Developing Door County: Preserving a sense of place

How does a community develop when preserving a sense of place is essential to the long-term prosperity and quality of life for those who reside there?

When development starts taking on the “more is better” mantra, some communities opt to take a breather, declaring a moratorium on development until county and municipalities can get a handle on what its residents want and what the environment can handle. That’s exactly what almost happened in 1996 in Wisconsin’s Door County, one of the most scenic and alluring places in the state with over 300 miles of scenic shoreline.  The then Door County Chamber of Commerce called for a development moratorium for all townships (except the City of Sturgeon Bay) in Door County until careful study was made as to exactly how new large-scale construction development would impact the quality of life for all those who reside in the county.  Surprisingly, it never gained traction, and the initiative died.

Yet years later, on a recent trip with my family and friends, we savored an authentic “fish boil” prepared with white fish caught just off the tip of the peninsula, hiked in one of the many state parks, sampled plenty of Door County’s famous cherry juice and pie, and meandered through postcard perfect small towns with names like Fish Creek, Sister Bay and Baileys Harbor.  As a credit to its natural beauty and cultural richness, the county was among the original pilot communities for Travel Green Wisconsin, having earned somewhat of a reputation for being green before green was the thing to be.

“We have a diverse and balanced economy in Door County,” says Sam Perlman with the Door County Development Corporation, noting that it depends what part of the county you’re in when it comes to the main industry there: tourism (northern half); agriculture (central areas); and manufacturing (mostly in Sturgeon Bay).

“We have about 30,000 year-round residents, but that number swells to a population of about 150,000 in the spring, summer and fall tourism season,” continues Perlman. “The number of jobs is greater for the tourism industry but the wages offered to workers in manufacturing is far higher.” This diversity became clear to our group who stayed at the Cliff Dwellers Resort which faced huge ships in various states of repair across the Sturgeon Bay, yet our peaceful, privately owned, shoreline resort was connected by an easy bicycle ride to the spectacular Potawatomi State Park just minutes away.

While we wandered through towns and wiggled through the countryside, I was struck by the lack of fast food franchises or chain retailers. Other than in Sturgeon Bay, none were spotted. Surprisingly, however, the Door County Planning and Zoning Department in its final preparations for the 2030 comprehensive plan which would eventually be adopted by the various townships and communities, had not a word barring big box stores or any chain or fast food establishment, so it is completely possible that a Starbucks or Subway may plant themselves next to a historic Inn one day.

Sustaining Door County

About a decade after the Door County Chamber of Commerce unsuccessfully called for a moratorium on development, a new organization has emerged, this time seeking to help guide sustainable development by using the Natural Step framework. Since 2005, community members have organized and formed Sustain Door, Inc., an organization whose purpose is to promote the social, economic, and environmental sustainability of Door County using this Natural Step process. Sustain Door seeks to engage the public and leaders of government and business in a reorientation of daily practices to ensure that meeting present needs will not compromise the ability of future generations of Door county citizens to meet their needs nor the natural systems upon which they will depend.

“To me sustainable development involves using the resources that we have in abundance here in Door County in ways that both meet our current needs and conserve resource availability for future generations,” explains Rick Rogers, chair of Sustain Door. “We have abundant water resources, a good climate for growing food and timber, and good wind and sun resources for meeting our energy needs. These can be developed in thoughtful ways to give us a prosperous economy that sits gently on the peninsula. If we look at development as a way of meeting peoples’ needs rather than as a way of getting rich, we can meet all our needs and still have a nice place to live.”

“The county comprehensive plan exists side by side with town plans, some of which do provide for commercial development that is not regulated much,” admits Ann Hippensteel, a resident and business owner in the county. “So some national chains could establish themselves, but there seems to be an attitude on the part of the people in the county that this kind of development would be detrimental to our future.  We have had some public discussion about the topic.  Perhaps this common understanding that the culture and the environment need to be preserved here is enough to discourage conventional economic development, but we really need to work with the various municipalities to make sure that sustainable economic development becomes instituted. People want to come here because it’s not like other places.”

While local governments wrestle with how to develop in ways that preserve the very beauty of the communities that attracted so many, Darrel Lautenbach, along with the help from his three sons, set out to prove that you could commercialize a place without losing the feel of the rural character with his Cornerstone Suites, just south of the quaint community of Egg Harbor. The four spacious and amenity-rich suites are expertly crafted in a gigantic 19th Century dairy barn. An antique store fills the bottom level. It was only when we asked at the antique store that we discovered the rooms available above the shop.

In the end, residents keen on preservation and proponents of further development might find themselves agreeing a future course that involves harnessing the restoration economy I write about in ECOpreneuring to preserve Door County’s abundance. For doing so, helps insure that its remarkable sense of place doesn’t become diluted with artifacts of our culture so common in other places, artifacts like fast food restaurants, chain drug stores on every corner, or big box retailers selling stuff made thousands of miles away.

After all, we came to Door County seeking what other places don’t offer.

Photography: John D. Ivanko/www.ecopreneuring.biz

One comment
  1. russ

    I love how beauty is a thing people like where they vacation and should be maintained at all costs at that location. Never mind the residents (100% of them not just ones selected for interview) desires or dreams.

    Kind of like an Audi or Volvo conservationist. Let others do the suffering.

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