Bay City loves to reinvent itself every so often. It seems this community, nestled between the Thumb and forefinger of Michigan’s mitten and astride the Saginaw River, changes shape and creates a renaissance that is about as successful as any town could hope for today.
In its past, it’s been a shipping port, lumbering center, naval ship-building complex, auto manufacturing hub and farming belt.
And now, add tourism and events center to the list, with so many choices for your activities in a town of 33,000 residents that it can literally boggle the mind.
Bay City’s emergence as a place to shop and have fun now centers on major hotels, fun events, a state park with great waterfowl and bird watching, one of the best places to fish for walleye in North America in Saginaw Bay, and a vibrant downtown that mixes old school charm with a never-stand-still verve.
Here’s a look at what Bay City holds for your next meeting or event.
Linked by four major bridges to the city’s west side, downtown has that old-timey compact feeling with a vibrancy that doesn’t quit. Drive down Washington Avenue, and the facades from its life as an 1800s lumbering center for the region’s then-vast white pine forests stand out in a mix with the new and renewed.
Head up the street from venerable Herman Hiss jewelers, a longtime downtown anchor, then west along Center Avenue. Here, lumber barons built mansions that still dominate just west of downtown, including The Historic Webster House. The red brick mansion now hosts a beautiful bed and breakfast with eight guest rooms that opened in 2010, featuring original fireplaces, period furnishings and an on-site spa.
“We can have 30-40 guests for corporate events, weddings and other gatherings, and in summer, we can also offer outdoor events. I have an in-house caterer and can do buffets, sit-down dinners and hors d’oeuvres,” reports owner Deborah Ingersoll.
Nearby, you’ll find another restored historic venue, the 1904 Pere Marquette Depot. Formerly the train station for various railroads, it was restored in 2008, and now offers meeting space for up to 180 in its former waiting room, says Kacie Hugo, event coordinator.
“We work with local caterers here including Fusion One Café and the Old City Hall restaurant, and the Uptown Grill whether it be for a ceremony, a reception, you name it. They are all phenomenal,” she says.
Head back toward the river for another view of that past-present mix. Water Street, nearest the river, was notorious in the 1800s for its bars catering to lumberjacks, who’d occasionally “fall” through a convenient trap door and wake up at a lumber camp in the woods.
Fast forward and Water Street is now famed as an antiques center, with six stores within a short stroll of each other.
Elaine Fournier and her husband began the rush here by opening the Bay City Antiques Center, specializing in European and primitives in a former furniture store.
The Fourniers began their antique business in Sebewaing, a small town at the base of the Thumb, moving to Bay City in 1983. Now it’s easily the largest antiques mall of its kind in the three-state region, she says.
“There are more than 60,000 square feet open to the public, and there are other boutique stores around us as well,” Fournier adds. Six years after opening, they bought the building next door and opened another antiquing spot to house private vendors. It now has more than 100 booths.
Soon, other antique sellers followed. Then the Fourniers had another idea: Why not offer tours of the river that shaped this town?
They opened Bay City Boat Lines and now the Princess Wenonah and The Islander cruise on daily trips in season.
“The Princess Wenonah carries 150 passengers for private charters and events, and we can arrange catering and book entertainment, or you can on your own,” Fournier says. The Islander is licensed to carry 129.
On Friday nights, join the public for a themed sunset cruise on Princess Wenonah that includes a band. Enjoy a narrated morning cruise aboard the Islander that may go downstream through downtown Bay City and the Bangor/Essexville area, or upstream past wildlife-filled marshes and river mouths
The Bay City area is a major migratory bird route and stopover, and site of the Saginaw Bay Birding Trail, part of one of the Midwest’s major flyways.
During the upcoming July 18-21 Tall Ships Celebration, which happens here every three to four years, both boats will offer narrated tours alongside the visiting ships, Fournier says.
In a nod to the city’s shipbuilding history, head to the river’s west side to tour the 418-footlong USS Edson, a retired Navy destroyer, part of the Saginaw Valley Naval Ship Museum. It’s moored just downstream of the former Defoe shipyards, says Administrative Assistant Carla Monteiro, and is into its sixth season.
“We looked at bringing a Defoe-built ship here, but none were available, and we decided on the Edson,” she says. “We can do guided tours or station guides throughout the ship. Ninety percent of it is open.”
Visitors can tour both topside and below deck, and the Edson can host up to 150 for events. “We do have a couple of catering companies we work with, or groups can do their own,” Monteiro adds.
Two more waterborne opportunities await visitors aboard the Appledore IV and V, both two-masted schooners. Appledore IV, formerly kept in Traverse City, is 85 feet long and welcomes up to 48 passengers. Appledore V is 65 feet, and both schooners can take up to 24 three- to four-hour cruises down the river and into the bay.
There are limited catering options aboard, says Scott Ellis, the director of marketing for BaySail, which owns and operates the vessels.
