six years ago. “We’re going to kind of be the next generation, this new generation.”
Mike and Mark Rey, also from the area, went into partnership in 2007 to take over the Eagle River Inn and Fitzgerald’s Restaurant, owned by Mike’s family since 1980.
After leaving home, Mike went to Phoenix and Mark to Las Vegas. Mark returned first and ended up working at the inn and restaurant, but saw the need for something new to save the old establishment.
“This place is really going downhill. We need to do something to save it,” Mark told Mike.
What they’ve done since taking over is to infuse money and ideas into the mix of the shoreside restaurant and inn.
Expensive renovations to the inn were completed last year, updating every room and freshening the look to airy, classic shoreside cottage. For the restaurant, they’ve created new interest. They’ve stocked an incredible selection of Scotch whiskys and searched out fine craft beers. They feature music some summer evenings and tinkered with the menu, making it more specialized and expanding into something completely different: barbecue. “We both like barbecue,” says Mike, “and no one else was doing it. So we hooked up with professional barbecue people and learned. We really didn’t think it would be as popular as it is.”
Mike and Mark have also started “dabbling in beer,” as Mike puts it. In 2013 they debuted their first collaboration with Keweenaw Brewing Company, Two Seat Pale Ale.
Everything is geared to getting both local residents and visitors interested in putting tiny Eagle River on their itinerary – for a week or for an evening.
“It really comes down to making yourself a destination. We offer good unique food, Scotch whisky or beer. We try to give people a reason to come here,” Mike says.
Local people have been especially supportive, he says. “We’ve really gotten lucky there and have a great following.”
The point for Mark and Mike and many new entrepreneurs is living comfortably in an amazing place. “We don’t plan on making a fortune,” says Mike, “but we have managed to live here for six years and things are only getting better. … We both really love it here. We both have connections to this place in particular.”
Connections are what also lured Hannah Rooks back home to Copper Harbor and to help with operation of the Laughing Loon, a gift shop, coupled with Patchwords, a bookstore, both started by her mother, Laurel, and dad, Jim.
Hannah had lived in Copper Harbor since she was 4 when her family moved there in 1983.
As a young adult, she’s lived around the United States, including in Colorado and Hawaii, and has traveled extensively. Then eight years ago, after her father died, she returned home to help her mother.
“I knew that at some point I would definitely be helping Mom out more,” she says.
What she found is a perfect lifestyle – working endlessly for the six months of peak summer season and then taking time in winter to travel again to places like Cambodia and Japan, while Laurel continues to keep the gift shop open.
Working with her mother, Laurel, is a natural progression, Hannah believes. “I love living in Copper Harbor … I know the gift shop so well, it … it seems kind of obvious, why wouldn’t I?”
Both Hannah and Mike point to a number of their contemporaries who also have left and returned home.
Generational succession for Keweenaw businesses is not unusual; many are on the second, third or even fourth generation of families.
At Herman Jewelers in Calumet, current owner Ed LaBonte is the latest generation in the business started by his great-great-grandfather Joseph Hermann in 1864. Originally in the Cliff Mine area of Keweenaw County, the shop mostly did watch and clock repair but expanded into retail sales. The business moved to Calumet in 1868.
Ed started working for the business in 1972 and bought it in 1985. “It’s always been offered to family members, but never pushed on them. I liked it, so the business was a natural fit for me.
“We’re the oldest jewelry store in the state of Michigan,” he adds, “and if that wasn’t enough, I even look like my great-great-grandfather.”
Ed’s cousin Rodney Mishica and his wife, Pat, own Ace Hardware in Calumet, a third generation in a family that’s always owned the hardware store.
Copper World in Calumet is also transitioning to the next generation. The family business started with a motel in Eagle River in 1954. Tony Bausano took it over in 1974 and branched out, founding Copper World in Calumet. Tony kept urging his brother Mike to return home, which he did in 1994 to open the Calumet Mercantile, next door to Copper World.
Copper World is beginning its third generation. “Both my son and daughter are active in the business and are taking it over,” says Tony, “so I’ve been cutting my time back. It’s nice to slowly pass the baton.”
