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New Pregis Films to generate $17.1 million in investment, 50 new jobs

Local and state partners in the city of Grand Rapids, alongside regional economic development organization, The Right Place, Inc., announced a $17.1 million investment in the acquisition and expansion of a local manufacturing facility by Deerfield, Ill.-based Pregis, LLC.

Made possible by the approval of a Michigan Strategic Fund incentive, Eagle Film Extruders will now take on a new name — Pregis Films — after its acquisition by Pregis, LLC, complete with an expansion of its Roosevelt Park facility located at 1100 Hynes Ave. that will allow for the opening of a new production line to increase capacity and meet customer demand. 

“One of the things that The Right Place has really worked hard to do over the past decade or so, is work to retain — and Eagle Film is a classic example of this — retain and expand those industrial businesses we have within city limits,” says Tim Mroz, vice president of marketing at TRP. “We have a strong belief that in order to have a vibrant city, you have to have businesses of all shapes and sizes, including industrial facilities.”

With a three-year investment total of $17.1 million, the acquisition and expansion is also expected to generate 50 new jobs at the Grand Rapids facility, where it will continue production of high-quality polyethylene blown film used for a variety of packaging applications 

Pregis CEO Kevin Bauduin says the company is currently experiencing an increased demand from industrial and e-commerce, among other market segments, for higher quality materials, so investing in the facility will help meet market segment expectations for packing performance and provide vertical integration for some of Pregis’s other products. 

The 160,000-square-foot facility currently houses four state-of-the-art multilayer blown film extrusion lines, converting equipment, and warehouse space, though Pregis plans to install a new  five-layer blown film line that is expected to be operational mid-summer following the facility’s expansion. 

Eric Icard is the senior business development manager at TRP and project lead on the expansion. He says when hearing from businesses interested in building or expanding manufacturing and distribution facilities in West Michigan, the appeal is in no small part due to the quality of the region’s workforce alongside an often overlooked geographic advantage with its proximity to both major U.S. cities and Canada.

“I don’t believe we give that much consideration, but that’s very nice for anybody looking at distribution,” Icard says.

“Plus, there’s just providing opportunities for the people we serve in West Michigan,” he says. “As an entity, at The Right Place, our focus is the standard of living and how we can improve the standard of living. When people are elevated through opportunities for higher wages, they have a better chance at increasing that standard of living, which in turn creates a better quality of life.”

For more information, visit The Right Place, Inc. online at www.therightplace.org. 

Written by Anya Zentmeyer, Development News Editor
Images courtesy of The Right Place, Inc./Pregis, LLC 

Want a downtown grocery store? GR Food Co-op aims to make that a reality

There is still much to be done before members of the Grand Rapids Food Co-Op Initiative are able to establish a physical grocery store in downtown Grand Rapids, but with the launch of its first big membership drive planned for June, organizers of the registered nonprofit group are optimistic about their plan’s viability in the coming years. 

“(Feasibility study results) were encouraging, and it does look like a co-op in Grand Rapids would be financially viable,” says Linda Jones, the Grand Rapids resident who spearheaded the initiative alongside the Creston Neighborhood Association’s Deborah Eid. 

Jones and Eid first began conversations about bringing a co-op grocery into the downtown core about one year ago, shortly after she moved back to Grand Rapids so her husband, Jim Jones, could pursue more work in the area’s co-operative housing.

“I said I wanted to start a food co-op in Grand Rapids because I was concerned about not having a decent grocery store close by,” Jones says. “Deborah Eid said, ‘I’d like to work on that too.’” 

Now around 20 members strong, Jones was able to garner more interest through Facebook, and members have leaned on advice from existing food co-ops in Kalamazoo and Traverse City, as well as experiences at national food co-op conventions, to build their organization in the sociocracy business model. Essentially, the model employs group consent in order to use analysis and compromise to resolve differing opinions in an effort to avoid a seizure of too much power by one party.

“With consent, if I can work within the given parameters I will, and if I can’t, I’ll tell you why I can’t and then we all work together to craft a better proposal,” she says. “By the end of the process, you’ve got the best you can come up with at that time…Every opinion is included, every voice is heard, and every voice matters — which is important with a co-op effort, since it is so collaborative.”

The big difference between a regular grocery store and a co-op grocery store lies in ownership — though the co-op grocery would be open for everyone to shop at, the co-operative model dictates that the store is run by member-owners, whose share amount represents their stake in the business that gives them a vote. 

Jones says the Grand Rapids Food Co-Op Initative’s recent online survey garnered about 100 responses, with about 50 percent indicating interest in a buy-in amount that was $350 or less, and a surprising 35 percent willing to pay $500 or more  for a member share, which would additionally provide discounts on items in the store once established. 

The goal is to move into a commercial building around 10,000 square feet in size and the group is considering options in any under serviced neighborhood within a few miles of Grand Rapids’ downtown core. The store would be big enough to have a wide range of traditional grocery items as well as a deli, hot bar, salad bar, and gathering place with the possibility of a demonstration kitchen for cooking  classes. 

“We want this store to be a place that brings people together to share the bounty of our vibrant local food producers,” Jones says. 

Right now, the co-op initiative will focus on getting the word out about the June membership drive — Jones says the organization needs about 1,000 committed members in order to move forward with signing leases on a physical space — and are also looking for additional funding through local foundations interested in food equality alongside USDA funds for some seed grant money. 

Until then, the group is encouraging questions and feedback via its Facebook page here and hope to demonstrate the value a co-operative grocery can have for downtown neighborhoods where access to fresh produce and grocery selection is currently lacking. 

“To have a place residents they feel they can have a say in will help empower them in many other ways, too,” she says. “Maybe there’s other changes in their neighborhood they can make after they see they can have a say in this effort.”

