MUSKEGON — A dozen years ago, after the demolition of the former Muskegon Mall, an eight-block area in the heart of downtown sat vacant, filled with sand, shells of vacant buildings and few people.
But community leaders behind the Imagine Muskegon campaign, led by the Downtown Muskegon Development Corp. (DMDC), had a plan and a vision for the site, starting with the rebuilding of Western Avenue in 2006. Then the recession hit.
As the economy slowly recovered, investors, developers and entrepreneurs hedged their bets on Muskegon’s untapped potential, helping to transform the desolate downtown into an area that today has promise, spirit and grit.
“We always believed in (downtown) and thought we would bring this dream business down there,” said Kelly Seyferth, owner of Rootdown Yoga LLC, a juice bar and yoga studio at 333 W. Western Ave. “We put everything into it, all of our savings, in hopes it would work.”
Kelly’s husband Nik was originally from the area and the couple moved to Muskegon from health-conscious Denver. They never wavered on locating the business downtown, but it took a while to change people’s perception about the area.
Approaching three years in business, Rootdown gained a following as Seyferth offered free yoga classes at the Muskegon Farmers Market and held donation-only classes, including on Sunday nights on the museum ship LST 393 in the summer.
“With every addition downtown, we see more traffic and exposure,” she said. “Definitely there’s great momentum, and the community of business owners are great. Everyone is passionate and excited about being there.”
Some of that traffic stems from the success of the nearby temporary storefronts the city installed on vacant lots last spring along Western Avenue. It leased the 12 chalets to local entrepreneurs for pop-up shops, some of which have plans to move into traditional storefronts after a successful first season.
The chalets have been such a success that the city plans to add five more this year. The season runs May through October, but many also opened during the holiday shopping season.
“It’s really kind of helped people realize the retail potential in downtown Muskegon,” said Mike Franzak, city planning director for Muskegon. “We almost view it as an incubator type of deal. They are on lots for sale, but we can pick them up and move them down the street if necessary.”
A REASON TO VISIT
The downtown has also turned a page on the city’s nightlife, with the addition of breweries, a distillery, restaurants and bars that give people another reason to visit the core business district.
Unruly Brewing Co., which opened in November 2013, wanted to be firmly anchored in the downtown, in a facility that had historical significance, and signed on as an early tenant in the Russell Block building. Since then, Unruly has become a hub for casual drinking and business meetings, as well as for live entertainment by regional musicians.
“Since we started, the development has increased substantially. There was hardly any traffic when we got there,” said Jeff Jacobson, one of Unruly’s owners and the taproom manager. “It’s become more of an entertainment district.”
The opening of 18th Amendment Spirits Co. and several nearby event and wedding venues have added to the traffic, and the building of Lake View Lofts across the street — a six-story mixed-use building with commercial and retail space and 20 two-bedroom, pet-friendly apartments — will enhance the entire area, he said.
With Lake View Lofts being built on one of the former Muskegon Mall lots, only four parcels remain available for new uses where the shopping center once stood.
“It’s turned the corner, I know it’s turned the corner,” said Chris Kelly, a board member of DMDC and co-manager of Muskegon-based Parmenter Law. “There’s not much land left, and I think it will easily fill up at this point, and you’ll see the downtown completed in the next few years.”
To Jacobson, the more people working and living downtown, the better for all businesses in the area.
“Now it’s amazing to see people walking up and down the street, particularly on the weekends,” he said. “That shows that people are coming to downtown as a destination to hang out and have those types of events.”
TRANSFORMATION IN PROGRESS
A couple of blocks away, Pigeon Hill Brewery Co.’s taproom at 500 W. Western Ave. and the neighboring Topshelf Pizza & Pub extended dining and entertainment options beyond two longtime Western Avenue watering holes, Racquets Downtown Grill and Mike’s Inn.
As activity around it swells, Pigeon Hill is planning a growth spurt of its own. The brewery recently purchased city-owned property at the corner of Shoreline Drive and Fourth Street for a new production facility.
It’s part of a $2.5 million phased expansion plan that includes a 15,000-square-foot building on the site to house production, offices and retail, with additional space available to accommodate growth in the next decade. By 2021, Pigeon Hill hopes to relocate its taproom, currently in leased space, and expand it to two levels at the site of its current production facility at 441 W. Western Ave.
If all goes as planned, Pigeon Hill would be in the heart of another major redevelopment, a proposed $15 million convention center with the potential to totally transform Fourth Street between Shoreline Drive and Western Avenue.
