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Our town: Downtown Ontonagon

Downtown businesses remain vital in face of economic downturn

September 11, 2010
By Michael H. Babcock, DMG Writer

Editor's Note: This is the third in a multi-part series on the various downtowns in the Copper Country.

ONTONAGON - Downtown Ontonagon has been the beating heart that has kept a struggling Ontonagon community going during some very difficult times.

The community has suffered from a large mill closing in town, and another in White Pine, as well as a sizable downtown fire in 2008, but all the time the businesses downtown have worked hard to continue offering people everything they've always offered.

Article Photos

Daily Mining Gazette/Larry Holcombe
River Street in downtown Ontonagon is marked with banners and flags.

"Obviously we have taken some blows," said Scott Frazer, village manager. "Downtown Ontonagon is still surviving, though, in spite of all the economic downturn we've been experiencing."

It's hard to say the downtown is really growing at a fast pace, but two new stores have opened in the last year, and the amount of out-of-town visitors to the area continues to impress.

"We have two new business startups on Main Street this summer, which is exciting," Frazer said. "Businesses are still holding on, working to keep the doors open.

"Our downtown symbolizes the fighting spirit of our community."

Superior Video, which has locations in Baraga, Calumet and Hancock, opened up a store in Ontonagon, as did Connie's Place, which is owned by a business owner who lost her previous business in the 2008 fire.

"It's a beautiful, beautiful shop," Frazer said. "It really symbolizes the fighting spirit, I can't say enough about that."

Aside from the new businesses opening up Frazer said they've been able to draw people into town with successful events this year.

"Special events have been really important this year," Frazer said. "Labor Day and the all-school reunion in particular, these types of things really help these small businesses through what has been very tough times with the closure of the mill, Maple Manor and the refinery in White Pine, which people aren't talking about, but affected another 60 to 70 people."

Vikki James, the acting director of the Ontonagon County Historical Museum and president of the Chamber of Commerce, said more than 4,000 people came through the chamber doors this year, including people from 39 states and 13 countries.

"We're located right downtown and have one of the best small-town museums in the U.P.," James said, adding that the lighthouse tour is a favorite of visitors. "This is like the center point of downtown and we allow people to have small meetings there, and the visitors center, which is right next door is a great place to get information when visiting."

Another highlight of the downtown area is the marina, which Frazer said has been the focus of planning by the village.

"The marina has water access and that's what is so very important to our future," He said. "We're surrounded by it, we have some of the best beaches around and it's very underutilized."

Already the boardwalk has been opened.

"Now you can walk almost to the end of the pier," James said. "Sunsets are just gorgeous."

An active theatre also drives people downtown.

"The theatre was a huge project taken on by a private group, they did a lot of fundraising and did a fantastic job," Frazer said. "They bring in acts from all over the place, and are doing a good job keeping it active, not just letting it collect dust."

Michael H. Babcock can be reached at



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