Industrial CPR: artists and musicians revive abandoned Ypsi warehouses

Old Buildings With New Uses Inspire Development
VGKids set out years ago to serve the screen-printing needs of musicians and other creative businesses. In the process, they've spun out such creative ventures as SPUR Studios and reinvented historic industrial spaces in Ypsilanti.

In 2010 the managing partners of VGKids found an unlikely new home for their screen-printing business: a former industrial kitchen for prison meals. VG had already grown out of a couple of spaces, having gotten its start in the late ‘90s in the basement of a Pontiac vegetarian grocery store owned by founder James Marks. After checking out several other warehouse-type spaces, partner Steve Emshwiller says the abandoned kitchen facility provided a surprisingly perfect setting for VG to spread its wings.

“We were just looking for square footage and when we came to check it out, we were just like, ‘Holy crap, this is a good deal,’” Emshwiller says.

Located on Railroad St. in Ypsilanti, just north of Eastern Michigan University, the building provided the basics: office
But the industrial food-prep equipment on site had a vital role to play as well. Rather than posing a nuisance, much of it was repurposed for the screen-printing process.
space and an expansive work area. But the industrial food-prep equipment on site had a vital role to play as well. Rather than posing a nuisance, much of it was repurposed for the screen-printing process. A massive exhaust hood for the kitchen’s stove was hooked up to a huge rolling dryer for freshly printed garments, and walk-in refrigerators were used for temperature- controlled screen spraydown and storage areas.

“There was a lot of infrastructure ready for us when we moved, so it was a definite upgrade,” Emshwiller says. “It was kind of a surprise.”

In the ensuing three years, the space has been put to good use. Marks, who now lives in Berkeley, Calif., no longer plays a hands-on role in the company, but Emshwiller and partners Aaron Bobzien and Sean Hickey have overseen significant growth, including a major shift into the poster market. Bobzien says VG’s higher-end paper stocks and hand-operated printing technique have played into a growing public interest in posters as quality creative works.

“It feels like there’s more interest in screen printing and how to change the natural commodity into something that’s more a tangible piece of art,” he says.

That voice has attracted numerous clients from the local scene, including Ghostly International, The Bang, the Ann Arbor Folk Festival, and Sonic Lunch. Emshwiller says VG is “accessible” to local artists, both in terms of location and the business’ willingness to do occasional donated work. And goodwill in the Ann Arbor area has translated into lucrative relationships with clients nationwide, including major bands like Modest Mouse and Bright Eyes.

Less than five minutes’ drive down the road from VG, another of James Marks’ brainchildren is flourishing in a different repurposed space. Marks, Emshwiller, and Chris Sandon launched SPUR Studios, a collection of rental artists’ studios, in 2009. SPUR occupies a portion of an otherwise mostly deserted warehouse space at 800 Lowell, housing 32 individual studios--musicians downstairs, visual artists upstairs.

“We’re fortunate in that the place kind of runs and manages itself,” Emshwiller says. “We come in and clean up every now and then or change fuses, change light bulbs. But the group of people in here is pretty great and it kind of has a life of its own.”

At an open house during SPUR’s inaugural summer, nearly half the studios were rented out in a single day. Since then, Emshwiller says there’s been consistent demand for studio space. He currently has a waiting list of 8-10 prospective tenants. Rent runs as low as $150 per month for a 10’ x 10’ space.

“If you’re in a band with three or four other dudes and you divide that’s up," Emshwiller says, "it’s pretty cheap,”

The key to the low rent is all in the repurposed location. The SPUR building is, as Emshwiller aptly puts it, both “bare-
The key to the low rent is all in the repurposed location. The SPUR building is, as Emshwiller aptly puts it, both “bare-bones” and “really gnarly.”
bones” and “really gnarly.” As a former office for the railroad that once ran through it, its age certainly shows. But that allows SPUR a low-cost arrangement with the landlord, so that the partners pay only for the studio spaces being used at the moment. And it allows tenants plenty of freedom to paint, decorate, and soundproof as they desire. Downstairs, someone has scrawled “EPIC FOLK ELF THRASH METAL” across a wall; upstairs, robot-lamp creator Cre Fuller has sheet metal stapled to his studio’s door, with a plethora of ‘bots looking out from the window.

“Each person kind of put their own thing into it,” Emshwiller says. “We just supplied the building and the raw space. Ypsi definitely has the individuals and the artists to make this kind of thing happen.”

Musician and tenant Shelley Salant says she loves working out of the space.

“Personally, I like to work at night, and it’s great to have somewhere you can jam at any hour,” Salant says. “It’s definitely filled a need in our community for dedicated artist spaces.”

Emshwiller describes the discovery of SPUR and VGKids’ refurbished spaces as “fortuitous types of events” that have enabled him and his partners to tap into the local arts community in unexpected ways. And with two successes under his belt, he encourages other businesses and community endeavors to keep an eye out for the right reusable home of their own.

“There’s spaces out there,” he says. “If you look around a couple of times you might not find the right thing, but keep looking. If it’s not perfect at first, it’s going to be worth it in the long run to occupy something that’s out there that isn’t being used.”

Old Buildings With New Uses Inspire Development
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Aaron Bobzien
VGKids, Partner

What is the biggest challenge of making use of an old building for a new purpose?
Infrastructure rebuild, without a doubt. Although we've been lucky enough to have elements of our current spaces work in parallel to our operation needs, what is here and useful to us is where the previous tenant placed it, is not necessarily where we would have put it.

How do you feel that VGKids and SPUR have impacted Ypsi?
We truly care about our neighbors, and strive to partner with as many local businesses as possible. We've started offering free local delivery to our customers as well as having a service area that welcomes drop-ins and people generally interested in checking out what we do. We're very reachable. Spur was a missing piece in Ypsilanti's subculture. As great as basement band practice is, you're restricted by your neighbors' sensitive ears. I think it has really helped the success of local bands.

How has choosing to grow in Ypsi impacted the businesses?
It's been great. It is affordable to live and grow a business in this area. Folks are passionate about independent business, and we're grateful to have so many friends in the area. They really help out when we get suddenly busy and need a few extra hands.

Anything new or exciting coming up for VGKids and SPUR?
Steve, Sean and I are in the process of writing a new business vision for VGKids. It's been a wonderful learning experience for us, and we expect a lot of growth for the business and us as individuals. We're excited for the future! We also just signed a four-year contribution agreement with Merit's Fate Program. Fate started a program to invigorate teens to fight the increasing rate of high school drop out. The program follows teens through their years in high school with monthly workshops at successful businesses in the area to provide sufficient resources and opportunities for underserved youth to embrace education and become world-class citizens.
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