For more information or to stay updated on the June membership drive, visit the Grand Rapids Food Co-Op Initiative here on Facebook

Written by Anya Zentmeyer, Development News Editor
Images courtesy of Linda Jones/ GR Food Co-Op Initiative 

A more meaningful life: Coppercraft Distillery owners focus on community - and, of course, cocktails

After Walter Catton was hit by an SUV while training for an Ironman in 2009, he spent 40 days in the hospital — and when he left, he and his wife, Kim Catton, knew they wanted their lives to change. The couple, who have six children together, wanted to be able to build and own something of their own — a place where they could grow a community.

So, in 2012 they founded the Coppercraft Distillery, a Holland-based artisan spirits distiller that began producing whiskey, bourbon, rum, vodka, gin, and applejack in 2013 – the same year they opened their tasting room. Since then, Coppercraft has quickly taken off, winning awards for its handmade spirits crafted with local ingredients (the Cattons use corn from Zeeland’s Boersen Farms, for example) and landing support from throughout the community — and beyond. Restaurants in Michigan, Illinois and Colorado sell their various spirits, and that list is constantly growing.

“We wanted to live out the American dream,” Kim Catton says as she sits in the space that was carved from the former Belden Brick and Supply in Holland, where the distillery is producing tens of thousands of gallons of spirits annually. “Walter wanted to make something using his hands, and we thought, ‘Well, why not take a chance?’”

That decision to take a risk has paid off, and their drinks are landing high praise from neighbors to professionals. Recently, Coppercraft’s cask strength bourbon, which is aged in oak barrels, landed a Best of Category award from the American Distilling Institute, and its applejack and cask strength bourbon claimed gold medals from the San Francisco International Spirits Competition. Plus, the gin and rum have also won praise from the Denver International Spirits Show and the American Craft Spirits Association.

In addition to the people, residents and tourists alike, who visit the distillery for tours, tastings, live music, and more, Coppercraft was again tapped as the official spirit of Holland’s annual Tulip Time Festival. For three consecutive years, the distillery has crafted an exclusive Tulip Time signature cocktail. This time around, the distillery is offering “The Copper Blossom,” which showcases the venue’s rum that just won a bronze medal at the 2016 American Distiller’s Institute awards in San Diego.

Through May 31, establishments across Holland and Zeeland will create their own, customized Copper Blossom cocktail featuring Coppercraft’s rum as part of what the venue is calling the “Copper Trail.”

“We created the Copper Trail for this year’s Tulip Time Festival to involve and engage our community and our out-of-town guests,” Kim Catton says. “It not only demonstrates the various ways Coppercraft’s Rum can be served, but also gives our partners a chance to showcase their mixology talents.” You can check out the making of a Copper Blossom at Coppercraft in the video here:

The distillery and partnering establishments, the Holland Area Visitors Bureau, and the Tulip Time Office will provide Copper Trail cards that will allow customers to rate the cocktails — and those who visit a minimum of three participating venues can submit their cards to Coppercraft for a free stainless steel flask and a chance to win a $75 gift basket filled with a distillery gift card and other swag. For a list of the participating sites, go here.

With a strong foothold in the community, the Cattons are planning further expansion, including adding a kitchen that will allow them to offer small plates, something which they aim to do before the end of the summer, as well as potentially opening tasting rooms in Grand Rapids and Saugatuck. Plus, they’ll continue to grow their already popular programs, like distillery tours, live music events, vinyl nights and cocktail classes, all of which are held in the space that celebrates the area’s local history —some of their wood used in the space is 300-year-old wood Cypress wood from Holland’s Heinz pickle plant, and they have seats made from old South Haven High School bleachers.

The tasting room also proudly displays two stills, both of which are pre-Prohibition structures hailing from Louisville. The centerpiece of the business is the 350-gallon Vendome copper still — which, for those of us distillery layman, is reminiscent of some incredible steampunk art, but, for those in the alcohol know, it’s one of the main reasons the distillers can create spirits with complexity and character.

“We put our whole heart and soul into this, and we love sharing that with people,” Kim Catton says. “We want to share what we enjoy.”

For more information about Coppercraft Distillery, visit its website, Facebook page, Twitter feed, and Instagram account.

Trainers at A Pleasant Dog plan for new doggie daycare with future Baxter facility upgrade

It’s taken more than a year for Jenn Gavin, owner of A Pleasant Dog, to find the right space to expand. Finding a building with enough outdoor green space and room indoors for a doggie daycare and training operation hasn’t been easy, but now that she’s got one, it was well worth the wait. 

“As you can imagine, it’s pretty difficult to find that kind of space in the city,” says Gavin, who started A Pleasant Dog a little over two years ago as a one-woman operation. “Our ideal was to be on Wealthy Street, but we didn’t know if we could afford it.” 

She found something that seems like a perfect fit just off Wealthy Street at 406 Barth Ave., a site that’s located one block away from the new Wealthy Street Animal Hospital. With plans to hire an additional trainer with the opening of the new space, A Pleasant Dog has expanded its staff to four trainers, two interns, and a dedicated office administrator. 

“We were looking for a space that would allow us to do more training; we’ve outgrown our rental spaces and needed a somewhere new in order to open a very small-scale daycare, which was prompted by a need many of our clients expressed,” says Gavin, who will leave her current Heritage Hill location for the Barth Avenue site, but will continue to teach out of a number of local veterinary offices, as well as a space provided by Stepping Stones Montessori School. 

The 1,200-square-foot space on Barth Avenue was formerly home to a barbershop that doubled as a recording studio. After the owners closed the business and the building was vacant for some time, Gavin saw an opportunity for her own business to grow into the big, open floor plan and adjacent outdoor lot on Wealthy Street.

“(The owners) did a beautiful job of restoring the building,” says Gavin, who sits on the city’s Historic Preservation Commission and says she feels lucky to have found such a nicely restored mid-century building, especially one that lends itself particularly well to its new proposed use. 

