February 21, 2020

You get what you give

Local business owners encourage community engagement


WEST BRANCH — Longtime business owners and stewards of the community, Joe and Clara Clark of Morse Clark Furniture Co., have been delighted to see the revival of downtown West Branch and the greater West Branch community, and they are encouraging other local business owners and community members to get involved any way they can. 

The Clarks, who are the third generation of a four-generation business, said they began hearing predictions of the death of downtown areas and small businesses in the 1980s, and over 30 years later, the community they have been a part of for most of their lives is proving those predictions wrong. This is a trend they hope to see continue through increased community engagement and volunteerism. 

“It’s so important right now to have volunteers, because there is such a push for revitalizing downtown areas,” Clara said. “I don’t believe you can run a small business without being involved in your community. When the community is good to you, you want to pay the community back by volunteering and being involved.” 

West Branch has seen community trends and events come and go over the years, such as the Victorian theme and Fabulous Fridays, but the Clarks say the end of one era marks the beginning of another, and they’ve been happy to be part of a community that is continuously building upon old ideas with fresh perspectives.

“We had 12 years of Fabulous Fridays in the summer, and we’ve kind of changed that to work on bigger events,” Clara said. “And when we have new people to come and join us, we can combine the old ideas with new ones.”  

Joe said the continued growth and development of community events has created a culture in which such things almost seem to be business as usual, and they have to take a step back at times to truly appreciate just how special the community is.

“The community is always involved in something,” Joe said. “At times, we’re thinking, ‘Gee, we didn’t have anything going for the last three weeks,’ and then we talk to people from out of town who say, ‘this town is just so busy with all these things going on,’ and we step back and think, ‘Oh, I guess we were, weren’t we?”

Joe and Clara were recently given the honor of serving as grand marshals in this year’s West Branch Christmas Light Parade, and they said they have enjoyed seeing the increase in community engagement with the parade and other events throughout the year, most recently the Santa Train and Christmas Fantasy, which they hope continue to instill hometown pride in generations to come. They are also encouraged by seeing so many younger people rejoin the community after leaving.

“Because we are a small-town community, hopefully those children are going to have memories and say ‘this is what a small town is like,” Clara said. “There has to be some kind of deep love for the community, and I would like to think that doing these things instills it in our children.” 

As small business owners, Joe and Clara understand the importance of keeping local dollars local.

“We need to have people becoming more involved in the community and shopping locally, because the local businesses are the ones supporting the schools and paying the taxes which support the community,” Joe said.

Likewise, they appreciate the importance of small business owners giving back to their communities. 

“If we don’t give the support and we don’t volunteer and we don’t do something that makes the town endearing to the community, they’re going to go somewhere else to shop, and our towns are going to dry up,” Clara said. “We need to fight against that, and we need to keep our downtowns, because once they’re gone, they’re gone.” 

Clara said that while it is vital for people to find ways to become involved in their community, it is equally important for the community to actively seek help from its members, who prove to have a collective wealth of knowledge and ideas that can remain untapped if no one thinks to ask.

“The more people you have involved, the more ideas you have and the more hands you have to do the work,” Clara said. 

The Clarks said they have found many ways to become more involved with their community, including with their church, First United Methodist, and with the West Branch Area Retail Merchants Association, which they said meets at 6 p.m. on the first Tuesday of each month at the West Branch City Police Department and encourages participation from all members of the community, regardless of whether they are business owners. Clara said there are many other groups and organizations in the community, including the West Branch Historical Society and Ogemaw County Humane Society, which all play a role in supporting the community as a whole and can use all the support they can get in return to continue to make that happen.

“It all kind of meshes together for the community’s sake,” Clara said. 

While there is no shortage of needs within the West Branch community, Joe and Clara cannot help but be encouraged by the continued support it receives from its residents. 

“We have a lot of great people in this community and a lot of doers,” Clara said. “I think that’s what’s going to make our town progress and stay vitalized.” 


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