By HEATHER HARTMANN
Capital News Service
In Gaylord, the only place to get a hamburger during the 1960s was the Town Crest Restaurant. And it didn’t even have a drive-through.
“When McDonald’s came to town, it was a big deal,” said Debbie Dunham, a long-time resident and Gaylord’s city assessor.
She moved to the city an hour south of the Mackinac Bridge in 1968 at the age of 16. Coming from Flint with its multiple drive-in theaters and fast-food places, she felt a bit of a shock, she said.
Even after I-75 came to Gaylord in 1964, it took some time for the city to grow.
“When I first came to Gaylord [in 1986], essentially there was nothing to the west of town,” said Gaylord City Clerk Becky Curtis. “Once you got to the west of, oh say Glen’s or maybe a gas station on the other side of the expressway, there really was no development.”
The Big Boy restaurant was one of the first to move out of downtown and to the west of I-75.
“It was not quite a mile out there, but it was a big deal that [Big Boy] would do that,” Dunham said. “[Big Boy] just had a lot of foresight that that area would develop. Sooner or later, people would be going that way.”
With the expressway came something else: A town theme.
“When I-75 came through, community leaders were worried that no one was going to stop in Gaylord anymore,” said Paul Beachnau, executive director of the Gaylord Area Chamber of Commerce. “The traffic was going to go whizzing right through. And they wanted to do something to the community to make it stand out, to make it unique, to make it look different.”
The theme came from the Otsego Ski Club which had been in Gaylord since 1939. Its Alpine theme was taken up by community leaders. After adopting Pontresina, Switzerland as their sister city, Gaylord became known as the Alpine Village.
In 1990, Wal-Mart built a Gaylord store west of I-75. Many residents were unhappy with the big box store coming to town.
“People were scared to death that Wal-Mart was going to put everyone out of business,” Beachnau said. A lot of downtown business merchants were saying they would have to pack-up and leave.
“Fortunately, we have just a tremendous general manager at Wal-Mart who really believes in our community,” Beachnau said. “He doesn’t want to steal all the business and he wants downtown to survive.”
The city has grown since.
“Gaylord has become a destination,” Curtis said.
“Our central location has been a blessing to our economic development,” Beachnau said.
Natural resources have had a big role in Gaylord’s growth as well.
“Otsego Lake, back in the 1900s, was the place to go,” Beachnau said.
“The lake is still a big draw to this county,” Dunham said. “There’s still a lot of people that come to vacation around Otsego Lake.”
“Water is an attraction, and it always will be,” she said.
In the past few years, stores like TJ Maxx and Meijer have moved to town. At the end of 2013, a Buffalo Wild Wings was added to the city’s list of businesses.
But Dunham said she is disappointed that development continues to happen mostly west of town.
“I really think we should have developed the south end of town more than we have,” she said. The largest of the subdivisions lie to the south of Gaylord, making it quite a trek for a large number of the population to get to the stores on the west side.
Overall, Dunham noted how much the city has changed because when she first came to Gaylord, everything was downtown.
“It’s kind of amazing that things have moved,” she said.
Heather Hartmann reports for Great Lakes Echo.