In Copper Harbor, the baton is passing not to the same business, but branching out into a new enterprise, a way that Alex and Jill Protzel intend to remain in the region that has a long family history for them.
Alex’s family line, the Jamsens, have been commercially fishing Lake Superior since the turn of the century. In the early 1950s the Jamsen brothers, Wally and Richard, opened a fish market in Copper Harbor. Then in the early 1980s, Christine Jamsen Protzel, Wally’s daughter, opened a gift shop, The Fisherman’s Daughter, in the same building as the fish market.
This year, Alex (Wally’s grandson) and Jill have added a bakery into the Jamsen Fish Market. “It’s the perfect location,” says Jill. “Copper Harbor needs a bakery, and I love to bake.”
The bakery opens every day, offering muffins, scones, cookies, nisu (Finnish sweet bread), pasties, coffee and tea.
“And, of course,” adds Jill, “we’ve still got fish.”
Some of the influx of new energy comes from individuals making a new start here.
Jeff and Amy Fischer met on Key Largo, married and started a T-shirt business. Amy was from the Upper Peninsula, and they began vacationing here and purchased a summer home. “It didn’t take long for us to decide we loved the U.P. and didn’t want to leave, even in winter,” Jeff says. They bought a small house in Calumet and in January 2011 started Bohemia Printing, producing “eco-friendly” T-shirts that avoid use of toxic chemicals. “It took us a while to learn the process for water based ink, but the results are fantastic. The prints are super soft with no plastic-y feel.”
After working out of their house for a year, they rented a building in 2012 that doubled their space. And in 2013 they purchased a building with even more space. “We’re doing great,” says Jeff, “and we need that increased space.”
New cuisines, restaurants and beverages are also contributing to the revitalization.
In 2011 two restaurants specializing in coffee opened in Calumet.
Café Rosetta has fine coffee and has become a popular morning gathering spot. “We really see a market for more restaurants like this in the area,” says Patrick Wright, co-owner of the café.
Omphale Gallery & Café offers fresh organic food, vegetarian, vegan, gluten free and other specialty offerings. “It started with locally roasted coffee and fresh ingredients, but we cater to any dietary restrictions and can produce custom meals,” says owner Julie Johnson.
Copper Harbor laid claim to the most northern brewery in the state of Michigan with the opening of Brickside Brewery by Jason Robinson and Jessie Coltas after years of home brewing, classes and apprenticeships. Both Jason and Jessie have local ties.
“It might be our brewery, but Brickside is a real community effort,” says Jason. “A Copper Harbor resident specifically bought the building and leased it to me for a great rate, another resident helped me with my business plan, my father-in-law helped with construction and we raised $20,000 through KickStarter.”
Brickside currently has eight tap beers and seven bottled beers. “2013 will be our first year keeping the brewery fully stocked, plus we’ll be expanding our distribution eastward to Marquette,” says Jason.
Some former young Keweenaw natives are returning to start completely new operations, but others who remained in the region also see the new energy. Mike Jukuri was born and raised in the Calumet area and graduated from Michigan Technological University. He is a real estate appraiser, but in 2003 also bought the Bella Vista Motel in Copper Harbor.
“I have always wanted to do an extra business, and the opportunity to purchase the motel arose in 2003.
The sellers of the Bella Vista were my second cousins,” Mike says.
Over the last decade, Mike says there has been a shift in thinking for young people, especially those graduating from regional universities.
“I graduated in 1997 and I think then everybody still wanted to go into the cities, but now just so many people hike and bike and do more of the outdoor adventures – that’s the reason kind of why they’re staying now.”
Mike points to Mount Bohemia, a 1,100-acre resort near Lac La Belle started as an extreme skiers resort and now open throughout the summer for kayaking, hiking and biking adventures. Named “one of the top 10 undiscovered ski resorts” by msn.com, it definitely has been discovered by area university students, Mike says.
Almost all of these new generation business owners cite recreational opportunities as a major draw for younger residents to stay or settle here. Communities have invested in that lure in the form of a trail system around Copper Harbor geared for silent sports, but especially mountain biking.
“I got involved in the past couple of years with the Copper Harbor Trails Club,” says Hannah. “The mountain biking really has gone off up there – that’s drawn a lot of people there.”