Alongside landscaping work for aesthetics, Gavin plans to build ornamental fencing that looks like rod iron around the lots green space, eventually filling it with obstacle courses for agility training — just one of the many options now available for customers that range from supply classes to advanced obedience, with an additional regime of lessons designed specifically for owners with reactive dogs. 

“My heart is in helping people with reactive dogs because it’s such a difficult situation to be in,” says Gavin, who has rescued and raised her fair share of reactive dogs. “It’s actually a cause for many dogs who are re-homed, because (owners) don’t know there’s a kinder and more humane way to deal with it.”

Though Gavin still has to go before the planning commission today for final approval on plans for the location, she says she’s already received support from the Eastown Community Association, the Baxter Neighborhood Association, Wealthy Street Business Alliance, and other businesses and residents along both Wealthy Street and Barth Avenue. 

If all goes well, she plans to open A Pleasant Dog in its new home by June 1 and is currently raising funds through an Indiegogo campaign that offers those who donate a whole host of perks made possible through partnerships with other local businesses, such as leashes designed by Woosah Outfitters’ Erica Lang and free park memberships from Shaggy Pines Dog Park in Cascade, as well as other offers for class registration and even free dog training for life. 

You can find out about A Pleasant Dog’s Indiegogo campaign here, or visit A Pleasant Dog online or via Facebook to learn more. 

Written by Anya Zentmeyer, Development News Editor
Images courtesy of Logan Zillmer Photo and Electric Elm



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Traverse City gastropub, 7 Monks Taproom, to open at 616 Lofts on Michigan this fall

When 7 Monks Taproom opens its new location on the ground floor of 616 Lofts on Michigan Street next fall, the owners expect to feel right at home in the local craft brewing scene with their plans for 57 taps featuring seasonal craft beers from Grand Rapids — and around the world.

“One thing we’ve always prided ourselves on is our selection,” says 7 Monks spokesperson Jason Kasdorf. “We rely heavily on Belgian beers, but also European beers in general.”

With huge walls of windows, 25-foot ceilings, and a modern-industrial aesthetic, the new 7 Monks Grand Rapids taproom will act as the anchor retailer for 616 Lofts on Michigan, located at 740 Michigan St. SE in Midtown. 

Named for its specialty in serving Trappist style beer, the craft beer bar and gastropub opened its flagship Traverse City location in 2011 as the brainchild of co-owners Matt Cozens and Jim Smolak.

With a second location in Boyne City just a few short months away from its grand opening, Cozens and Smolak say the Grand Rapids location seems like a natural next step. 

“We are thrilled by the opportunity to join the thriving beer scene in Grand Rapids,” says Cozzens. “From day one we have been honored by the great partnerships with some of the city’s leading breweries, and we look forward to joining them in Beer City, USA.” 

For more information, visit www.7monkstap.com. 

Written by Anya Zentmeyer, Development News Editor
Images courtesy of 7 Monks Taproom 

Social Kitchen & Bar debuts at Downtown Market, restaurant to celebrate grand opening this week

As servers pass in a whirlwind of sour cream pancakes, chicken and waffles, and corned beef hash, Sherie Ritzler surveys Saturday morning’s scene at Social Kitchen & Bar, a restaurant that just debuted at the Downtown Market, and, so far, the new venue’s general manager is more than a little pleased at what she hears.

“It’s like Christmas come early,” one diner says Saturday, the first time Social is serving brunch, as he navigates a bloody mary bar lined with a seemingly endless line of cocktail accoutrements: bacon, cheese, a million (well, give or take) hot sauces, horseradish, and so on.

These are the kind of statements Ritzler, a relatively new Grand Rapids transplant who has spent decades opening and running restaurants across the country, from New York to Los Angeles, likes to hear, especially as Social gears up for its official grand opening celebration from Thursday, May 5 through Sunday, May 8.

“Like the name, Social, says, we want this to be your watering hole, your go-to place,” says Ritzler, who most recently was working in Detroit for Peas & Carrots Hospitality, the restaurant group that owns Social and a half dozen other restaurants in the Detroit area and Chicago. This is the group’s first foray into West Michigan, and the second Social Kitchen & Bar — the other Social is located in Birmingham, Michigan.

“This building and concept fits in so well with us,” Ritzler says of the Downtown Market. “There’s the focus on the local — our bread comes from Field & Fire, our pies come from Sweetie-licious, and all our spices are from the Spice Merchants.”

As for what drew the restaurant group to Grand Rapids in the first place?

“The growth going on here, to not be a part of that would be a huge mistake,” Ritzler says as she watches a tray of mimosas travel past her, the waitress maneuvering around a toddler waving a handful of toy cars and heads for a family celebrating a birthday (“Dad, you’re so old,” a teenage daughter keeps repeating).

While Social hasn’t yet celebrated its grand debut, it has been holding a soft opening for a couple of weeks, and Ritzler says news of the 175-seat venue that offers what is characterized as “refined comfort food” has traveled quickly: the restaurant is often filled to capacity (and it's garnered high praise in customers' reviews). As part of the soft opening, customers have been asked to give written feedback — something Ritzler says has been “invaluable.”

“We’ve focused a lot on cocktails at Social on the east side of the state, but we know people really like beer here,” she says, explaining that, as of now, there are six Michigan beers on tap, but that list is expected to grow after receiving feedback from customers.

On the second day of the grand opening festivities, Social will host a dinner party on Friday, May 6 from 5 to 7:30pm. Proceeds from the dinner will benefit the Grand Rapids Downtown Market Education Foundation and the Bissell Pet Foundation. Tickets for Friday’s event can be purchased here.

As for the food, Executive Chef Matt Frankum — who most recently was at The Old Goat — is whipping up brunch, lunch and dinner menus that Ritzler says aim to use fresh, local ingredients for food that customers can “trust and rely on.”

Brunch entrees range in price from $9 to $16, with such offerings as chicken and waffles ($10), sour cream pancakes ($11),  and steak and eggs ($16). Side dishes run from $3 to $8 and include biscuits and sausage gravy ($8), bacon hash browns ($7) and Field and Fire toast ($3).

