MUSEKGON — Her latest foray into the tourism business is considerably more enjoyable than her first.
It was 29 years ago and Joanne Hatch was living the good life as a suburban housewife in Grosse Pointe, just north of Detroit, spending her time playing bridge, shopping and doing charity work
Then came a call from old friends, who offered Hatch and her husband, Emery, then working as an industrial salesman, a chance to become partners in three marinas in Whitehall.
“They said, ‘hey, you guys like boats, don’t you? Why don’t you buy it with us?’ We said, ‘that sounds nice.’ That’s how naïve we were,” Hatch recalls of the opportunity that brought her and her family to West Michigan, as well as six years of long hours and the struggles to make ends meet.
“It’s probably why not many things frighten me, because we didn’t have a clue to what we were doing and we never worked harder in our lives,” said Hatch, who’s back in the tourism business as head of the Muskegon County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
While difficult at the time, the experience as a marina owner provided Hatch two lasting impressions: That happiness does not come from money; and that West Michigan was the right place for the family.
“From the minute we came here, there was no question that this is where we wanted to stay,” said Hatch, who joined the Muskegon County Convention and Visitors Bureau three years ago when the organization formed following the breakup of the former Muskegon Economic Growth Alliance, or MEGA.
The move represented a return to county government, where Hatch had worked years earlier. Prior to joining the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the 62-year-old Hatch did outplacement counseling and taught small business management at Muskegon Community College.
She considered herself well-suited to teach the course, since “any mistake that can be made by a small business person, I’ve made.”
During much of the 1980s, Hatch served as president of the Muskegon Chamber of Commerce, before it was folded into MEGA, which served as an umbrella organization that consisted of the chamber, visitors bureau and an economic development arm. She later ran MEGA for a year.
In her 11-year tenure with the Chamber of Commerce, Hatch often found herself taking on the role as head of the visitors bureau, which was persistently without a director.
Prior to taking the position with the chamber in 1982, and after she and Emery sold the marinas when “we had an offer we couldn’t refuse,” Hatch worked for Muskegon County doing job placement for the economically disadvantaged.
When the opportunity came up to return to the county, following the separation of the visitors bureau from MEGA, Hatch saw the position as a good professional challenge. Building the area’s tourism industry, which has an estimated $95.5 million annual economic impact, blended well with Hatch’s background.
“They needed somebody who could step in and run it today. They didn’t have six months to shut it down and do a search,” Hatch said. “I saw it as a wonderful opportunity. So far it’s worked out well.”
Hatch — who’s preparing for one of the biggest travel seasons Muskegon has ever seen, with the July Tall Ships Challenge and the visit to the Muskegon Air Fair by the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels — sees tourism as an increasingly important sector of the Muskegon County economy as the region transitions from industrial to service-based.
“I don’t view tourism as tourism. I view it as building your community,” she said. “You build tourism, your build your community, you build the economics of your community.”