Real Seafood’s Bay City version occupies a riverside spot in the newly opened Uptown area, upstream of downtown, and ushers in another signature Bay City rebirth of this part of the riverfront that used to be occupied by industry.
Besides being one of Ann Arbor-based Main Street Ventures’ signature restaurants, Real Seafood can also be a great meeting destination, according to Main Street District manager Jeff Ridinger.
“What makes our property unique is that we have a great view on the river, and more importantly, Main Street Ventures is quality driven in both food and service. Everything is from scratch, and our seafood arrives daily. If you’re looking for a meeting with an interesting space, we fit that niche,” Ridinger explains.
The restaurant can accommodate up to 30 guests for meetings in a private dining area and has dockage available.
Around the corner from Real Seafood are two other new eateries, Costela Brazilian Steakhouse and the aforementioned Uptown Grill, which offers both catering and event space for up to 60 persons after the restaurant closes at 3 p.m. Groups can bring their own adult beverages.
Uptown also includes the first hotel on our where-to-stay menu, the Courtyard By Marriott Bay City. Stephanie Starling is the sales manager at the Courtyard, which stands a few footsteps from the water.
“We have space to accommodate all your needs, and we make it as easy as possible for meetings. There is no setup, cleanup or teardown expense. We make it a one-stop shop for meetings and partner with the Sunrise Pedal Trolley, as well as fishing charters that will take you onto Saginaw Bay after its walleye,” she says.
Opened in 2016, the hotel has 100 rooms, a saltwater pool, and it offers groups meeting space for up to 130 seated banquet-style in two conference rooms. There is also an outside patio space facing the river that can seat 90 with in-house catering available.
Guests can also use the Riverwalk to get downtown, and you can watch the annual three-day Bay City Fireworks Festival over the water, this year July 4-6, and the Rockin’ on the River powerboat races, July 13-14. That event also includes outdoor concerts at the Wenonah Park Friendship Shell concert space.
Or book your group downstream at the DoubleTree by Hilton Bay City-Riverfront, where Jamie Ralph, CMP, director of sales and marketing, will assist.
“We sit on the site of the old Wenonah Hotel, on the river, adjacent to Wenonah Park. The DoubleTree features 150 guest rooms, fitness center, on-site restaurant, indoor pool, and our events space holds up to 550 guests with full-service catering and convention services,” Ralph says.
Every room overlooks the river or the unique cityscape, and the Rockin’ the River powerboat race happens in front of the hotel. There’s an outdoor events space that can hold 90 guests, he adds. The hotel is also a short walk from downtown’s antique centers.
Also nearby is the Comfort Inn Bay CityRiverfront. Sales Manager Tamera Reder says the hotel offers a business center, a pool fitness room and 99 rooms, including some with river views.
“Comfort Inn is within walking distance to the Riverwalk, the downtown Delta College Planetarium and the antique shops. We offer two meeting rooms that can accommodate up to 36 on the main floor,” Reder adds.
“We’re the only hotel on the east side that offers a free full hot breakfast buffet. We also allow you to use your own licensed caterer to allow flexibility for the type of food and more wiggle room in your budget,” she explains.
A few miles west is the venerable Bay Valley Resort & Conference Center, which can host up to 350 people in the Royal Troon ballroom, with additional meeting rooms for smaller events and functions. There are 100 hotel rooms and an on-site Desmond Muirheaddesigned 18-hole golf course. After your round, join the crowd in the lounge for a sandwich and cocktail.
Now you can easily see why Bay City could star in your next event, no matter the size.
» Bay City, along with nearby Saginaw and Midland, forms Michigan’s Great Lakes Bay region.
» The first European settler here built a log cabin on the Saginaw River’s east side in 1831.
» Bay City was established in 1837.
» In lumbering’s 19th-century heyday, Water Street was lined for miles with sawmills chewing up huge white pine logs sent down the river from camps throughout the region, using connecting waterways like the Shiawassee, Cass and Flint rivers. When new building foundations were dug long after, workers often encountered several feet of sawdust left from those mills.
» The Michigan Sugar Co., cooperatively owned by nearly 1,000 sugar beet grower-owners in the region, is the nation’s third largest sugar producer, with an ability to produce more than a billion pounds of Pioneer and Big Chief sugar annually.
» Don’t pass up visiting St. Laurent Brothers across from the antiques stores. It produces all-natural peanut butter on the premises. Their slogan? “Nuts since 1904.”
» Bay City’s Riverwalk extends 13 miles south from Bay City State Park, including a walkway over the Saginaw River.
» Winter visitors see a veritable city of shanties set up on the river ice when it’s cold enough. Most anglers are trying for walleye.
» Interested in a walleye fishing charter on Lake Huron if visiting in warm weather? Check out the Michigan Charterboat Association’s website for a full list.