For lunch, offerings vary from pizzas ($12-$16) to burgers ($11 to $15), such entrees as a falafel wrap ($12) and an egg sandwich ($11), and more. The dinner menu includes entrees from $13 to $32, including pecan trout ($24), naan grilled cheese ($13) and steak frites ($32). As part of the same dinner menu, there are salads, pizza, burgers, and more. Plus, there’s an extensive beer, cocktail and wine list.

Social Kitchen & Bar is located in the Downtown Market (435 Ionia Ave. SW). It is open seven days a week and serves lunch Monday through Friday from 11am-3pm, brunch on Saturday and Sunday from 10am-3pm, and dinner Sunday through Tuesday from 4-9pm, Wednesday and Thursday from 4-10pm, and Friday and Saturday from 4-11pm. For more information, you can go here.

Photos by Anna Gustafson

Dream green: What do Grand Rapids parks need?

No matter how far a reach, or how out-of-the-box an idea, Grand Rapids’ Parks and Recreation Director David Marquardt says over the next two days he wants the public to tell him exactly what they want to see happen with the public parks in their neighborhoods — especially the ideas that dare dream big. 

“What we’re shaping these public outreach efforts around following this weekend is the ‘make a wish’ slogan,” says Marquardt, who will gather alongside fellow city officials, community leaders, and members of the public for the first of two open houses hosted by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. “Make a wish for your park. If you could have anything in your park, what are the sort of things would you like to see?”

A good example, Marquardt says, is Grand Rapids’ Mayor Rosalyn Bliss, who during her recent State of the City address called attention to the growing importance of public parks in the future development of the city, saying she is committed to ensuring that, in the future, there is a public park within walking distance of every child in the city.  

“That’s a huge deal,” he says. “That’s a big goal, and it’s a bold goal, but it’s one I’m very excited to get behind.”

The open houses come as a precursor to the department's upcoming task of developing the new five-year Parks and Recreation Master Plan, which builds on the sweeping transformation already underway following residents' stamp of approval on implementing a seven-year dedicated parks millage to provide an estimated $30 million in funding for repair, rehabilitation, and new improvements to parks, pools and playgrounds. 

Coming back into focus

Tracey Flower is Executive Director at Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, which was founded in 2008 as an independent, citizen-led nonprofit that operates separately from city government while still working closely alongside it to identify specific park improvement initiatives, generate resources, and mobilize people to help project and enhance public spaces and parks throughout Grand Rapids neighborhoods. 

Flower says you don’t have to look much further than the millage approval for proof that parks are becoming more important to Grand Rapidians, who aren’t alone in the collective refocusing of urban communities on public parks — it’s something that’s been happening for the past decade or so nationwide.

“I think that people have largely…really started to wake up and realize how critical and how valuable setting aside those public spaces are to the health of the community. We’ve even been seeing a lot of discussion over the past few years in terms of research about how important it is for children to have an opportunity to engage with nature and learn in nature,” Flower says. 

“I think there is value in everything from having playgrounds where kids can be creative and interact with, to having an opportunity for everybody in general to engage with each other in those public green spaces, which is especially important in an urban setting where so many living spaces don’t have that kind of space," she continues.

Parks get schooled on tapping full potential

Friends of Grand Rapids Parks reports that in 2014, the city of Grand Rapids had 74 city-owned parks in its entirety, totaling 11,595 acres of land earmarked for parks, recreation, and open space holdings within city limits. 

As far as unofficial public parks go, the total amount of space and ownership status are a little less clear, but those are all the kinds of things the city hopes to figure out through discussions with not only the public but also community partners — and none are more relevant than the Grand Rapids Public School District. 

GRPS spokesman John Helmholdt says that over the past few years, the district has been working consistently alongside the city in a commitment to sustainability goals, which have a lot to do not only with maintaining green space and increasing tree canopy, but finding ways to make the most of all of the underutilized outdoor areas.

“A lot of discussions center around utilization of land owned by GRPS — which is great in number and geography throughout city,” says Helmholdt, using the example of Coit Park, which sports a City of Grand Rapids sign and is treated like a public space, but is legally owned by the district. 

Greater than logistical strategizing, Helmholdt says, are not only the avenues the district can open to the city for using outdoor space, but also the ways the city can facilitate educational opportunities in their outdoor spaces, too, an idea re-enforced with a recently awarded $25,000 planning grant from the National League of Cities to fund efforts focusing on reconnecting children with nature. 

“We’re required to teach the core content standards, also known as Common Core, but how can we incorporate environmental education alongside that natural play? For example, when we’re doing physical education at schools like the Grand Rapids Public Museum school, which has no indoor gymnasium, we have to engage kids in outdoor activity in spaces,” Helmholdt says, noting that is where public parks like Ab-Nab-Awen Park can facilitate whole new ways to engage students outdoors. 

He says he hopes that over the weekend the parents of students in the district will feel motivated to attend the open house meetings and join the discussion, seeing the process very fittingly, as anyone who deals in knowledge might, as an opportunity to learn. 

“It’s a learning experience. It’s an opportunity for children to understand the role of government, the role of public opinion, and to have a vested interest as civic leaders in what’s happening in their neighborhoods and city,” he says. “Kids can relate to a discussion about how we can improve playgrounds and really, they know our playgrounds better than any adults do…It’s important students be engaged, and recognize that they have a voice, and that their voice will be heard, and that action will be taken as a result.”

The first open house will be held at 122 Division Ave. SE on Avenue for the Arts First Friday beginning at 6 p.m., with the second held Saturday from 8-11 a.m. at the Fulton St. Farmers Market, located at 1145 Fulton St. E. Can’t make it? Click here to fill out an online survey with your thoughts or find the form using Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation website.

To learn more about cool programs like Parks Alive or the Urban Forest Project that are happening right in your collective backyard, check out Friends of Grand Rapids Parks online or find them on Facebook.

