A year and a half ago, Susie and Lewis Cooper took a chance—not just in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also during the biting northern Michigan winter. With summer nowhere in sight, the Coopers closed on a key property located at the edge of a village: the old marina. As lifelong summertime residents of the Elk Rapids area, the couple had dreamed of someday investing in the community they love, and this would be the first step of their vision to guide the small town—2,223 people—into the future.
Northern Michigan, like many seasonal communities, largely relies on summertime traffic from tourism to survive economically. Its winters are long and snowy, with the inland lakes sometimes not fully melting until May. Once thawed, however, the landscape turns on its head, and a phenomenon known as “the summer effect” takes hold. The four-day summer Harbor Days Festival alone swells the town to 30,000 additional visitors from around the country.
Even with this influx in the summer, many small businesses in northern Michigan struggle to stay afloat once temperatures have cooled. Seasonal businesses must make enough in the three-month selling window to last them until the following year. The fall shuttering means employees must find a different source of income, while business owners cross their fingers that they will be able to rehire former employees or find new ones the following spring.
Barriers for small businesses in rural America
The reality of owning a business in a small town is far from what we love to watch in cozy holiday TV specials—it can be stressful and anything but certain. Since the turn of the century, the number of small businesses in urban and suburban counties grew by 31%, while rural counties grew by only 7%.
Since 2019, the rate of growth has been near zero for rural midwestern counties. Lack of access to a skilled workforce and capital are common obstacles to starting and maintaining businesses in rural areas.
In northern Michigan, access to affordable housing for local residents is also becoming an issue as the area becomes an increasingly popular vacation spot. With remote work becoming commonplace, more and more families leave the suburbs of Detroit and Chicago for the more picturesque location of northwest Michigan. Some larger employers buy summer housing for their employees, but that solution isn’t accessible to smaller business owners. The average cost of a home in the village of Elk Rapids has nearly doubled in the last decade, from $190,000 to $368,315 in 2022.
This is the environment the Coopers entered when they launched Elk Rapids Marina on Elk Lake and the Dam Shop in January 2021.
It takes a village: making changes without going to war
Established near the old Elk Rapids Marina, the property straddles Main Street and the river, essentially becoming the village’s informal entrance. “It just needed a lot of TLC, but I knew it could be a beautiful gateway jewel to Elk Rapids to keep it warm and welcoming,” said Susie Cooper, owner of the Dam Shop and co-owner of the Elk Rapids Marina.
The marina and the Dam Shop work in tandem, with the former providing boat rentals and sales and the latter offering gear sales, a cafe, and food options along the Elk River. The two businesses, while technically separate organizations, are both owned by the Coopers and work closely together to serve the community.
Susie’s vision for the property meant starting from scratch—a total rebuild. Between being in a small town and located on a waterway, the marina is bound by extensive zoning and construction restrictions, making planning and execution complicated. To counteract these roadblocks, Susie and Lewis approached the village council long before they set their hearts on specifics.
“We went to the village manager and we said, ‘Listen, this is what we’d like to do. Can we do it? What are our restrictions? We want to work with you,’” Susie said. At this point, the couple was already going through the buying process but hadn’t closed on the property.
“They were really taken aback,” Susie said. “[Village manager] Bill Cooper started laughing. He was like, ‘You’re not coming in to show us drawings?’”
This approach was very different from what the village council had experienced with past business owners—typically, the council is presented with construction plans to approve, not extended an open offering of collaboration. It was a welcome change of pace and advantageous for both parties.
“We said, ‘No, we want to work with you.’ The approach was very beneficial because they understood we’re not here to go to war,” Susie said.
At your service, on the water and off
Beyond rebuilding for aesthetics, Susie knew she wanted to serve the close-knit community in a deeper way than just selling them coffee.
“I thought, ‘What can we do to embrace the community and have the community embrace us?’” Susie said. The community-first line of thinking led to more opportunities than she could have imagined. “We have become a de facto community center—I listen to what the community wants. Obviously, we have a strategic plan, and we’ve stuck to it, but everybody said, ‘There’s no coffee in town.’ I never thought I would have a coffee shop in my marina, but I do.”
A “comments and suggestions” feature on the marina website allows the community and customers to give feedback on how the business can improve. When the business first opened, it received around 10 suggestions a week.
“Some people wanted boating classes for the kids, so we’re having organizations come in this fall. Maybe there will also be a boater’s safety and knot-tying class, who knows?” Susie said.
In just a year and a half, Susie’s vision to serve the community has come to life. It has already served as a venue for Rotary club dinners, a wooden boat show sponsored by Veuve Clicquot, weekly euchre games for seniors, and the village’s only ice-skating rink in the winter.
