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Fishtown battling to stay afloat with high water and COVID-19

Nick Westendorp

Leelanau County's Fishtown lays low, where the Leland River meets Lake Michigan. The town has a history of water damage, in many years runoff flows down into buildings, and every so often they have to worry about high water levels. Last year the high water cycle on the lake and the river began to cause flooding in many of the town’s historic buildings. 2020 has been an uphill battle for Fishtown, first having to deal with water levels and then COVID-19.

For historic buildings suffering from serious water damage, the worst thing you can do is let them sit said Amanda Holmes, executive director of the Fishtown Preservation Society, and this year that unfortunately has been something owners have had to do.

She said this year COVID caused major delays for renovation projects, including the planned relocation of their oldest building.

“It was completely delayed, into July, and I know there was a lot more damage because of it and so we literally before it was lifted, cut off the bottom of the building and left it in the river, it wasn’t gonna get any better and you could just feel time and water ticking away at this wonderful old building,” said Holmes.

Credit Nick Westendorp
The oldest shanty in Fishtown, which was lifted from the bank this spring, waiting to find a new home.

Holmes said it's not only historical preservation that is an issue, the water level has even affected some businesses in town. She said last year the Cheese Shanty had to be moved, but not every building is able to relocate.

Maggie Mielczarek owns Leland Gal, which is a small retailer for art inspired textiles, and homegoods. It's located inland but lays particularly low. This year it was unable to operate within its brick and mortar store. Mielczarek said early in the season it became clear the business would have to operate elsewhere.“We realized that even though our shanty is across the path, we had a couple days where we had the water come all the way in, and because we had to step down to get into our shanty it doesn’t come out.”

Mielczarek said mold began to develop and it didn't feel safe to be in the building. She said she was fortunate there wasn't any merchandise in the store when the problems began.

Credit Nick Westendorp
The temporarily vacant location of Leland Gal. The insides are bare, with a few pieces of furniture on cinder blocks to prevent any sitting water from damaging them.

She was able to find a space for a daily popup store outdoors. Mielczarek said this year has been completely different than any other with the flooding issues, but surprisingly she said the adaptation to the popup made her store perfectly suited for the age of COVID-19. "We’ve been very lucky because a lot of people have told us that our shop is the only one that they’ve come to because we are outside and they feel safe shopping here, so we’ve been saved by this scenario, these two shop owners who let us be here. The 2020 season has been a good one.”

Credit Nick Westendorp
The Leland Gal popup store in downtown Leland.

Mielczarek's success through the coronavirus is the exception not the rule for businesses in Fishtown.

Rick Lahmann owns Reflections, an art shop in Fishtown. He said every business in town was hit hard by COVID.

“Because of the governor’s restrictions we had a ten week later start, and that didn’t help as far as sales, or getting a little money to invest into the rest of the season,” said Lahmann.

Lahmann said the beginning of the season is not usually their busiest time, but it is still an important part of the season for a tourist town. The bigger impacts, he said were the cancelled festivals and events which, in most years, brought in massive crowds. Crowds started to swell in the later parts of the season, but Lahmann said this summer has not come close to usual in volume or revenue.

“This is what I put my sales receipts in whenever I make a sale, usually by mid August or early August I have to take this out to make room for more, this is the entire year,” said Lahmann. He said sales for the year were down roughly 50% from a regular year.

Down the road from Lahmann’s business, is a brand new business. Compass Paper Company opened in July, right in the middle of the COVID-19 epidemic. Sarah Hartman works retail at the store. She said it’s been a bit intimidating being part of a brand new business in a tourist town amid a pandemic, but she said there is optimism for the future.

“The other shops around here have been super helpful with us, like telling us 'hey this year has been pretty bad, but look forward to the other years.' Giving us numbers of what it’s gonna be, sales around here have been about 60 percent lower than what they usually would be, but it gives us a good picture of what the following years should be,” Hartman said.

For many businesses in Fishtown there’s a sentiment of “we’ll get through this”, whether it be waiting for the high water cycle to recede or waiting out the pandemic.