Written by Anya Zentmeyer, Development News Editor
Images courtesy of Grand Rapids Parks & Recreation 


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West Side landmark Holiday Bar gets big upgrade for summer

One of Grand Rapids’ oldest establishments, The Holiday Bar, announced today major exterior renovations, as well as an expansion of staff to accommodate a new concept launch in early summer 2016.

While relatively recent renovations of the 111-year-old bar included floor-to-ceiling windows, a ramp, and updated doors to restore the building to its original historic look and feel, the latest investments by owner Todd Wawee include the transformation of existing storage space into a state-of-the-art kitchen.

“We are excited to be launching a full menu and Bier Garden in summer 2016,” Wawee says. “The new menu will include hand-formed burgers, salads, gourmet sandwiches and homemade soups as well as a few special dishes that include throwback classics, such as mushroom caps filled with escargot sautéed in garlic butter with gourmet cheese and house made bread crumbs served in a cast iron skillet.”

The new patio beer garden, which is scheduled to open May 21, will host approximately 125 people and include a full service bar with a focus on canned and craft beers.

“My mother’s family has been on the west side since they migrated from Poland and I have an incredible tie to Grand Rapids – it’s home to me,” Wawee says. “It is our goal to continually evolve with our neighborhood and to build on the exciting development happening on the West Side.”

For more information, visit www.theholidaybargr.com.

GR seeks public input on $1.65 million upgrade to Michigan Street

With some plans already underway to resurface areas of Michigan Street between Monroe and Ionia Avenues and to repair concrete between Ionia and Barclay Avenues, the city of Grand Rapids is now considering a $1.65 million upgrade to Michigan Street. 

While concrete work begins this year, the resurfacing project is set for this fall or next spring, and both will have impact on travel of the Medical Mile during construction. 

Michigan Street improvement projects include resurfacing the road between Monroe and Ionia, repairing concrete between Ionia and Barclay, removing the westbound lane on the south side of Michigan that connects Ionia and Ottawa, removing the bus lane on the south side of Michigan between Bostwick and Barclay, and straightening alignment of travel and turn lanes on Michigan, among a few others. 

Approximately $703,000 from the Vital Streets Capital Fund; $677,000 from the State Urban Transportation Program; and $275,000 in State Transportation Economic Development Funds will support the project.

City officials will share the concept design and request public input at a May 5 public meeting held at 6 p.m. inside the Grand Rapids Development Center at 1120 Monroe NW. 

“This is an exciting time for Michigan Street,” says Grand Rapids spokesperson, Steve Guitar. “The design at this point is simply a concept not set in stone. We look forward to sharing a Michigan Street vision as a starting point. We encourage input at our public meeting, which will influence the final design.”

Updates on all Grand Rapids Vital Streets projects are available at grcity.us/roadconstruction or by calling 311. 

Written by Anya Zentmeyer, Development News Editor

Planting the seeds of community: Urban Roots helps grow food justice in Grand Rapids

With a Master’s degree in community sustainability and ecology food and farming systems, experience in bio-intensive and organic growing, and a certification in permaculture design, Levi Gardner is no stranger to the concept that community gardening can be a potential game-changer.

He’s actually seen his fair share of different groups try their hand at small-scale efforts, but the trouble is that most of the time, he says, it doesn’t really end well. 

"We recognize that it's not a lack of interest, people or land, but a lack of tools and agricultural knowledge," says Gardner, who founded the nonprofit Urban Roots initiative with the intention of using community-driven agricultural growth to help address issues of food justice, unemployment, and community place-making. 

After the donation of a new community farm plot and education center by LINC Community Revitalization located at 1316 Madison SE, Urban Roots more recently launched a new mobile classroom initiative that aims to tackle issues of access to adequate tools and knowledge by bringing those educational elements to to people and places with a growing interest in educational gardens, including schools, churches and other organizations.

Supported by a recent awarded YMCA grant related to urban farming efforts, Urban Roots was able to purchase a retired ambulance vehicle to serve as the new mobile classroom, and the group is currently re-outfitting its interior in preparation for the upcoming growing season. 

The launch of the classroom comes nearly a year after Gardner first began piloting the concept, filling the bed of his own truck with as many seeds and fertilizers, hand tools and hoses as he could manage, bringing his collection of physical resources alongside his skill set to those who requested his assistance.

“To run a successful small-scale growing operation, whether it’s 100 square feet or 10 square feet, you need certain tools and implementations and skills to do it well, and we want to help people learn how to do it well,” he says. “We want to help people experience the rewarding upside of growing instead of just the discouraging downside.” 

In essence, the new mobile classroom offers struggling — or more often just curious — community gardeners a chance to familiarize themselves with the tools, required skill set, and best practices of a deceptively complicated ecosystem that can result in a costly blow to morale if executed improperly. 

“What we said was, what if we could come up with something that could seize those assets people bring — because land, interest and need are all assets — but then augment them with the tools and the skills and the kind of connections we have to be able to transform what they hope to see happen into a reality?” he says.

The mobile classroom is part of a series of exciting events happening at Urban Roots. Over the course of the last six months, the nonprofit has established its board of directors; began developing a community farm and education center in the Madison Square neighborhood at 1316 Madison SE, where they now have CSA shares available for purchase; formed community partnerships with various local organizations; overhauled its website and online presence; and received grants from both the YMCA and Slow Food to facilitate the purchase and operation of the ambulance re-outfitted for use as a mobile community classroom.

Inspired by a TEDtalk called “Leaders Eat Last,” which posits the idea that people don’t follow what you do, but rather why you do it, Gardner has committed the past year of his life to building the grassroots effort and has put a lot on the line to make Urban Roots a reality. 

The sense of certainty that pulls him forward, he says, has much less to do with confidence in every aspect of running a nonprofit organization, but instead has more to do with why he’s doing it and who he hopes to affect as a result.