She knew the business had found its niche in the community when she witnessed a lazy summer day in August of 2021, just eight months after the grand opening, where visitors were utilizing all the amenities she had curated. “There were about 20 kids playing on the grass. We have cornhole, ring toss, a lot of wooden toys; some were playing football. Their parents were eating at the picnic tables, and they were all off their phones. I almost cried,” Susie said.
“My vision came true. It was this beautiful, sunny day, and everybody was happy. They were enjoying the property. That’s what makes it all worth it—the long hours—it’s the people coming in saying, ‘Thank you so much. You’ve changed this to something we want to see when we drive in.’”
But Susie’s vision for the community reaches beyond the physical property in the form of supporting multiple charitable organizations that align with the marina’s values. The marina sponsors one full-tuition scholarship a year for students at the Great Lakes Boat Building School in Cedarville, Michigan. “It’s important for us to give back to different organizations that help develop our younger generations,” Susie said. The impact of the marina’s commitments are monumental in an area struggling with an aging workforce and lack of skilled talent.
Into the future: boating and the planet
Even though northern Michigan relies heavily on monetizing its natural beauty and resources to survive, sustainability initiatives are uncommon. Susie and Lewis knew they wanted to run their business differently and prioritize steering Elk Rapids toward a more sustainable future. Their marina is the first retailer for X Shore electric boats in the country, and they’re supporting the launch of the first charging corridor in northwest Michigan.
“Without chargers, we wouldn’t be able to sell these boats—people are scared that they’re going to run out of battery. We’re working with municipalities and different governmental agencies to get those charging stations up and running. It’s very important to us,” Susie said.
The marina is a signee of the Michigan Clean Marina pledge, which is a promise to phase out environmentally harmful substances and practices. The food and beverage division of the business, which includes two food trucks and the coffee shop, has pledged to use only biodegradable packaging. Sustainable decisions like these are revolutionary for the area, leading the way for other businesses to get on board.
The hunt for new hires
Rural entrepreneurs across the country report that adding staff is one of the most difficult parts of running their businesses, specifically:
- 74% report struggling to find candidates with the right education, skills, or training
- 69% report lack of talent pool in their area
- 53% report difficulty finding candidates willing to relocate to the area
“It has been extraordinarily challenging for small businesses in northern Michigan to hire because there’s an affordable housing crisis. People have to drive in from far away, all different municipalities. They’re all desperately trying to figure it out,” Susie said.
But even with these challenges, she has been steadfast in sticking to the marina’s values as she hires. “I always tell my team that we hire for the person—if I have a strong candidate that I can train, that’s the best mix,” Susie said.
She prioritizes the business’s energy, alert to the way that positivity and fun are infectious among employees and customers alike. “Everybody’s so friendly here. That’s really important to me because if I’m in a good mood, it rubs off on other people,” Susie said. “If I’m in a bad mood, it’s gonna rub off on other people and the same for all of our employees.”
The final, and perhaps most impactful, way the marina is supporting the community comes from its attitude toward talent development. “It’s important to promote from within when possible. It’s not always possible, but I’d rather develop my people and my teams,” Susie said. “Even if that means someone leaves us eventually, it’s more important to me that they were developed.”
The marina’s management style—alongside its unique commitment to sustainability—will undoubtedly have positive ripple effects on the community’s youth and business sector as a whole. The Coopers first joined the Elk Rapids business scene as disruptors, eager to introduce fresh ideas and drive positive change, and the village has responded by transcending into a new era of development and community.
Resources for rural business owners
If you’re a rural business owner, there are both government and independent non-profit resources in place to support you.
Michigan business owners
- Michigan SCORE Association offers independent chapters for different regions across the state, giving free advice and mentorship to business owners and entrepreneurs.
- The Small Business Administration has offices for each state. It can provide funding and planning support for your business.
- The Michigan Small Business Development Center is the brainchild of the Small Business Administration and various Michigan institutions. It offers a wealth of free templates, resources, and consulting services.
Rural areas across the U.S.
- The United States Department of Agriculture’s guide to rural entrepreneurship offers information around its loan options and technical assistance programs.
- Explore the national SCORE website for resources around startups and mentorship opportunities.
- Attend a summit by RuralRise to plug into the digital division rural businesses face and how to manage it.
- The Rural Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) is tackling the most pressing obstacles to rural entrepreneurship and small businesses, offering funding opportunities, technical assistance, and training.
Photos from Elk Rapids Marina & Jenna Spray
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