The communities of Door County are like many others in the state, in that they’re facing a shortage of housing. In many ways, though, that’s where the similarities end, as the iconic region faces unique circumstances that set it apart.
As the county searches for housing solutions, it must walk the line of embracing development while at the same time staying true to its signature character and aesthetic.
The Door County Economic Development Corp., with the support of the county’s municipalities and several businesses, worked with engineering firm AECOM to complete a housing study in 2018. The press release announcing the findings, which were released in February, called the results astonishing. It identified a near-future need for more than 200 apartments in central Door County, which includes Sturgeon Bay, and another 165 in the northern part, which includes Sister Bay.
Jim Schuessler, executive director of DCEDC, says the study, which looked at the need for housing at all levels — including seasonal and senior — revealed a gap larger than he expected.
“What we’ve seen with the outcome of the study is that we’ve got a huge structural deficit gap with workforce housing, and we also have significant need for senior housing, both apartments and owner-occupied, and seasonal housing, which has been for decades solved by every business individually,” he says.
The City of Sturgeon Bay deserves praise for the progress it’s already made in adding housing, Schuessler says. The city has 168 new units either completed or on the way, with another 60 recently approved.
In addition to those projects in Sturgeon Bay, Schuessler says the city needs more urban housing options. The shuttered West Side Elementary School, which sits atop a hill overlooking the Bay of Green Bay, and a former Nicolet National Bank building offer potential sites, he says.
Northern Door County is also investing in developing workforce housing. The Town of Liberty Grove, which includes Gills Rock and Ellison Bay, has begun acquiring land, including the site of a defunct hotel property. Since the township will own the property, it can put covenants on it, so it doesn’t become an Airbnb venue or a place for weekenders. While Schuessler says the county values the visitors and revenue these types of property bring, it also needs attainably priced, year-round housing options.
Schuessler recognizes the county’s unique positioning and the desire to both grow and retain its identity. He says managing that requires a careful balancing act.
“No. 1, you listen. Every municipality, you listen to them. You don’t come in there guns a-blazing,” he says. “We have to respect each one of our municipalities and where they envision themselves.”
Schuessler sees an evolving Door County. For example, Northern Door traditionally hasn’t been open year-round, and that’s beginning to change.
A burgeoning entrepreneurial food and beverage scene is developing in the county, and Schuessler says businesses increasingly are interested in staying open throughout the year. This creates an opportunity and a need, in that the county wants to ensure visitors have places to go and an adequate workforce will be available to work in the open businesses.
The county’s large manufacturers, including Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding, also have hundreds of jobs available, compounding the need for housing.
In addition to workforce living options, the county faces an acute need for housing for both seniors and the county’s large seasonal workforce. For the latter, DCEDC has begun working with some entrepreneurs who are developing concepts for seasonal housing that could go dormant during non-peak times.
As for senior housing, Schuessler says since releasing the survey results, his organization has fielded many calls from older residents expressing a wish to downsize and still remain in the county. Creating more senior living options would create a positive domino effect, he says.
“As (developers) execute and fulfill that need, it will free up single-family housing stock for people to acquire,” he says.
Arts scene grows in Kewaunee County
Nestled between Green Bay and Door County, Richard Baker says Kewaunee County has much to offer.
“You’ve got Lake Michigan, you’ve got rural, smaller communities that provide you that opportunity to get involved in the community if you so desire,” says Baker, who joined the Kewaunee County Economic Development Corp. as executive director in January.
Many Kewaunee County residents enjoy its lower cost of living while commuting to Green Bay for work, he says. Others live and work in the county,
which boasts a strong manufacturing base, and take advantage of its proximity to Green Bay and its amenities while still reaping the benefits of living in a smaller community.
The county, though, is increasingly developing its own arts and culture scene. Algoma is home to several art galleries and shops, including the James May Gallery, the Steele Street Trading Co. & Gallery and the Yardstick Bookshop & Gallery.
Kendra Bulgrin, owner of the James May Gallery, taught art at the college level before opening the business, which stages exhibitions and events as well
as selling contemporary works of art and craft from regional and national artists. She says she and her partner fell in love with Algoma and Kewaunee for its lakeshore, walkability and year-round beauty.
While Kewaunee County sits adjacent to Door County, it enjoys its own unique vibe, Bulgrin says. In addition, she and other businesses have enjoyed strong support from the mayor and chamber of commerce.
“It’s an amazing place for young entrepreneurs to start a business, especially creatives,” she says.