“I’ve lost a lot to be able to make this happen, and I’m not going to say I’ve never doubted myself because I have definitely doubted myself — but yet I’ve always trusted what this is as a larger idea,” he says. “…We say in our tagline that we’re just a group of people trying to become fully human, trying to celebrate all of what it is to be alive and be human, and that’s a reality that permeates what we do and why we do it.”

Over the next year, Gardner says Urban Roots’ most important goal is “to know and be known” by its surrounding community and establish itself there as both an available resource and community asset, beginning on May 14 with a plant sale and resident open house for Madison Square area neighbors from 9 a.m. - 2 p.m. 

From there, Gardner wants to extend that goal of connecting and establishing Urban Roots as an available resource and community asset beyond the nonprofit’s home neighborhood and into the larger Grand Rapids community. The group will continue operating with the goal of alleviating issues of food injustice and socioeconomic inequality by meeting people where they’re at with whatever tools they’ve got — even if sometimes all they need is a little bit of optimism. 

“I think at the end of the day, all of us want to be able to hang our hat on some optimism, and there are very few things more optimistic to me than growing something and planting a little seed and then having faith in this thing you have absolutely no control over.” 

To learn more about its May 14 open house or how you can get involved with the new mobile educational classroom, visit www.urbanrootsgr.org or find Urban Roots here on Facebook

Written by Anya Zentmeyer, Development News Editor
Images courtesy of Levi Gardner/Urban Roots 

New coffee and food hub, That Early Bird, to open in former Kava House next month

When customers walk into the newly renovated cafe at 1445 Lake Dr. SE next month, owner Stephen Curtis says he hopes the new coffee and food bar will make them feel uplifted. 

“We wanted it to be a space that was uplifting to go into, so kind of clean and bright, but not super modern or austere or anything like that,” says Curtis, who co-owns That Early Bird in collaboration with chef Joel Wabeke, a graduate of New York’s Culinary Institute of America who not only spent time cooking at top U.K. restaurants The Fat Duck and The Hinds Head, but has also acted as chef de cuisine for six.one.six. in downtown Grand Rapids’ J.W. Marriot hotel and top Detroit restaurant Wright and Company.

Already an established coffee roaster himself, Curtis became co-owner of the retail and coffee bar Rowster Coffee, alongside its founder Kurt Stauffer, in a space at 632 Wealthy St. in June 2010, and he says he and Wabeke didn’t start talking seriously about opening a new space until last winter, when the pair were presented with an opportunity to take over the 2,000-square-foot Eastown building and former Kava House. 

Unique in its marriage of quality coffee beverages and seasonally crafted food options, hungry cafe goers can expect a menu featuring the best of all worlds — a full list of grab-and-go brewed coffees and craft espresso beverages alongside Wabeke's twists on old favorites, like breakfast sandwiches centered around homemade sourdough English muffins and Japanese milk bread, hearty grain based salads and vegetable soups. 

“What I love about Eastown is that it’s so walkable... There’s just a wider range of people living in Eastown, and also there’s so much to do in this neighborhood. And everyone is walking around here, and I think that mix is really cool,” says Curtis, who designed That Early Bird to be the kind of welcoming environment that finds its roots in the surrounding community by bringing together a diverse population in a place where everyone can feel comfortable.  

“In some ways, cafes are inherently built around a community, whether they’re trying to or not, just because it’s sort of that perfect place for a mix of people to come together from all different backgrounds and demographics and ages — it’s kind of the perfect melting pot,” he says. “…I think it's going to be awesome. I’m pretty excited for a different mash-up of food and coffee that doesn’t really exist right now anywhere in the city.” 

Though there’s no official opening date just yet, Curtis says he expects That Early Bird to wrap up renovations and open its doors sometime at early to mid-May. To stay in the loop, visit That Early Bird online, or donate to the Indiegogo campaign here through May 8. 

Written by Anya Zentmeyer, Development News Editor
Images courtesy of Stephen Curtis/That Early Bird 

Vander Mill Ciders gears up for grand opening of new facility, tap room in downtown GR

After one year and $4 million of investment in the purchase and renovation of the old B&B Beer Distribution Co. building at 505 Ball Ave. NE, Vander Mill Hard Ciders will open the doors to its new downtown Grand Rapids production facility and tap room Monday, April 18.

Much of the 40,000 renovated square feet has been utilized for cider production, with about 4,500 square feet left to house a large restaurant, cooking, and dining area designed to seat up to 200 people indoors and 60 individuals on the outside patio. 

“Just like with our ciders, we’re super excited in the Vander Mill kitchen to showcase the incredibly diverse agricultural community and the depth and breadth of products that you find here in Western Michigan,” says Vander Mill head chef Justin Large, who designed a full menu for the Grand Rapids restaurant to pair with its collection of ciders on tap. 

Specialized in crafting seasonal menus with locally sourced products, Large has held various past positions at Chicago eateries like The Violet Hour, Tourant for the Publican, and Big Star.

Owner Paul Vander Heide says the new Grand Rapids facility has enough equipment to produce over one million gallons of cider — a jump for the 200,000 gallons currently produced annually at its existing Spring Lake facility. 

For more information on Vander Mill Ciders downtown Grand Rapids opening, visit Vander Mill here on Facebook

Written by Anya Zentmeyer, Development News Editor
Images courtesy of Vander Mill Cidery

Lights, camera, action! $140M movie theater complex, retail & apartments proposed for downtown GR

For the Loeks family, this week’s announcement that Loeks Theatres and 616 Development are partnering on a mixed-use development that is slated to bring a nine-screen movie theater, apartments, retail space, and a public piazza to Grand Rapids’ downtown is more than a story of a new, high-profile project that has garnered excitement from many a community leader, including Mayor Rosalynn Bliss.

It’s a story of a journey home, of a family-owned business that always dreamed of returning to Grand Rapids’ downtown, and of a city that has survived its ups and downs — but where the heartbeat has never stopped.