The Muskegon City Commission has hired architectural design firm Progressive AE of Grand Rapids to help determine the size, location, amenities and costs of the convention center. Construction could begin by 2019, with an anticipated opening in 2021.
“It’s going to be paid for with the hotel tax, and that’s going to involve an upgrade to the Holiday Inn,” Franzak said. “The initial plans are to have it connect to the Holiday Inn and L.C. Walker Arena and the closing off of Fourth Street.”
Besides creative financing made possible through the city, the Community Foundation for Muskegon County and other tax incentives, the city’s streamlined form-based code that standardizes future development in the downtown core is helping to spur new construction, Franzak said.
“It’s been a real good tool for us to use,” he said. “The developers like it as well because it expedites their reviews. They have a clear understanding of what is expected of them. If they can meet a plan of all the criteria, they don’t have to go to a Planning Commission meeting.”
BEYOND THE CORE
Areas beyond the downtown business district, including a commercial stretch on Third Street known as Midtown, have benefited from the increased activity in the city and the buzz from the “Watch Us Go” campaign. The Midtown corridor has long seen businesses come and go, but the current lineup is a diverse mix of independent restaurants and retail.
Restaurants like Hamburger Mikey, Curry Kitchen and Naan Pizza help bring in foot traffic to places like Valy Vietnamese Oriental Market, Shop SZN and The Griffin’s Rest, said Paul Pretzer, owner of Third Coast Vinyl LLC, who counts his business among the beneficiaries of the added exposure.
The city also updated the streetlights and put up holiday decorations this year.
“We’ve been doing great. We’re about 15 months in and we’re very pleased,” Pretzer said.
“I’m assuming a lot of the added traffic down here is from things going on downtown. There’s just a lot more activity down here in general, so I’m really excited to see what the next couple of years has in store.”
While the focus has turned to eager entrepreneurs in recent years, the city’s revitalization is more than a story of new companies investing. For example, longtime businesses with as much grit, spirit and family tradition, Witt Buick and Ginman Tire Co. Inc., anchor both ends of Western Avenue.
Hot Rod Harley built a new building before the recession, and U.S. 31 BBQ, a simple sandwich shop with a secret relish, has carried on for more than 70 years, surviving through decades of change and the shifting of traffic off Muskegon Avenue to Shoreline Drive.
Witt Buick, 67 W. Western Ave., has sold cars in the city for a century, and Jan Witt fought to keep the dealership open after federal lawmakers mandated General Motors close stores in 2009.
Ginman Tire, a third-generation family-owned business, operates on the other end of town at 665 W. Clay Ave. Ginman’s focus is on customer service, whether it’s new tires or repairing flats, and sells specialty tires for ORVs, tractors, trailers and retreading for commercial vehicles.
“So much of what we do is word of mouth,” said Julie Hunter, who returned to Muskegon to work with her father, Bill Ginman, and now manages the business.
Hunter’s grandfather, Herb Ginman, started with five gas stations in the area, including Ginman Tire Oil Co. near Muskegon Yacht Club in 1934, and another at Fourth Street and Western Avenue from 1944-1965. Hunter said it’s been exciting to the see the recent changes in downtown.
“If they are living and working where we’re at, it makes it convenient for people,” she said. “I think it’s great. The development bodes well for our community.”
Across Shoreline Drive to the west near Watermark 920 and Watermark Lofts — a pre-recession residential and commercial development — Brett and Jera Gilbert opened their popular Fatty Lumpkins LLC deli and sandwich shop in June 2011.
It’s a bit off the beaten path at 971 Washington Ave., but the owners have no plans of moving. In fact, they’ve expanded seating into a neighboring building that can host bridal parties, baby showers and other meetings.
“It’s going to triple our seating,” Gilbert said. “We needed to accommodate bigger groups.”
Long before Muskegon Innovation Hub and other resources were available to help entrepreneurs, the Gilberts used credit cards to get the business off the ground. It’s steadily grown through word of mouth and visibility thanks to its catering business and presence at festivals and food truck rallies.
The Gilberts were able to buy the properties for an affordable price, and, with lakefront redevelopment on the horizon, the business is situated between downtown and Lakeside and a few blocks from Hartshorn Marina and Heritage Landing.
The couple lived in Florida for a while, but returned to follow a dream of owning their own business. They’re also in the process of remodeling the historic Grand Trunk Railroad Depot into three suites at Eighth and Western, offering unique lodging in the heart of the action downtown.
