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The Jimmy Buffett Economy

• August 22, 2013 • 8:00 AM

Cheeseburger in Caseville, 2013. (PHOTO: VALERIE ZELIN)

A tiny town in Michigan stumbled upon a weird way to boost its economy: a festival dedicated to a song about cheeseburgers.

Stop for a moment and absorb the scene: Traffic is bumper-to-bumper along a three-lane road; the sidewalks are consumed by hibiscus, Hawaiian button-up shirts and plastic parrot hats; the scent of cooked burgers and summertime fills the air; Robert Palmer’s “Bad Case of Loving You” is playing nearby to fill the downtime before the next jam band takes the stage.

With dozens of people meandering around town carrying beer masked by goofy koozies, it may feel like you’ve stumbled upon a random district with no open-container law, a place where the party never stops. That’s not the case. (And the surreptitious drinking isn’t legal, either.)

You are in Caseville, a small town of 800 that sits on the edge of Lake Huron in the thumb of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.

The community, one that’s quiet for the better part of the year, is in full swing for the 15th annual “Cheeseburger in Caseville” festival, a 10-day (!) celebration that honors songwriter Jimmy Buffett and his 1978 classic song “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” (An estimated 300,000 patties are grilled during the event, and there are seven Buffett tribute bands present.)

If the idea seems silly, that’s because it is: On paper, an event inspired by a song supposedly about a vision the songwriter—whose Margaritaville Enterprises LLC brings in an estimated $100 million a year—had of a “piping hot cheeseburger” that manages to draw an estimated 200,000 people each year to Caseville, a town that was actually incorporated as a city only three years ago, is an entirely silly premise.

But considering we live in a nation that comes out in droves for gigantic milk carton water races or for annual ventriloquist conventions, maybe the idea of island-life lovers grooving to party tunes in the name of Buffett isn’t all that ridiculous.

THE IDEA BEHIND “CHEEESEBURGER” as it’s affectionately known to locals, according to Steve Louwers, Caseville Chamber of Commerce president and current festival organizer, came from resident Lynn Bezemeck as an innovative effort to “bring people up to our community.”

“We basically threw a challenge out there for somebody to come up with an idea on how to attract more people to Caseville,” Louwers said.

Bezemeck’s idea? An all-out Jimmy Buffett theme.

Considering we live in a nation that comes out in droves for gigantic milk carton water races or for annual ventriloquist conventions, maybe the idea of island-life lovers grooving to party tunes in the name of Buffett isn’t all that ridiculous.

Resources in resort towns across the state were drying up, Louwers said, and Caseville had its problems, too. Before the 2008 recession hit, the city held typical unemployment rates. As the economy started to slide, Caseville’s unemployment figure jumped: Census numbers from 2010 estimated the jobless rate at almost 19 percent. (Recent estimates suggest it’s fallen back into single-digit territory.) The median income here is $31,000, slightly more than half the national average of $52,000.

Out of state, Louwers said he frequently runs into people who are familiar with the community—but it’s safe to say there are only two demographics aware of Caseville: Michigan residents and Parrotheads. So, in that sense, Cheeseburger works. It pumps life—and money—into a place that, for the majority of the year, quietly exists.

The effect has been enormous.

Louwers said the first Cheeseburger gathering drew about 400 people, a number the resort town’s campgrounds and motels could reasonably accommodate. Now that attendance has exploded by 500 percent, lodging proves to be quite the challenge for a community that’s a dead end where all roadways nearby meet. He assumes the costs that go into planning the event accounts for more than $1 million injected into the local economy.

Even with the above-average unemployment rate, one can assume—and plenty residents and business owners do—that the festival allows the city to be viable. The Huron Daily Tribune reported that the city ran a $100,000 deficit in its general fund last year, but that measures were in place to fill the gap. But having a guaranteed influx of visitors every year has kept Caseville in shape, with seemingly no storefront vacancies near where the festival takes place.

The local county campground that houses the fest’s amphitheatre is booked solid by January. Some attendees claim a hotel room outside of town, as far as 40 miles away, and make a daily trek to the festivities. By mid-week, Louwers said the majority of homes have an out-of-town RV parked on their lawns. Waiters and waitresses in restaurants in nearby towns, like the Stock Pot in Port Austin, proudly wear Cheeseburger-themed T-shirts and serve cheeseburger specials throughout the week.

Louwers, who runs a local hardware store during the rest of the year, said the process begins in the fall, once the small town transitions from summer resort paradise back to a small, quiet town.

“We’re volunteers, man … I do this on my slow time,” Louwers said.

Storefronts get snatched up almost immediately, according to Terri Born, owner of Keepsakes, a gift shop in the heart of downtown Caseville. The way she put it, no one wants to miss out on the chance to sling food or homemade goods when the Parrotheads paradise hits Main St. every August. “This is it,” she said. “Some stores have a big Christmas [sale]; here, it’s Cheeseburger Festival.”

COULD OTHER TOWNS SIMILAR to Caseville succeed with Cheeseburger-like themed affairs? What if it’s a weekend of only Grateful Dead tribute bands? That could draw out-of-state attendees, couldn’t it?

Maybe that sounds hypothetically ridiculous and an entire weekend of the Dead would be excessive, but then maybe the absurd is a way to stimulate smaller economies. For a smaller town that’s able to draw attention to itself through the likes of Jimmy Buffett—and perhaps market itself to new business, or earn deals that bring in 50 to 100 new jobs like it did in 2009—the case of Cheeseburger seems one worth considering. But whether or not it’s a plan that can be replicated in other small towns still remains to be seen.

The closest example might be The Insane Clown Posse’s annual “Gathering of the Juggalos” festival, which draws 10,000 fans to Cave-In-Rock, Illinois, a town of only 350. Contrary to Caseville, reports have said the event is a financial drain on the surrounding county, because of having to beef up police and EMS support when fans arrive. So maybe it’s the laid-back nature of Cheeseburger that hits some kind of sweet spot.

Whatever Caseville’s formula is, it’s working.

“If we didn’t have Cheeseburger, [Caseville] wouldn’t have as many shops open,” Born, the storeowner, said. “Everybody wants in on the Cheeseburger thing.”

Ryan Felton
Ryan Felton is a staff reporter for The Oakland Press in Pontiac, Michigan. He occasionally contributes to Jalopnik Detroit, a sub-site of the automotive blog. Follow him on Twitter @ryanfelton13.

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