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Ratcliffe, Janssen report on economic conditions

HOUGHTON — The Houghton County Planning Commission heard from Keweenaw Economic Development Alliance Executive Director Jeff Ratcliffe and Houghton County Commissioner Gretchen Janssen on how the business and real estate sectors have been faring during the COVID-19 epidemic.

It’s been a busy summer for businesses connected to tourism, Ratcliffe said. Around the Upper Peninsula, most people have seen increased numbers even above last year’s.

“Nobody knows where that’s going to go from there, but there’s an expectation that that part of the economy stays strong,” he said.

Non-tourism businesses are also seeing success, he said. Calumet Electronics recently broke ground on a “petty significant expansion,” he said.

In Calumet, a developer has bought seven buildings, including three that had been on the endangered list. One came through the county’s tax foreclosure process.

“Working with the (Houghton County) Land Bank, we were able to move that building to this developer, as well as two other significant buildings,” he said. One is the Ruppe building, a three-story building in downtown Calumet, and the Baer Brothers meat market building. Those are being cleaned out and stabilized for the winter, and plans are being drawn up for redevelopment, Ratcliffe said. The owner also acquired a fourth building which is being stabilized.

Since March, KEDA has been working with the Keweenaw Chamber of Commerce and Keweenaw Convention & Visitors Bureau to provide information to small businesses. KEDA also has worked on financing, through the Michigan Economic Development Corp., to create three programs to assist small businesses in accessing relief funds.

Through the Houghton County and KEDA loan funds, KEDA also provided additional financing.

Jointly with the Chamber and Visitor’s Bureau and Superior National Bank, Aspirus, KEDA provided 200 reopening kits to businesses with basics in masks, sanitizing supplies, signage and other material.

“It was designed not to solve everything for them, but especially for the small businesses, to give them the kinds of materials that they needed to reopen safely,” he said.

KEDA has also convened meetings of community stakeholders to share information, and worked with Michigan Technological University to create the “Stay Safe, Stay Open” messaging campaign.

“As soon as somebody gets a positive, and gets caught up in an outbreak, as a contract trace, then they’re quarantined and employers are down,” he said.

KEDA has also done more outreach to businesses on areas, such as accessing federal programs like the Paycheck Protection Program, as well as general business retention outreach.

Other projects have included tax abatement packages for Great Lakes Sound and Vibration and REL. The FinnZone project, which helps Finnish companies locate in Michigan and access U.S. markets, is continuing through videoconferencing with companies in Finland.

In collaboration with Hancock, the western Upper Peninsula Planning & Development Region (WUPPDR) and OHM, KEDA has submitted an application to the federal Economic Development Administration for funding for a business and technology park on the north side of Hancock. The 40-acre site is east of the city’s Department of Public Works building.

The facade project in Calumet, which included four buildings for a total of $336,000, is winding down. KEDA is working on an amendment to the grant project for additional work on one building where only one side had been redone.

Another project will improve pedestrian and bicycle access in Copper Harbor. Conversations began about six years ago. After a steering committee was assembled last year, they selected an engineering consultant to help gather data for a preliminary design before application for Michigan Department of Transportation funding. After a design charrette, there will be a follow-up meeting this week, Ratcliffe said.

“We had some delays when COVID hit because everyone kind of pulled back and hunkered down,” he said. “Summer kicked off, people got busy up in the harbor, but we’re still moving.”

Looking at this year’s real estate numbers, Janssen, also a realtor at RE/MAX Douglass Real Estate, said the real estate market in the area has continued to thrive. From January 1 through Tuesday, there had been 340 home sales in Houghton County, totaling more than $46 million — a 19% increase in transactions and 25% increase in dollar value.

“It’s been pretty amazing — multiple offers on properties that are just getting listed,” Janssen said. “It’s tough on buyers, I will say that. If a buyer’s looking for a house right now, there’s not much inventory for them. They have to be pretty aggressive when they find something they like.”

The brisk market is partially driven by low interest rates, Janssen said. One lender’s rates Tuesday were 2.5% on a 30-year fixed mortgage and 2.125% on a 15-year.

Though some are people moving from out of the area, some buyers are also local people buying bigger or smaller homes, Janssen said.

“Because people can work from home now fairly easily, we are getting a lot of people coming up,” she said.

Part of that was the lack of violence seen in some cities over the summer. A couple of buyers with ties to the area also moved back from Western areas that had been hit hard by wildfires, Janssen said.

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