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Turning winter in the U.P. into a tourist destination

Houghton, MI
Houghton, MI

All throughout 2010, Michigan Radio's Morning Edition host Christina Shockley asked people for their ideas on what we can all do to help our state.  This year, she'll find out What's Working.  Every week, we'll explore a new idea that's working to improve the state's economy and our lives. The series is called, "What's Working."

To begin the series, Shockley sat down with Scott MacInnes, the City Manager of Houghton, Michigan. Houghton is located on the Keweenaw Peninsula, the northernmost extension of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Mr. MacInnes is also a member of the Winter Cities Institute, an international organization that seeks to make northern cities and towns more livable during the long winter months.

While Houghton has been a winter destination for downhill skiers and snowmobilers for decades, Mr. MacInnes says the city has been trying to make other, more relaxed outdoor activities more accessible. “We’ve really put a lot of emphasis the last, probably, ten years on cross-country skiing and snowshoeing,” says MacInnes.

In addition to promoting various winter recreational activities, MacInnes says Houghton hosts a variety of outdoor festivals and events during the winter. “People around here live up here because they enjoy the weather,” MacInnes explains, “We do three or four special events in the downtown. We have Michigan Tech’s Winter Carnival, which is a huge mid-winter festival for us up here. So we just have a lot of neat activities going on that really make the winter go by fast and make it enjoyable.”

In return for the city’s efforts to encourage more outdoor activity during the winter, MacInnes says Houghton has seen crowds swell as word spreads about the outdoor festivals and events. “Every one of these events that we’ve been doing seems to be growing every year,” says MacInnes, “We get a lot of positive comments from these things, so it’s really been a positive effect on the whole community and our way of life up here.”

One of Houghton’s more radical events is called the Jibba-Jabba Rail Jam Snowboard and Ski Competition, held on the hilly, snow-covered streets of downtown Houghton. MacInnes says, “We get kids from all over the U.P. that come for a snowboard competition on about a block and a half of downtown Houghton. The downtown merchants get involved, and this event has been growing every year.”

Beyond just providing residents with a good time and access to outdoor activities, the City of Houghton has bigger goals. “We’re certainly looking at trying to grow the area by attracting young professionals to the area, both in the university that we have here, the health care industry,” MacInnes explains, “We have a lot of high-tech businesses that have started up, so we’re really trying to attract people for those businesses.”

A key to convincing more young professionals to settle in Houghton is to get them to travel way up to the Keweenaw Peninsula in the first place. “Tourism is a key, or a big industry that we have up here,” says MacInnes, “and these competitions and these things that we bring into the downtown bring people from probably within about a 100-mile radius.”

As to how Houghton’s work to make itself more livable can help the state of Michigan, MacInnes says, “We offer a unique atmosphere up here, I think, and I think it gets people outdoors and gets people enjoying themselves, and I think these are the kinds of things we need to promote in Michigan.”    

If snow is your thing, then you’ll love Houghton. The city averages between 250 and 300 inches per year. While this winter has seen slightly less snowfall than average, Mr. MacInnes says that Houghton is doing just fine. “We’re a little bit behind the norm,” he says, “although we’ve had great skiing conditions, especially for the cross-country, since about the first of December, so the season has been good. I don’t think there’s a lot of snow in the Lower Peninsula, and we’re getting a lot of people that are coming up.”

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.