Photo and story by Jeb Blossom
“The Cape Cod of the Midwest,” an understating moniker given to the place I call home: Door County, Wisconsin. To those who visit it is a paradise, but to many who live there it is an ever-increasing hell with infernos fueled by the same industry that drives the local economy: tourism. Even typing that word gives me chills. From June to September, you can find grid lock traffic on any weekend in towns with populations that rarely exceed one thousand. But daily annoyances only substantiate the beginning of Door County’s tourism troubles.
First, a primer on geography. Often referred to as “Wisconsin’s Thumb” on the hand map of the state, the county special because of its uniqueness and rarity as a peninsula. There is water on all three sides and an abundance of islands, chiefly Washington Island in the North. Every town in the county is on the water, a remnant of the nautical lineage that catalyzed the county’s development. There is some variation of “harbor” or “bay” in every village’s name. The largest settlement in the county is Sturgeon Bay, with a population of around ten thousand. The passage between the northernmost tip of Door County proper and Washington Island was nicknamed “Death’s Door” by early sailors due to its unpredictable weather and rough water that sank many ships, leading to the construction of the Sturgeon Bay ship canal. Both allowed for a safer and faster route to Green Bay by water, but it also effectively cut the county in half. As a result, the only linkages between the northern and southern halves (Northern Door and Southern Door) are three bridges.
Tourism’s daily annoyances are numerous. When driving, they are prone to have their eyes on the scenery more often than the road, resulting in slower than average speeds. This has a compounding effect in many of Door County’s towns, as most infrastructure and city planning were completed before the locale would reach tourism rates anywhere near modern figures. Villages designed to accommodate hundreds face the onslaught of thousands during peak season. Trying to drive through Sister Bay, one of the county’s most popular destinations, is the one part of my summer day that causes me inexplicable anger. Between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m., you will find Bayshore Drive suffocated with bumper-to-bumper traffic, every day. All because of the limitless rubbernecking offered by pristine vistas, and most people having no clue where the road is taking them. This, in my opinion, will remain a feature of the county for as long as it remains a tourist destination. From the majority of town board decisions across Door County, it is clear that the local willingness to adapt to this problem is not there, and like many issues in local politics will be swept under the rug and ignored, despite every local’s eagerness to complain. The current infrastructure and attitude regarding Door County’s lifeblood is one of many bottlenecks in advancement the area has self-destructively set for itself. Due to arduous and strict zoning regulations, many forms of business that are typically key features in towns do not exist or are stifled in their development. Northern Door has often unofficially held a no-franchise policy, meaning the only name brands you will recognize are A) gas stations, and B) the Piggly Wiggly in Sister Bay, all of which have been long standing establishments in the community. All of which have higher prices than their counterparts in Southern Door due to transportation and convenience costs. There was once a Pamida and a Shopko in Sister Bay, but unfortunately bankruptcy of both companies robbed the town of their presence. Now, the nearest department store is thirty-five minutes South in Sturgeon Bay, where zoning has been much kinder to economic interests of the community.
Door County also faces a problem typically reserved for major tourist hotspots and urban areas, spurred on by the peninsula’s natural beauty. Societies’ upper crust has found a new retreat and in their wake have left rarely inhabited million-dollar vacation homes. While they may look stunning from the water and have unprecedented square footage, Door County has enough nice things to look at already. Additionally, they pose a laundry list of problems for the local economy, but I will start with what really matters to me the most. These monied interests build their second or third house on what is already one of the most expensive properties in the county, and then proceed to never stay there aside from two weeks out of the summer. Meaning, they contribute little to nothing to the local economy while simultaneously increasing property values, which in turn increases everyone’s property tax. Those who bear the burden of this are low-income locals as the cost of living continues to increase. Long term, this means that economic growth is made harder due to the difficulty in attracting new workers, considering most work is already seasonal and a higher-than-average cost of living when compared to other areas in Wisconsin. It gets worse, though. Entrepreneurs see an opportunity to cater to a wealthier clientele, and new businesses are opened to serve this market, consequently ignoring the real needs of Door County’s communities. Furthermore, this exacerbates already higher than average prices due to the peninsula’s isolated geography and transport costs. In turn, more people with vacation house money see this market that is designed for them and think the community would be a wonderful place for their fourth lake house. The vicious cycle of gentrification strikes again: in a place I had never expected.
My family permanently moved to Door County in the early 1900s, arriving by steamship from Illinois. The destination they sought was one much rougher than the tame paradise it is known as now. The rudimentary cottage my great-great-grandfather built still stands on its lot by the water but is now neighbored by towering condominiums rather than picturesque cabins. One of Door County’s unique traits is its fleeting underdevelopment, but this very idea is conflicted with the county’s ever-increasing influx of tourists’ funds, with 2022 calculations showing five-hundred million dollars, accounting for over a third of the county’s GDP. Local sentiment is in limbo, unsure or unaware of how to either toe the line or choose a side regarding development. Locations such as Jackson Hole, Wyoming serve as a brutal reminder of the dangers of overdevelopment, as the skiing destination faces workforce challenges considering skyrocketing real estate prices driving away all but those with the means. If Door County as a whole remains inactive at taking measures to either work with development or shun it, those in charge will fail to make provisions addressing the consequences of both, allowing administrative incompetence to further damage the lives of Door County Residents.