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Young first-time tourists have mixed first impressions of St. Clair

The young mystery shoppers of St. Clair's tourism scene like the city's boardwalks along the St. Clair River and the Pine River, seen here during the St. Clair offshore race at the end of July. - Jim Bloch

Results of FIT study presented to public

By Jim Bloch

Six young first-time tourists to St. Clair said they would not move to the city. They’d prefer a city with more activities. It was too laid back. Because there were so few teenagers to be seen in the park, visiting the plaza or on city streets, they felt the city was not open to their age group.

They recommended removing the street signposts from the sidewalk along Palmer Park because they present a hazard to young people walking along staring at their phones. Some said they almost crashed face-first into the posts.

The young assessors of tourism in St. Clair liked the kayak and canoe rentals at the St. Clair Boat Harbor. – Jim Bloch

They wanted to see a cool coffee shop, more restaurants with an international flair, more activities like corn hole, ladder ball and horseshoes in the plaza courtyard and Palmer Park. They wanted more contemporary shops with less expensive items and more souvenir shops. They wanted more things targeted to young people, such as a movie theatre, volleyball courts and playground, and a brochure of events in the city.

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They suggested that the city re-do its roads. That was something Andy Northrop, who runs the FIT program for MSU Extension, had never heard directed to a target municipality before.

But the young people were impressed by the city’s location on the St. Clair River. They loved the riverfront Palmer Park and the boardwalk. They loved being able to rent kayaks at the boat harbor. They found residents to be friendly.

In other words, a mixed bag.

“Your community is unique because you’re the first lower peninsula community to have a youth assessment,” said Northrop.

The young people were part of a program known as FIT — First Impressions: Tourism Assessment, run by the Michigan State University Extension.

Kathy Jamieson, an educator with MSU Extension’s Children and Youth Institute, far left, and Andy Northrop, who runs the FIT program for MSUE, far right, at Pine Shores Golf Course in St. Clair. – Jim Bloch

St. Clair formed a seven-member tourism leadership team and applied to be assessed by FIT with the goal of pinpointing the highlights and lowlights of the city from the point of view of first-time visitors. Trice Hawkins, the city’s recreation director, said an independently contracted study of this kind would run $10,000.

“We’re really excited about this program,” Hawkins said.

The young squad of mystery shoppers consisted of five young women and one man; five were Caucasian and one was African American; three were in high school, two in college and the chaperone, who also served as an assessor, was a college graduate. They visited the city on June 1, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. They visited the marina, a horse stable outside the city limits, the boardwalk, Riverview Plaza, Chocolate Harbor, a residential area and three restaurants.

Five adults also shopped the city in May and June and reported generally similar impressions.

Kathy Jamieson, an educator with MSUE’s Children and Youth Institute, presented the first impressions of the young people

Northrop presented the results of the adult assessors.

Between 65 and 70 residents, business owners, and officials, people packed the community room at Pine Shores Golf Club on Sept. 20 to hear the results of the study.

The first impressions of the young people found the city to be clean, serene and friendly with enough activities, restaurants and shopping to fill a one-day visit.

A potential problem with the study was the low number of assessors. Their first impressions could not be considered statistically significant. Should such impressions, which cannot be seen as representative of all tourists, become the basis for new courses of action by city leaders and business owners?

“The point of the study was to provide ideas to the city for further discussion and investigation,” said Northrop. It was not social science.

A retired couple from Marine City agreed with the young people that it was hard to find something to do — not only in St. Clair, but countywide.

“And we’re old people with the time to do things,” the wife said. Hawkins said the city’s leadership team would digest the results of the FIT study and report back to residents and business owners.

Jim Bloch is an award-winning freelance writer based in St. Clair, Michigan. He writes about the environment, local politics, art, music, history and culture. Contact him at bloch.jim@gmail.com.

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