Hannah, Mike Jukuri and Mike LaMott all credit the bike trails as a huge asset to attract residents and visitors.
“There is a trend of more people who are willing to come up here rather than going other places,” says Mike LaMott. “They’re spending more time when they come. It’s a really nice trend to see.”
The 25 miles of trails – open most of the year – run from beginner to extreme for mountain bikers, including a steep send-off from a Brockway Mountain trailhead. Trails are designated for difficulty and kinds of recreational use.
Another asset for the Keweenaw community has been expansion of the Keweenaw National Historical Park and creation of its visitor center in an historic building in Calumet. Since its formation in 1992, the park has worked to preserve and interpret the story of Upper Michigan’s copper country – doing it through affiliations with 19 non-federal organizations and local entities. It is a unique combination of natural spaces and historic buildings.
“We employ about 40 people a year, and these are nearly always local people so the money stays right here,” says Tom Baker, management assistant for the park.
The park spends nearly all of its $1.4 million allotment locally, employing local contractors and buying materials from local businesses. The park offers roughly $150,000 each year in grants for local businesses.
“For instance,” explains Tom, “a local business might apply for a grant to re-roof their historic building, or to restore a storefront to bring it more in line with historical architecture.”
Mainly, the park has provided visitor attractions literally all around the Keweenaw through partnerships and in its three-story Calumet visitor center. The center features multiple interactive displays focused on regional history, a gift shop and large gathering spaces on the top floor.
Among the most exciting new entrepreneurial seeds blossoming in the Keweenaw are multiple technological businesses that mine the research, developments and opportunities coming out of the Keweenaw’s universities and tap the students – before and after graduation – who create a talented, educated highly desirable labor pool.
“Entrepreneurship is invention, a completely new idea, like Google or Facebook,” says Marilyn Clark of Houghton. “An entrepreneur has an invention that he wants to take to market.”
Marilyn is CEO of the Michigan Tech Enterprise Corporation SmartZone, an operation intended to give entrepreneurs roadmaps for getting to the right markets.
MTEC’s “SmartZone” is one of 15 sanctioned through the Michigan Legislature to use public funding for certified technology parks.
Since it began in 2002, the MTEC Smart Zone has leveraged $68.3 million in public and private investments to help companies, has housed 24 companies in its four “incubator” buildings in Houghton or Hancock and graduated eight of those, and has attracted two companies on the Fortune 100 listing and four on the Fortune 500 listings to the Keweenaw.
Entrepreneurs or businesses accepted into the SmartZone can start in one of the four incubators – three of them renovated historic buildings in Houghton or Hancock – that offer space and shared legal, accounting, marketing and other critical services, as well as access to industry experts.
Access to this counseling and these services makes all the difference whether a business idea blossoms and succeeds or withers and dies, Marilyn says. “Companies that graduate from an incubator are 88 percent likely to still be in business five years later. And further down the road, they’re at least twice as likely to be in business as non-incubators.”
One reason the Keweenaw was chosen for a state SmartZone – and one reason it is one of the three most successful in the state – is its connection to local universities, especially to the research developed and the engineering and technology workforce out of Michigan Tech, says Scott MacInnes, Houghton city manager and interim assessor.
The benefits have been multilevel. Ideas for products or technology businesses come from the universities, and the budding operations use Michigan Tech students as parttime help and later as full-time, trained employees. The movement has even boosted the rental market.
“It’s attracting young professionals who are interested in downtown rental units,” says Scott, who estimates 500 to 600 people work in downtown Houghton.
The MTEC SmartZone, Scott adds, “has been fantastic for our downtown. It’s increased the number of people employed in our downtown by about 25 percent. Most of these are well-paying jobs, and it’s helped support retail and service businesses downtown, including restaurants and motels.”
The operations being attracted and retained also are impressive – especially for an essentially rural region. One example is the University Development Center for GE Aviation in the SmartZone’s Power House Building near the Lift Bridge between Houghton and Hancock.
The UDC, launched in 2007, offers GE a lower cost student engineering workforce getting hands-on training and students earn incomes while learning from GE engineers. The operation concentrates on software development and innovations in mechanical and electrical engineering.
