Written by Audrey Sochor
A small town once down on hard times, Marine City is now alive with a palpable energy full of possibilities – thanks in large part to the late Gary Kohs, a visionary big-picture thinker, and marketing genius determined to put Marine City on the map.
“When he came to Marine City he saw it as a gem,” said Laura Scaccia, Kohs fiancee. “And he wanted to be part of polishing up that gem. He just saw that there was so much more here and he fell in love with it; fell in love with the people.”
The owner of the Mariner Theater and driving force behind record-breaking events, Kohs passed away suddenly on Dec. 15, 2017, at 73 years of age. And although he was only an area resident for a short time, his memory will serve as inspiration for locals for generations to come.
Kohs moved to St. Clair six years ago with Scaccia, a move that would ultimately ignite the spark for his later work in Marine City.
Having spent years in Birmingham, Kohs’ claim to fame was his successful background in marketing, but in 1989 decided he was done with that and started a new venture, Fine Art Models. Never one to do things halfway, he set out to make it the best model making company in the world. His goal was realized 12 years ago when he was contacted by Harland and Wolff, the company that built the Titanic, to create the official builder’s model of the famous ship. That project turned into a 7-year labor of love.
Two years after making the move to St. Clair, Kohs grew tired of the commute to Fine Art Models in Royal Oak, so decided to move the business.
“When we bought the house back in St. Clair we did a restoration of it, so we used to come into Marine City quite often to look for antiques and things,” Scaccia said. “Right away we fell in love with the atmosphere.”
When they found the Mariner Theater they knew right away that was it – the Titanic belonged on stage and out of a warehouse. The space also allowed them to create galleries for his other models, which fed into his vision for Marine City.
Kohs also like the space’s history as a theater. Having read a lot about the effects a lit up marquee could have by adding life to a small town, he set out to remodel it after the original 1927 marquee, and also brought in old theater chairs from Grand Rapids that resemble the original.
One thing he loved about Marine City is the 5 million people an hour away. “How do you get 5 million people who live an hour away to come here, or to notice us?” Scaccia said. “Break records.”
Now well-known for his love of doing things that were out of the ordinary and kind of impossible, Kohs set out to break the Guinness record for the world’s longest string of popcorn. “But he had to take it a step further,” she said. “The impossible wasn’t impossible enough. He decided to make this international.” That international connection was important to Kohs, especially since their model business is world-wide. “He said, ‘I’m now going to take that string of popcorn and connect two countries.’ And he did.”
Breaking one world record wasn’t enough of a challenge for Kohs, so the next day he and Scaccia organized an event to have the most people carving pumpkins at one time. While they didn’t set the record for that the first year, they did the second year.
Kohs desire to make an international connection was taken to the next level when he met Peter Michael, organizer of Slow Cycle & Paddle St. Clair. Shortly after they met, they planned the International Slow Cycle from Marine City to Canada for the grand kick-off of the 2017 cycle season.
Realizing logistics for a ride like that needed to be worked out, they took a test ride of the route three weeks before the main event. They hopped on the ferry to Walpole Island, and a mile and a half into the ride of Canada Michael’s bicycle broke down.
“I was in a country I don’t know well on bike,” Michael said. “I told Gary he could ride ahead, but he didn’t and walked the entire way back with me.”
So they took that time to get to know each other, and the experience ultimately helped them plan a successful, international kick-off event last June. True to Kohs’ style, a historical aspect was added through an antique bike show the following day.
“He got stuff done. He didn’t care if it was crazy,” Michael said. “Without him, that ride would never have happened.”
Kohs also knew it’s the people who make or break a community, and one of his last projects before his death was to create a safe space for area youth – the River Rec Teen Zone (RRTZ).
The idea for RRTZ originated in 2015 with Kyle Pond, a Riverview East High School student, as his passion project assignment. Educators quickly realized his project had potential and before long community leaders like Kohs were pulled in – soon Pond’s passion became Kohs’.
Jason Stier, former art teacher and current principal at Riverview East, first met Kohs when he took an interest in the RRTZ project. “Not only did Gary open the doors of the Mariner Theater for our youth to meet and share ideas, but more importantly opened his heart and mind to simply listen to students, unpack their potential, and help them in discovering who they are,” he said.
The project faced pitfalls with buildings that didn’t work out, but RRTZ eventually signed a lease with the City of Marine City for the old city hall. Kohs became the driving force behind the fundraiser to renovate the building. He decided on Partronicity after the success of the beach improvement fundraiser and the campaign was going to launch this March. However, Kohs’ passing changed things.
Faced with a rush of memorial gifts, Scaccia took the $15,000 people gave and jumpstarted the online campaign. By the end, the group raised about $40,000 and received $30,000 in matching funds from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.
“My goal right now is to continue that legacy and bring it to fruition,” she said with tears in her eyes. “That’s what my role is going to be now.”
Scaccia said Kohs inspired the teens because he accomplished a lot in his life but was also down to earth and easy to relate to – sentiments shared by Stier.
“Gary’s own drive and relentless pursuit to strengthen the very fibers of our community were always applied in ways that would benefit the greater good,” he said. “In every effort, he conveyed an overwhelming sense of passion and purpose. Teens were drawn to Gary’s charisma, work ethic, determination and, most importantly, compassion.”
Both Scaccia and Stier said he encouraged not only the teens but everyone who knew him to reach their full potential. “He used to say if you can dream it you can live it. And he dreamt a lot of things,” she said with a laugh. “He lived a lot of things.”
When Kohs put his mind to something, he did it. He was the keeper for Mendota Lighthouse, a property he owed on the Keweenaw Peninsula. When he bought the lighthouse it was deactivated, but he restored it and fought to get it back on the charts. Today it’s an operating lighthouse guiding ships home.
He also flew airplanes and owned a Stearman as well as a Corsair, a historic plane used during WWII, which he did a total restoration on. It was one of his prime joys.
“He felt he was only a caretaker of things. So when it was time to let things go, he let them go and let somebody else be a caretaker,” Scaccia said. “He always used to say you can’t take things with you, you know?”
Every morning Kohs woke up grateful for his life, she added. He loved and appreciated everyone and everything he had. A huge collector, he saw the art in everything and liked to share that vision and the stories associated with things he owed or restored.
Even at a later age, Kohs was a thrill seeker. He raced motorcycles in Baja and on the Bonneville Salt Flats – at 70 years old his record was 187 miles per hour.
“As sad as all this is, I feel so fortunate ‘cause I did have 10 years,” Saccia said with tears. “Somebody wrote he was larger than life. He really was, you know. People in Marine City really only knew a portion of who he was. He came with a whole list of accomplishments with his life.”
“He’d be so surprised,” she added. “All the people that showed up, and raising the thirty thousand dollars. I think he would be so happy. I know he’s looking down on us going ‘wow.’”