A Conversation With Mackinac Island Developer Ira Green
Ira Green would offer bicycles to rent to Mackinac Island visitors every day for the rest of his life, if he could. But other things, he says, just get in the way. Most days during the tourist season, he can be found greeting customers, renting bicycles, and adjusting seats near the red and white striped awnings at his Main Street business, the Mackinac Island Bike Shop.
“I think, overall on the Island, it is one of the few places in the world where you can do good things all the time and make a living,” he said.
Mr. Green is known for working 12 to 14 hours a day. At 60 years of age, he loves the Island and what he does.
“I take a bicycle and someone gets on it for a modest seven dollars, and gets a great experience riding around that Island in comfort and safety,” he said. “We try to give them everything they need. A basket, a bottle of water, the proper fit, a safe vehicle, fenders. It takes so little to provide such a wonderful experience.”
Mackinac Island is a place where attributes stand out on their own, he said. The water, environment, and horse culture all draw tourists. What he offers is what people expect, he said, and then more. That is his marketing philosophy, his business acumen, and his guide is “The Experience Economy” by Joseph Pine.
“I'm not interested in being the same thing everybody else is and I think every one of my projects says that,” he said. “That's what we do, and so far it's proved successful.”
In addition to owning the bicycle rental shop, he has helped develop projects in other communities, including Mackinaw Crossings mall in Mackinaw City and Frankenmuth River Place. On the Island, he is involved with Lake View Condominiums, Mapleview Condominiums, Goodfellow's Restaurant, and the candy and ice cream shop, Sanders. Mr. Green's Island investments so far total about $25 million.
A future project, the Bicycle Inn, eventually will be developed across the street from his bicycle business.
It is Mr. Green's latest development, a three-story hotel and retail building, that is drawing controversy. From Michigan and Florida, seven people have invested in the project, including businessmen and an attorney.
On the site is the former bed and breakfast, McNally Cottage. Early in the planning process of the new complex, Mr. Green had hoped to incorporate the hotel and shops around McNally Cottage, but the idea proved too costly, he told the city, and the plans were reworked. The 119- year-old building is scheduled for demolition in five months unless it can be moved somewhere else or the city stops it. The fate of the cottage has been debated on Island streets, drawn letters to the editor of the Mackinac Island Town Crier, and triggered the formation of an opposition group, “Save Our Island.”
Mackinac Island is designated a National Historic Landmark, and McNally Cottage is considered a “contributing” building to the designation. Island politicians, who fear the loss of too many contributing structures could jeopardize the historic landmark designation, are looking at the importance of preservation and what it means for Mackinac Island. At the heart of the issue is whether the Mackinac Island that presents its face to visitors is actually a well preserved, authentic, historic site, or a destination that recalls its history by portraying its way of life during a particular era of time.
Mr. Green's project is not the only work going on around the Island that is taking away old materials, but it has drawn more public attention than most because the proposed McNally Cottage demolition comes at a time when the city is taking a closer look at historic preservation.
Last fall, state preservationists spoke to city leaders, who soon after adopted a historic district ordinance, which would allow it to designated protected districts, although the historic committee has not held a meeting since then. In the meantime, residents in Hubbard's Annex are in the process of having their own area designated a local historic district.
Mr. Green feels the city's ambivalence about historic preservation standards sometimes puts him in an awkward position, but he has strong opinions about where he wants to go with his own projects, and he believes his projects enhance Mackinac's attractiveness, not diminish it.
As a state licensed appraiser and one of only 20 who are association designated Business Appraisal Experts, Mr. Green said most of the work he performs in that field is based on the past, not on the future.
“You have to show me places that work historically,” he said.
As a failed bed and breakfast, McNally Cottage is not one of them, he said. The building had been in disrepair for about 10 years before he and his partners bought it in 2008, he added.
He draws a distinction between age and historical significance.
“I'm not sold that old is valuable. Historic may be valuable,” Mr. Green said.
For the McNally property project, like his other developments, Mr. Green's goal is to create an experience.
“People ask me what's the highest and best use of a property, what will stand the test of time, what is it that people are really interested in,” said Mr. Green. “They're not interested in Mackinac because it's old. I believe they are interested in it because of the experience that it brings. I believe that it's about the fabric of Mackinac.”
Up until three years ago, most people did not know Mackinac Island is a National Historic Landmark and visitors did not come to the Island to see “antiquated” buildings, he theorizes, rather visitors come to the Island for the ambiance.
“Mackinac Island is not a museum, it's a way of life,” he said. “It is a time in history that we are trying to make and express. That's what we're trying to do, express a period in time and we do that well, even with 20-seat passenger taxis. We create an atmosphere that gives people a vision of the way it was. That is what we are.”
During the planning phase of the hotel and retail shops, the blueprints were reviewed, with the city agreeing the project meets all zoning requirements. The initial appearance of the structure, however, was modified by Mr. Green and architect, Barry. Polzin of Marquette, after city leaders dubbed it a “cookie-cutter” design. In the first design, from the sidewalk to the top of the third floor, the building had a flat front. For the revised design, the third floor balcony roof was removed to provide a more open view from the street below.
Of the future hotel, Mr. Green said, “The goal is to create an experience. I am not a visionary. I've just been able to measure the reactions of people. So it is after the fact, it is not before the fact. So when you look at McNally and what we are trying to create, we're trying to create an atmosphere like the Bike Shop, like Lake View, like Goodfellows, that the public and the guest are going to feel comfortable in that experience. My job, for my company and for my future, is to build what works. That's what's wrong with McNally today, it just doesn't work. If it was the experience they [visitors] wanted, it would still be there [as a successful bed and breakfast] today.”