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The Review Blue Arrows

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The National Trust for Historic Preservation recognized Saugatuck-Douglas, Michigan as one of its “2009 Dozen Distinctive Destinations.” The recognition honors the creative character and natural landscape of the area that attracts vacationers and residents alike, who seek a nice blend of natural beauty, access to recreation and attractions, lively cultural experiences, arts and entertainment, and the contemporary feel of a big city—all within the borders of these two small, adjacent western Michigan coastal communities.

Originally a 19th-century lumber community, Saugatuck-Douglas maintains its old world charm, while also encouraging growth that builds upon its strongest assets. Due largely to the passionate efforts of the local Historical Society, one still finds historic architecture and one-of-a-kind attractions, including the country’s only hand-cranked chain ferry still in operation. However, the area has also experienced significant development as a modern, 21st-century destination, and it houses a blend of art galleries, shops, Broadway-quality theater, fine dining establishments, bed and breakfasts, and major events like the Saugatuck Waterfront Film Festival, which has achieved international renown that rivals giants like Sundance and Cannes.

Felicia Fairchild, executive director of the Saugatuck-Douglas Visitors Bureau describes Saugatuck as “a cosmopolitan microcosm of a big city,” that attracts travelers and residents from all over the world who are looking for access to a “high quality of life” coupled with a less hectic small town atmosphere. Across the Kalamazoo River, Douglas has more of an “old school, Main Street mentality,” that provides “a respite from some of the bustle of Saugatuck,” and is “centered around the year-round residents,” says Douglas Community/Economic Development Director Ryan Kilpatrick. “The two cities have found a really great yin and yang between them, and the arts and culture are at the center of both,” Kilpatrick said. Saugatuck-Douglas has long attracted travelers seeking reprieve from the chaos of urban living.

Chicago Discovers Saugatuck–Douglas
By the early part of the 20th century, the area had already become a popular destination for midwestern urbanites and visiting artists. In 1910, faculty members from the School of the Arts Institute of Chicago chose the area as the location to establish the Ox-Bow Summer School of Art. They were inspired by the natural landscape of the area, its breathtaking dunes, its magnificent beaches, and its quiet seclusion from the hustle and bustle of big city life.

The success of Saugatuck–Douglas as a distinctive destination can be largely attributed to how it has been marketed as “Michigan’s Art Coast” over the past two decades.

Executive director of Ox-Bow Jason Kalajainen said, “I think the remarkable thing is how Ox-Bow has served as a catalyst for turning the Saugatuck-Douglas region and western Michigan into an arts hub.” Although the school is in many ways separated and removed from what is going on in the local community, Kalajainen explained that “often what happens is the students and the artists who come to visit develop a fondness for the area and stick around,” whether they take up residence, show their work at local galleries, or establish their own galleries in town.

On the cusp of the 21st century, Saugatuck-Douglas mounted efforts to promote the area in order to attract new businesses, residents, and tourists. Its success growing as a distinctive destination can be largely attributed to how it has been marketed as “Michigan’s Art Coast” over the past two decades, a title that references the area’s two greatest assets—its access to Lake Michigan and the Kalamazoo River, and its history as a haven for artists seeking an environment conducive to creative inspiration.

Art Makes Us Different
After taking the promotional helm, in 1989, the Saugatuck-Douglas Visitors Bureau organized focus group sessions in order to pose the question, “What’s makes us different?” In order to better brand the area as an attractive destination for travelers, businesses, and residents, “We wanted to know, what was the one thing that distinguishes us from our competitors?” Fairchild reported, adding, “everyone else has shops, beaches, restaurants, and attractions, but we have art. The only thing that I heard coming out of focus sessions was that a distinctive difference was art.”

“Art doesn’t drive the economy. Tourism does.” Whether tourists actually end up patronizing the area’s arts and cultural offerings, or not, “tourists like to know it’s an art town.”

As the area was promoted as a destination for fine arts and culture, more and more creative professionals, businesses, and artists started flocking to Saugatuck-Douglas, making it what it is today. “What you need to do is to establish your brand and then unwaveringly market it, target who you are after, and reinforce that message. As you do that, you basically build the framework of a house, and then all the people who come to town and are attracted by it become the walls, the bricks, and the stairs. They fill in this framework,” Fairchild said.

Whether people first come to Saugatuck-Douglas to hit the beaches on spring break, to study at Ox-Bow, or to explore its natural beauty and charming character, it is common that they end up developing a loyal attachment that brings them back year after year and encourages many to relocate to the area. Saugatuck City Manager Kirk Harrier related, “I’ve talked with people who live here year round, and many explain that there is this creative energy here.” He added, “When you have a lot of creative people in one area, they can feed off each other. They are attracted to the area for many reasons. It’s the water, it’s the fresh air, there is a certain energy around, and it’s a small town atmosphere,” which he says creates “a perfect soup.”

“Michigan’s Art Coast” is a popular destination for many reasons, which are not limited to its vibrant arts and culture. Fairchild explained, “Art doesn’t drive the economy. Tourism does.” In many cases, tourists are drawn to the area for outdoor recreation, boating, fishing, and endless other offerings. However, a strong arts community has contributed to the unique character of Saugatuck-Douglas. Whether tourists actually end up patronizing the area’s arts and cultural offerings, or not, Fairchild concludes, “tourists like to know it’s an art town.”


Jennifer Eberbach is a freelance journalist and professional copywriter. You may contact her at 734-929-2964 or Visit her online at



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