Tourism assessors go undercover in Houghton

HOUGHTON — To see an area through fresh eyes, ask a first-time visitor.

That’s the concept behind the First Impressions program, where assessors visit a town incognito to experience a town as a tourist would, then relay their findings.

Members of the Houghton government and local business community heard the report at a presentation at the Bonfire Grill Tuesday.

Tuesday’s presentation is just one part of what is hoped to be a longer collaboration, said Will Cronin, educator in tourism and community development with the Michigan State University Extension.

“We do not intend to come in and say, ‘This is everything that’s wrong in Houghton, and good luck with it,'” he said. “We’re here to be your resource going forward as you pursue some options to improve things related to tourism development in Houghton.”

Four assessors, as well as a separate youth team, visited in the area in August and September.

Houghton’s waterfront stood out as a major asset, as did the vibrant downtown, access to outdoor recreation and historical story.

The team also detailed some negative experiences, such as hit-or-miss coustomer service, high-speed traffic through the downtown and a lack of pedestrian infrastructure.

In some cases, the assessors split. One praised the downtown as “alive and interesting.” Another said the entrance to the downtown from U.S. 41 had too much concrete and not enough green space.

The team’s overall position on Houghton was a rave. Team members summed up their opinion of the destination with statements like “a modern, lovely downtown steeped in American history” and “lots of hidden gems.”

The report offered suggestions for business, community and recreation. A training series could teach businesses which tourism assets to promote, and how to make visitors feel welcome. The city could also take advantage of the waterfront by highlighting places to rent kayaks nearby, the report said.

City Manager Eric Waara said the results can point out areas for improvement, and assets the city didn’t know it had.

“It’s certainly thought-provoking, and I think we’ve got a lot of low-hanging fruit over the winter we can work on to address a lot of this in the spring,” he said.

A deeper dive into the results might be necessary to figure out the severity of the issues, Waara said. One negative observation from an assessor pointed to the lack of recycling containers in the city.

“Is it that they’re not every 50 feet, or is it that they truly couldn’t find one?” Waara said.

Kelly Etapa of the Suomi Restaurant said the presentation likely painted an accurate picture of the area.

“It lets us know our strong points, weak points, lets us know our good and bad,” he said.