“The story that is here is not just of this fantastic development, that it will be a jewel of the community, but it’s a part of story that family-owned businesses dream about,” says Steve VanWagoner, the vice president marketing and public relations for Loeks Theatres, which owns and operates Celebration! Cinema. “In 1944, Jack Loeks acquires the first theater in this company, right over there on Pearl Street.  Now, almost 72 years later, a few blocks away, we’re here with another theater and the same family. It’s a great story for Grand Rapids, for family-owned businesses. It’s inspiring.”

Jack Loeks purchased the Powers Theatre on Pearl Street in 1944. Originally the Powers Opera House, which was built around 1883, the venue was renamed Foto News when Loeks bought it. During World War II, the space showed news reels from the war. After the war ended, Loeks again renamed the venue, this time calling it The Midtown Theater. It closed in the 1970s, a time when many other downtown stores were shuttering, and it was demolished in 1978. The space was then turned into a parking ramp.

In 1965,  Jack Loeks built Studio 28 in Wyoming, which became the largest multi-screen theater in the world, but which closed in 2008. Jack Loeks’ son, John Loeks, built the first Celebration! Cinema in Benton Harbor in the mid-1990s. There are currently 12 Celebration! Cinemas, including on 28th Street and Celebration Drive, and the theater chain has been a success, with its theaters often placing in the top revenue-generating movie venues in the state.

Now, the Loeks family — specifically JD Loeks, the president of Loeks Theatres — has set their sights on returning to downtown Grand Rapids, where they’re collaborating with 616 Development on a two-phase, $140 million project that was announced on Monday and which VanWagoner says will become the “new heart of downtown.” The first phase of the project will cost approximately $100 million and is slated to include a nine-screen theater named Studio C!, 38,000 square feet of retail space, approximately 187 residential units, a 20,000 square foot public piazza, and a 900-space parking ramp.

The development is proposed to be located south of the Van Andel Arena on city-owned properties bound by Oakes, Ionia and Cherry Streets.

“The original inspiration for this project came from JD Loeks, our president — he’s been talking about this for many years,” says VanWagoner. “When Studio 28 closed in the fall of 2008, it became his passion project to not replace Studio 28 but to bring something back to Grand Rapids. This vision of returning downtown, to where the company started, became his vision.”

After years of talks with various key players from throughout the city, the project’s plan got a unanimous stamp of approval from the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority at the organization's meeting Friday morning. Now that the plan is approved by the DDA, the project can officially move forward. Loeks and 616 representatives say they expect to break ground on the first phase in 2017, and the theatre is expected to open to the public in 2018.

The details of the second phase will be announced at a later time and will include additional residential units. VanWagoner says few details have been released regarding the apartments, including what the average rent will be, but he notes “they’re workforce units meant to be for college students and folks who want to be close to all of the activities downtown.” In addition to movies, the multi-use complex will include auditoriums for live entertainment, VanWagoner says.

“This theatre will be unlike anything we have built before,” JD Loeks says in a press release. “It will borrow some of the best, most innovative ideas that we have seen from around the world and add a few innovations of our own.”

The project would also be a be a major economic boon to the city, with the first phase of the development expected to generate a projected $369 in economic benefits during its first decade, according to a statement issued by Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., which manages the DDA.

According to the same statement, a breakdown of the economic benefits expected to occur during that first decade include:
  • $192.2 million in new consumer spending downtown.
  • $156.4 million in payroll associated with new jobs housed in the development.
  • $16.2 million in new sales tax payments to the state, assuming the 6% rate.
  • $4.6 million in retained local property and income taxes, after tax incentives provided to the developer by the City of Grand Rapids and the Downtown Development Authority.
Monica Steimle, director of community relations at 616 Development, as well as representatives from Loeks Theatres and Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., note the proposed project fits within the city’s aspirations for sustainable development.

“We believe that creating spaces for people to live, work and play along the Ionia corridor will add vibrancy to our growing city, which also aligns with the missions of the Arena South Plan and GR Forward,” Steimle says in a press release. “We look at this project as an ongoing commitment to our noble purpose of community creation and are pleased to partner with another respected local company that has a similar mission.”

VanWagoner agrees.

“They are critical to helping us keep within these missions of the city, and that’s what makes it exciting,” he says in reference to 616 Development. “We’re about the city, and we want it to be pleasing to the community.”

After community push to support Polish Falcons Aid Society of GR, historic group takes flight

John Theisen, Vice President of the Polish Falcons Aid Society of Grand Rapids, isn’t actually Polish himself. However, despite his German/Irish heritage, Theisen was introduced to the local cultural club through his best friend’s dad about 14 years ago — and the rest is history. 

“My best friend’s dad was a member of the Polish Falcons and wanted me and my buddies to join, but I guess it was kind of through the camaraderie of being part of the Falcons that I decided to get more involved,” says Theisen, who first served as the Society’s treasurer before stepping into the role of vice president seven years ago. 

Located at 957 W. Fulton Ave., the Grand Rapids branch of the PFAS was founded way back in 1927 with the intention of helping Polish immigrants new to the city find work in the furniture factories and places to live in the surrounding neighborhood. 

In its heyday — during the 1940s through the 1970s — the Polish Falcons Aid Society of Grand Rapids had more than 400 members, its clubhouse on W. Fulton benefiting from new equipment, extensive renovations and improvements to both its exterior and interior as membership grew. 

“Back in the day, everybody that lived in the neighborhood that was Polish would walk to the club and do their thing,” says Theisen, adding that, since then, a lot of the club’s membership has moved away from the downtown area and into the suburbs, and although there’s been quite a bit of reinvestment and redevelopment in the John Ball Park neighborhood where it resides, the late 1990s and early 2000s were rough on both the building and its surrounding community. 

In fact, Phillip Mitchell, treasurer for the Society, says over the past year or so, the city of Grand Rapids issued citations to the clubhouse for the poor condition of the building’s exterior. 

