SH downtown photo

When walking through downtown South Haven these days, you'd never know people have just endured what most hope will be the end of the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 and early 2021. Then again, maybe you would.

After many businesses were forced to shut down or limit the number of patrons inside their establishments for most of 2020 and into 2021, both visitors and local residents alike are crowding into those very establishments this summer.

“We are hearing many positive reports of strong retail sales, and area retailers are quite pleased with customer counts,” said Kathy Wagaman, executive director of the South Haven Area Chamber of Commerce.

Chris Campbell, owners of SoHa Surf Shop, Emma's Boutique, The Shoe Collective and SoHa Kayak and Paddleboards rentals, is one of those retail owners who is experiencing high traffic volumes and sales this summer.

“So far summer weather hasn’t been the greatest in July,” he said, regarding some of the cloudy, rainy days Southwest Michigan has experienced this month. “But downtown has been extremely busy.  We are seeing growth in all our stores.”

Derrick Balser of Johnny's Lakeshore Jewelry, at the corner of Center and Phoenix streets, downtown, also noted the uptick in traffic volume this summer.

“Tuesdays and Wednesdays this year look like Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” he said.

Balser attributes the increase partly to people's decision to vacation closer to home, both last summer during the pandemic and this year following the worst of the pandemic.

“People are not traveling outside the country as much right now,” he noted. There are also some who do not want to fly just yet. It's the summer time and people want to go to the beach and Lake Michigan is much closer for all Midwesterners than the ocean.”

The longing to vacation last summer during the pandemic led to an influx of visitors from nearby states like Illinois and Indiana to South Haven. They wanted to visit smaller towns close to Lake Michigan that also offered a variety of outdoor activities, which became popular attractions for families who wanted to have fun but remain socially distanced during the pandemic.

“Last year were record sales numbers for us,” said Campbell, who anticipates sales will be higher this year for his stores. “As far as retail goes, we are seeing higher traffic and numbers compared to last year,” he went on to say.

Balser thinks the trend of more people coming to South Haven to vacation during the summer months will continue.

“I don't see this ending after this year,” he said. “People love our town and will keep coming back. Hopefully that will lead to more business in the 'fringe' and 'off season.'”

However, there has been a downside to the increased traffic downtown. Restaurants can't keep up with customer demand due to difficulties in hiring summer help. The situation has forced some restaurants to cut hours of operation, while a few, such as The Congregation, chose not to re-open for the summer months until staffing shortages ease.

"For dining establishments, the ability to staff restaurants during normal hours and meet the demands of a busy summer season has proven to be extremely challenging," Wagaman said. "For some dining establishments, owners are forced to reduce hours, creating a greater demand on restaurants that are able to remain open."