“We went in with an idea, and a few months later we were up and running with 27 student hires,” says Jason Mack, director of the UDC.
“Our affiliation with MTU and SmartZone has been critical because as our workload expands, we’re able to hire more employees. We usually run with about 30, but we’ve been up to about 50 employees. And when these students graduate, we’ve been able to hire them with no training expense because they’ve already been working for us.”
GE liked the Keweenaw success so well, it’s imported the UDC model to Manhattan, Kansas, and to an overseas site. “Thanks to our success in the Keweenaw, I’m now additionally overseeing a new UDC with Kansas State University,” says Jason. “So yes, this partnership had been very successful.”
Another SmartZone success shows how its support grows ideas into businesses.
UP Steel, founded in 2002, is a spin-off of technology developed by Jim Hwang and Scott Huang at Michigan Tech. They are now two of the five partners in the company.
Their business, based on a process that produces steel from iron ore and carbon by using microwaves, actually began with a household microwave oven. Once they migrated into a SmartZone project, the company partners fabricated a hybrid furnace to combine microwave and electric-arcing technology and eventually received a $1.5 million grant from the Michigan Public Service Commission to refine their designs. The microwave plasma rotary hearth furnace they created can produce 600 pounds of steel an hour. The furnace is housed in a 3,200-square-foot building on the campus of Michigan Tech.
UP Steel now occupies a fully equipped, two-acre pilot plant in Houghton, a leased research laboratory in the SmartZone in Hancock and a business office in Negaunee.
Scott Huang, vice president of UP Steel, stresses that Smart Zone and Michigan Tech students have aided in all stages in the company’s development – including its move toward marketing a byproduct of that steel-making process – a synthetic gasoline.
“It’s very valuable,” says Scott. “If all steel in the U.S. were made this way, it would produce gasoline equal to a quarter of total U.S. production.”
The MTEC Smart Zone’s first company is one of its biggest success stories. GS Engineering started as the brain-child of two individuals who came to the fledgling SmartZone with the idea of developing a company that specializes in innovative design of lightweight structures for defense and commercial vehicles.
With the help of SmartZone, GS Engineering has gone from three people working out of their homes to a business enterprise with nearly 50 employees in Houghton. It’s won a number of awards, including the 2010 Michigan Government Contractor of the Year.
It’s had another accidental – and unusual – spin-off.
Adam Johnson, an original partner in GSE when it began with the SmartZone, soon recognized that his ultimate interest might lie elsewhere.
He started a second business, which also began in the MTEC SmartZone. Brockit Inc., though, is not a tech company; it focuses on fine art photography. The leap from engineering to photography might seem disparate, but as Adam points out, “I’ve always had both sides of my brain going, and I’ve always leveraged my creative side. That works well in business development, but it also works well with photography.”
Adam started shooting for fun, as a passion, but when people began paying him, he used that money to build up his equipment and accumulate seed money to start his photography business. “SmartZone helped narrow down what I liked and what I was good at – and it narrowed down to photography.”
A Sense of Community
Amid the sense of revival and innovation surging through the Keweenaw, the owners and operators of every business – whether entrepreneurial, technological or a hospitality business – have in common a sense of commitment to the peninsula community.
Every business interviewed actively contributes time and money to local endeavors and events.
“We’re community minded,” explains Tony Bausano from Copper World. “We support things like youth baseball and hockey and CopperDog (dogsled race). This community supports us and part of our involvement is to give some of it back.”
Giving back to the community has been important to GE Aviation, Jason says, which is why each year his employees donate time to the Quincy Steam Hoist Association to help preserve that historic mining site. They clear trails, clean up and do whatever needs to be done.
“With so many public agencies losing funding, it’s important that we offer some help within this community.”
That sense of community and commitment does not surprise Adam Johnson. It’s one of the reasons he remains here and it’s one additional, critical draw for those who are choosing to begin this new boom.
It’s the rock solid knowledge that everyone’s in this together, creating a great life in a northern paradise, that binds the area, Adam says. “It’s all about karma.”
Lesley DuTemple lives in Eagle River and is an award-winning author of more than two dozen children's books.