“Funds are pretty tight in general, we just don’t generate much to pay for repairs and stuff and that’s the biggest problem,” says Mitchell, who joined the PFAS around three years ago even though he, like Theisen, is not Polish himself, but instead was brought in by his wife, who has Lithuanian/Polish roots. 

With a crumbling exterior and official citation from the city of Grand Rapids, exterior renovations cost the PFAS around $50,000 — a number Mitchell says is significant, especially relative to what the group typically brings in — and the group spent the last year raising money for repairs, which included various event-based fundraising efforts as well as an increase in membership dues. 

“We do a variety of things that promote the Polish heritage too, like Pulaski Days. Anything that really gets people in the doors and works like a fundraiser for us,” says Mitchell. An example of such includes a raffle held last Friday during the building’s grand re-opening, for which attendance included a few county commissioners, the city comptroller and West Side advocate Rev. Msgr. Edward Hankiewicz, who blessed the space before the ribbon was cut. 

Although recent fundraising has been geared largely toward renovations, Theisen says community support and member-organized charity work isn’t new for PFAS’ Grand Rapids chapter — it’s just part of what makes them such a tight-knit group. 

“If there’s a charity event going on, someone in the Polish community that needs help, we jump on it,” he says, citing scholarship programs for local elementary schools, PFAS’ participation in Angel Tree during Christmastime, and a successful rally cry to help a neighbor whose house caught fire about a year ago.

“We’re always very charitable, and if someone asks and needs help, we’re one of the first to step up,” Theisen says. “First to fight, first to help out. That’s the Polish Falcons motto.”

That’s why every August, volunteer members of the PFAS lead the charge in organizing and staffing the annual Polish Festival in downtown Grand Rapids, and despite the hike in membership dues, the PFAS still has around 250 members to pack its 2,700-square-foot clubhouse with activities, events, and, more simply, each other’s company. 

Part of this interest stems from the renewed accessibility to the club, says Theisen, who notes his larger community is on the mend thanks to reinvestment in buildings and new businesses on Grand Rapids’ west side. 

“The neighborhood was a little rough at the time, and it’s really come back since Grand Valley has moved in down the road, and people are taking pride in their structures and really doing a lot of stuff in the neighborhood now that they didn’t do in the past,”  he says. 

Though it may have taken some time for their neighbors to catch up, the PFAS has always taken pride in their structures, both visible and unseen. And more than anything else, that pride has fostered the group’s ability to thrive for decades, with members like Theisen passing the love of the Polish heritage in all of its forms down to both old faces and new. 

“I enjoy polka music as one of those lost music [forms, which] you don’t see a lot of the young kids listening to anymore, and we’ve really actually brought in a lot of young people grasping the culture and liking the music,” he says. “My son is six years old, and he loves polka music now. We’ve also got kids in their 20s who come to the club when we have the polka band play, and they love it too. When I was growing up, it was just a bunch of old people who liked polka music, and it’s kind of cool to see a generation of young people accepting it.”

Written by Anya Zentmeyer, Development News Editor
Images courtesy of John Theisen 

With nods to West Michigan agriculture, Gray Skies Distillery celebrates opening in Grand Rapids

Both Brandon Voorhees and Steve Vander Pol have parted ways with the Mitten State since graduating from high school at Tri-Unity Christian, yet Voorhees says, somehow, they always find their way back home. 

“Growing up, Steve and I have always been close friends and we always kind of knew we wanted to get into some kind of business that we could call our own here in our favorite city,” says Voorhees, who alongside Vander Pol is co-founder of Gray Skies Distillery,which officially opened the doors to its 10,000-square-foot North Monroe distillery and tasting room on St. Patrick’s Day last week. 

Voorhees and Vander Pol initially launched Gray Skies Distillery in 2014, spending the last couple of years brushing up on crystallization and fermentation techniques and securing the once dilapidated warehouse space at 700 Ottawa Ave. NW. 

“We both just had a passion for (distilling) instantly, and the last couple years have been just planning and getting the right space, creating the right plans to move forward and create spirits that our city can be proud of,” Voorhees says. 

Alongside a rum spirit, Voorhees is most excited about Gray Skies’ Barrel Finished Hopped Gin, with its Citra hops ingredient being a nod to Grand Rapids’ reputation as Beer City, USA. 

“It’s been quite well received in the marketplace so far, and we’re excited about what could happen with it,” he says. “… Everybody wants to use this awesome agriculture we have around us, and we thought this would be an awesome thing that would be well received here.”

Furnished with repurposed mid-century pieces around a bar crafted from wood and metal, Voorhees says the goal with GSD’s interior renovation was to create a tasting room space in what was clearly and primarily a distillery, with big glass windows allowing patrons a look into the massive vats filling its fermentation room.

“We definitely had a plan for Gray Skies — we were going to be a manufacturing and distribution plant. We want to get our products on the shelves of our favorite bars and restaurants, as well as in our tasting room,” he says. “We didn’t try and create a restaurant. ...It’s an interesting space, it’s a cool space, but the one thing we want people to feel like is, ‘I’m in this bar, but I definitely know there’s a distillery right on the other side of the door.’” 

Currently, GSD is offering free tours of the distillery, complete with complimentary tastings for three different times slots every Saturday and Sunday, with a reservation form available on the website. 

“We want everybody to feel welcome to come in, let us explain how we make the products, give you a taste of them and bring you on a tour,” Voorhees says. “It’ll be fun for people to come on in and see, ‘Alright, these are the grains you’re bringing in from West Michigan farmers, and this is how you turn them into some of the things we’re drinking. We don’t want anyone to have any excuse not to come in.”  

To learn more about the new Gray Skies Distillery or to book your free tour and tasting, visit www.grayskiesdistillery.com or find Gray Skies Distillery here on Facebook

Written by Anya Zentmeyer, Development News Editor
Images courtesy of Gray Skies Distillery 
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