Sponsored by: ITC Holdings
Larry and Tracy Jones: More Than Just Talk, These Champions of Port Huron Make Things Happen
Written by Audrey Sochor
Walking the streets of downtown Port Huron, you’ll see thriving restaurants, theaters, and buildings coming alive with tenants of new lofts, many of which weren’t there even five years ago. Chances are you’ll pass more than a few projects helmed in one way or another by Larry Jones – manager, developer, but first and foremost “dreamer.”
A dreamer who works to restore the downtown and the life the mall sucked away. “Everything I do is focused on what I feel is making Port Huron better,” he said.
For him, that means building excitement by getting businesses into the core of downtown, whether it’s starting them himself with stores such as Everything Classic Antiques and Huron Soap and Candle, or leasing space to others.
Not only is bringing in new business to fill vacant storefronts important to him but so is bringing in new residents to support them.
Several years ago when city officials first stressed the importance of student housing downtown, Larry bought the Superior Mall building across from McMorran, Artisan Row, to turn into housing for the SC4 volleyball players. He’s kept the momentum going with projects like J.J. Newberry Lofts, Arden’s Alley and the Ballentine building, which is undergoing renovation.
Larry’s love affair with Port Huron started 10 years ago when he first sailed his boat into Bridge Harbor Marina. While he jokes he came to Port Huron because his ex-lives in Bay City and he needed a place to park his boat, it was really to visit his son and enjoy retirement after selling his farm north of Lansing. During his stay, he enjoyed the beaches as well as places like the Thomas Edison Inn, Raven Café and Loxton’s. He soon started to see the potential of what Port Huron could be.
“I kept listening to everybody say how Port Huron used to be, how it was this great city and how it should be like a Holland or Traverse City or Royal Oak and I just kept saying, well, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be if people just took their foot off of it, as my ma used to say,” Larry said. “If people would just take their foot off of it and let it pop up, it would.”
Dreams of what it could be took shape and before long he was looking for property to buy with his new partner from Calgary. They realized they needed to buy as many properties as they could for two reasons – to get invested deep enough they couldn’t back out and to get past the good ol’ boys in town.
By then he was deeply invested in the community financially, but his love affair only continued to grow with the formation of relationships like with his wife, Tracy, a Port Huron native.
They first met four years ago when Tracy was dancing to a band at Larry’s restaurant, the Cajun Gator, which has since closed and been replaced by Tio Gordos Cocina. He pursued Tracy during her visits to the restaurant, often with the excuse of a new appetizer or drink she needed to try. It worked in his favor and she has been his cheerleader, local historian, and connection to the people ever since.
Larry and Tracy, who are both parents with grandkids, fell in love because “you could sense how the families would blend” and were married June of 2016 in the courtyard of Tio Gordos.
“It’s ironic when you start thinking about it, because he built that courtyard and it’s where we met, and then we got married there,” Tracy said. “We look back on it and go, ‘you know, that’s kind of unique. That’s the place we met and got married.’”
Both of them also share the dream of seeing Port Huron return to its former glory.
“I used to shop downtown and I would go to Sperry’s for school shopping,” Tracy said. “I was used to it when it was booming with sidewalk sales and little boutique shops. It was hard to see the life being sucked out, you know. When Sperry’s closed it was like, ‘ugh, lights out for the city.’”
They are often found walking downtown streets on their way to or from restaurants, shops, and events, something they feel more people should be taking advantage of.
Dressing up in costume for things like the decade’s concerts at McMorran is one of their favorite pastimes. And if you happen to encounter them during one of their outings, you’ll be greeted with a hearty hello from both and likely a joke or two from Larry.
“It’s so important to build that core, keep that core hopping because it’s where people want to be,” he said.
Both support local as much as they can, which has become part of their reputation as a recent trip to the Windjammer in Lexington shows.
“This man and lady came up to me, and I don’t even know who they are,” Larry said. “And she says ‘are you feeling guilty that you’re cheating on Port Huron?’”
Larry does have construction projects all across the state, but his dream for Port Huron keeps him going around the clock – because he enjoys it. Quiet, relaxing nights are a rare occurrence for them; “Date night” is a trip to Menard’s.
“When we started this we had all these different buildings. Literally the worst looking buildings in town because they were all vacant, they were all empty,” he said. “So we tried doing different things to decorate them up and clean them up to build some excitement. There’s always something to do or clean up.
“I’m retired. I didn’t have to do any of this,” he continued. “It was strictly because I wanted to. I could be living on my boat in the islands right now, so everything that I have done has been because of a dream.”
That dream hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Larry said Tracy is good for him because she’s a filter for his “bull in a china shop” tendencies. He’s been called a rebel due to things he said for pushback on projects. Tracy puts on the positive spin and looks for different ways around things.
One such project was the Sperry’s building and the parking garage he wanted to build behind it with a skywalk connecting to the second floor. That pushback ultimately stopped the plan.
“All those people pushed back on a parking garage because they never felt Port Huron would accomplish anything,” he said. “That it would never come alive, and it flustered me with those folks. But now those people that were negative six years ago are positive today.”
“They see the changes and the excitement that it’s bringing,” Tracy added.
Sperry’s was such an iconic building people felt that when it came alive the city would come alive, too. Larry tried many ways to get something in Sperry’s, but it was such a big project he took on some of the smaller projects, which he said helped bring people like Chuck Reid to town. Reid is the owner of Sperry’s Moviehouse and the soon to be CityFlats building.
The collaboration that now exists between community partners like Blue Meets Green, the Economic Development Alliance, the Community Foundation, the Chamber, the County and the City of Port Huron is inspiring to Larry and Tracy.
Tracy said seeing all these people work together and the benefits it brings to the city make pushing projects along worthwhile.
You see so many times that one person can make a difference, but it takes a community, it takes a team to get things done,” Larry added.
Another group Larry always cites as inspiration is the Blue Water Young Professionals and people their age.
He believes if you’re not doing something to help the younger generation, why do it.
“He always talks about [Young Professionals],” Tracy said. “You’re young, vibrant, full of ideas. Fresh ideas. He wants to make it so your generation and your kids succeed and have a great place. Building it up affects us a little bit, but really it affects you guys.”
Carol Hall, owner of The Hallway Escape and BWYP member, is a tenant of theirs. She said Larry is a huge reason why she has her business today.
Hall and Larry met when snowy roads prevented her from making the commute to Royal Oak, so she headed to TechPort to work. Unbeknownst to her it was closed. While there, she helped out a construction crew, which happened to include Larry, by holding open a door. He let her into TechPort and would pop in and out to check on her, which led to a conversation regarding her dreams and him showing her a space to make it happen.
“Little did I know two weeks later I would be laid off from my job and that this whole entire meeting was meant to be,” Hall said.
Not only do Larry and Tracy support Hall by bringing friends to her business, they did all the construction on Hall’s first escape room, the Thomas Edison train car. Larry also helped her in the summer when she was distracted by her brother-in-law’s death. Hall had forgotten about an off-hours customer, who Larry saw waiting outside. He let her know and helped resolve the issue.
“Larry and Tracy not only talk about how great downtown Port Huron is, but they actively work to make it better every day,” Hall said.