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Thursday, 16 July 2015 10:51

Projects begin to revitalize West Michigan’s small town downtowns

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Cellar Brewing Co. is renovating the former Momber’s HomeTown Pharmacy space (the two buildings immediately left of center) to house an expanded pub and brewery in the heart of the village of Sparta. The project is one of several investments that are planned or were recently completed in Sparta’s main business district along Division Street. Cellar Brewing Co. is renovating the former Momber’s HomeTown Pharmacy space (the two buildings immediately left of center) to house an expanded pub and brewery in the heart of the village of Sparta. The project is one of several investments that are planned or were recently completed in Sparta’s main business district along Division Street. PHOTO: JOE BOOMGAARD

SPARTA — Chuck Brown hopes that by moving his company a few blocks from its current location to the heart of downtown Sparta, he can tap into a movement that’s brewing in small towns across West Michigan.

Brown, who acquired Cellar Brewing Co. from its founder in 2013, has started the process of renovating a recently vacated building at 133 East Division St. to be the new home to the craft brewery, distillery and winery.

“I think the real growth in brewpubs and microbreweries is in small towns,” Brown said. “It’s kind of like you stake a claim to a piece of dirt and that’s where you go.”

Cellar Brewing is currently located at 500 East Division St. on the edge of the village, a half-mile from its planned new location.

The company’s relocation is one of a handful of expansions, facade improvements and new retail and restaurant businesses opening in Sparta’s downtown business district.

For Elizabeth Morse, the director of the village’s Downtown Development Authority for the last eight years, the developments can’t come soon enough for the community of roughly 4,200 people located about 15 miles northwest of Grand Rapids.

Small town downtowns may have struggled in the recession, but they’re starting to claw their way back, said Morse, who also serves as the director of the Sparta Chamber of Commerce.

“Economic development at (the local) level is not a one-stop shop,” she said. “It’s ongoing and you just have to keep trying. We have been pushing the ball uphill, and it’s now starting to move on its own. We have a long way to go, but finally the ball is moving forward.”


BEVERAGE ATTRACTION

In small towns ranging from Newaygo and Bridgman to Cedar Springs and Hudsonville, craft breweries are one of the drivers for that shift in momentum.

For Cellar Brewing, the move from the edge of town to the village center aims to position the business for growth, Brown said. When completed, the new pub location — which for decades housed Momber’s HomeTown Pharmacy that moved into a new building nearby — will include a full kitchen, something not available at the brewery’s smaller, existing site. Brown said the menu will focus on “Irish and American comfort food.”

The company, which held an informational meeting for potential investors in mid-June, also hopes to create a more welcoming atmosphere in the new pub and improve natural lighting, he said.

“We have found that this area is very responsive to our beer,” Brown said. “We have done well in our current location — not as well as I would like, but we’ve done well.”

The ability of craft breweries, wineries and distilleries to serve as catalysts for small town redevelopment has caught the attention of state-level economic developers in recent years, said Joe Borgstrom, the director of the Downtown and Community Services Division at the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA).

Specifically, he pointed to the various “wine trails” that are predominantly in Northern and Southwestern Michigan, but he said there are multiple opportunities to do more with beer and craft spirits in community development across the state.


VILLAGE REINVESTMENT

In Sparta, Cellar Brewing’s expansion into the downtown area is just one example of the slow rebuilding of the village’s core business district.

Greg Peak and Debbie Crawford are remodeling and rehabilitating the building at 203 East Division St., which in the 1960s was home to independent label Fenton Records. The new owners aim to turn the building into a community center for a variety of cultural uses, including art and wellness classes and small retail opportunities, Morse said.

In recent months, popular Mexican restaurant Downtown Trini’s Cafe Inc. at 148 East Division St. demolished two neighboring buildings that were beyond repair to make way for an expansion, according to reports. Just south of downtown, developers added a new standalone Subway restaurant and a multi-tenant facility anchored by a Biggby Coffee franchise.

Retailers are also reinvesting in their space in downtown Sparta. Sparta Variety at the southwest corner of Division and Union Streets completed a major facade improvement in the last year. Meanwhile, Rogers Hardware Inc., located at 155 East Division St., invested in a renovation and expansion project that included tearing down a vacant building next door and various facade and streetscape improvements.

To accomplish many of the recent expansions, Morse points to collaborations between the various stakeholders of the two organizations she heads, the DDA and the Chamber of Commerce, as leading to public-private partnerships to assist in development.

“I know it’s sensitive in some communities but our village and township have completely embraced that model and done everything to make it successful,” she said. “Without the energy coming from the private sector, things may look vastly different.”


ENCOURAGING GROWTH

While Sparta does not participate in MSHDA’s Michigan Main Street Program, a community and economic development program aimed at revitalizing small town central business districts, the efforts in the village align with the agency’s mission.

The Michigan Main Street Program’s four-point plan focuses on design, economic restructuring, promotion and organization, said Borgstrom, who oversees the program. The Main Street Program’s has four levels of community participants: master, select, associate and graduate.

“We are really seeing lots of interest in smaller downtowns and they are kicking butt,” Borgstrom said. “They are often doing it themselves and being proactive at the local level. They are the ones who are driving (growth).”

To successfully revitalize communities, one key is to make sure that the focus is put on securing a number of businesses, not just one anchor company, Borgstrom said. He added that it is also important to do a thorough analysis of what the community has to offer.

“Often, (communities) aren’t sure what the market can bear,” he said. “They need to work with their existing retailers to expand first and then recruit from outside.”

As communities such as Sparta seek to grow, they are benefiting from the improving health of nearby larger communities, sources said.

Located in northwest Kent County, Sparta has been buoyed by continued growth along the U.S. 131 and Alpine Avenue corridors in recent years, which has led to increased connections between Grand Rapids and communities to the north.

“Access to Grand Rapids is spurring growth here,” Cellar Brewing’s Brown said. “Obviously, we are becoming more of a destination for more and more people, so sticking close to those major routes is going to help us grow.”

Read 3612 times Last modified on Tuesday, 21 July 2015 09:54

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