Brett Gilbert serves on the organizing committee for Taste of Muskegon and in a paid role as site manager for Rebel Road, a popular motorcycle festival in July. He noticed a definite uptick in attendance at various events in the city last summer.
“Moving away, I realized there are so many things to do here for free,” Gilbert said. “You can’t recreate this setting we have down here. Sure, we’ve lost some space and buildings, but people love it.”
SETTING THE STAGE
Taking a play on the city’s Watch Us Go campaign, Muskegon is a city on the move. The former Muskegon Mall site still has a few properties for sale, but includes new mixed-use development, renovated historic buildings with dining and retail, and a block of city-owned pop-up shops.
It’s an area anchored by surrounding cultural institutions including the Frauenthal Center, Muskegon Museum of Art and West Michigan Symphony, as well as Muskegon Farmers Market near the intersection of Terrace and Western.
“The story, to me, is all of this current recent activity has been in the works for a long time,” said Kelly of Parmenter Law and DMDC.
“I am very happy with the new acceleration with the development in downtown Muskegon,” he said. “A lot of people did a lot of things to make all of this come into play so it all works.”
To hear Kelly tell it, Muskegon’s long-awaited renaissance actually started decades ago as factories and industry closed on Muskegon Lake. As those sites were cleaned up, redevelopments ranging from the Heritage Landing waterfront park and Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute and Muskegon Innovation Hub buildings to Shoreline Inn & Conference Center and Terrace Point Marina created a more inviting waterfront. The divided four-lane Shoreline Drive, built in 2000, moved traffic away from the residential areas of downtown.
“All the traffic went down Muskegon and Webster,” Kelly said. “It was not conducive to residential living.”
The mall closed in 2001, and several early investors formed the DMDC to buy the mall property. Those key stakeholders include the Community Foundation, Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce, the Paul C. Johnson Foundation and the city of Muskegon.
“The DMDC came up with a plan, they put so many things together,” Kelly said. “They were able to rebuild Western Avenue. All of those things had to happen first.”
MORE LIVING OPTIONS
Fast-forward to 2018, when there are so many projects underway it’s hard to keep track. Now the focus has shifted to residential development in the city’s urban core, spurring more than $50 million in construction activity in hopes of drawing people downtown to live and support more businesses and retail.
Notable housing projects include Lake View Lofts and Parkland Properties LLC’s Highpoint Flats, featuring 47 market-rate apartments now being leased, plus three floors of commercial space. The mixed-use Berkshire Muskegon development expects to offer 84 units to people ages 55 and older, plus commercial space.
Meanwhile, Parkland continues to develop the Terrace Point Landing neighborhood with 70 waterfront homes on Muskegon Lake. Developer Gary Post also secured a $300,000 construction loan from the city to start building Heritage Square Commons, a continuation of the Clay Avenue Heritage Square Townhomes he started more than a decade ago.
At the same time, higher education has also helped bring more foot traffic and economic activity to the downtown.
Both Baker College and Muskegon Community College have been key players in the downtown’s revitalization. Baker, an early buyer of a former mall lot, opened the Culinary Institute of Michigan (CIM), and later the student-run Courses Restaurant, in September 2009.
With the passage of a millage and a major fundraising campaign, MCC embarked on renovating the old Muskegon Chronicle and Masonic Temple buildings, across the street from CIM and Hackley Park. Students started attending the $14.8 million Sturrus Technology Center last fall, and at full capacity, MCC expects 2,000 students and staff will have a presence in the city’s downtown.
“We wanted to see students parking downtown, going to businesses and populating the streets, and we are seeing that,” MCC President Dale Nesbary said.
The center features 75,000 square feet of classrooms for 20 of MCC’s programs, plus high-tech labs and equipment for applied technology programs in CAD, electronics, automation, engineering, machining, metal casting, materials and welding. The center also houses MCC’s experiential learning program, the Rooks Sarnicola Entrepreneur Institute and the Lakeshore Fab Lab, a space for entrepreneurs and established companies to create and test their ideas.
The entire project involved buy-in from the community, MCC’s board and more than 200 business partners, many of whom donated to the center, Nesbary said.
He had to ignore naysayers during the fundraising process, noting that the center’s opening shows that great things can occur when the community comes together.
“I don’t think we should be stuck in a place where we’re believing we’re not a great community,” Nesbary said. “We’re way past the hump. We moved here because we could see the potential. We have businesses moving here, businesses locating their world headquarters here. This is a great location to be.”