On its face, Fennville looks like a typical Mayberry-style rural town – no stoplights, a one-block business district along Main Street, a few mom-and-pop stores.
But this city of around 1,500 between Saugatuck and Douglas is in the midst of a cultural renaissance that is helping transform it from a sagging agricultural berg into a bohemian center.
Art galleries are springing up around town, and earlier this year the Allegan County Children's Museum opened its doors. The Journeyman Café restaurant and bakery is quickly becoming regarded as one of West Michigan's true culinary jewels.
"You're just surrounded by really great stuff, and I think a lot of young people who have a lot of really great ideas have decided to live here and are starting their own thing," says Kristin Gebben, co-owner of Gebben/Gray Gallery. "It's really exciting."
Suddenly Fennville is a hotspot. It's a development that could be called a triumph of the so-called "creative class." The creative class concept is a product of the work of social scientist Richard Florida, who posits that certain types of workers in creative pursuits – artists, architects, gallery owners, etc. – are harbingers of urban redevelopment. That concept underpins much of Michigan's Cool Cities initiative.
What most of the new businesses have in common is a commitment to low-volume, high quality offerings. "We're all striving for something that's real," says Dawn Stafford, owner of the Peachbelt Studio and Gallery on the outskirts of town.
Many credit the pioneering work of Journeyman Café with helping nurture this growth. From its launch in 2003, what began as a simple coffee shop, has become an exemplar of the slow foods movement, with an emphasis on organic, locally grown and artisan foods.
"I don't want to take credit for it here, but I think the restaurant did have something to do with shining a light on things," says Journeyman co-owner and executive chef Matthew Millar. "We have this kind of broken down old town here that hasn't had the greatest of reputations for a long time, and we just stumbled on this piece of real estate. We decided to take a chance on it and when we did, we started to see a little more clearly that there were a lot of people in the area who were doing a lot of cool things. We've got this weird little collection of misfits who have just been fantastic."
Millar and his wife Amy Cook had been informally looking for a location to start a restaurant in Saugatuck or Douglas when they found the storefront at 114 E. Main St. The couple stumbled on the restaurant's location one morning after eating breakfast at the Blue Goose Café down the street. It had previously been "a really bad coffee house," Millar says. Because the concept was to make the restaurant a destination they were willing to take a chance on Fennville.
"We didn't want to fill up with 400 fudge-seeking tourists every Saturday afternoon being in downtown Douglas or Saugatuck," Millar says. "And downtown Saugatuck is going to be just as dead as we are in the wintertime. So what's the point of this 10-week season where we're feeding people we don't want to feed in the first place?"
Millar says the rent on the building was far cheaper than anything they could have found in Saugatuck or Douglas. And, by being located away from the center of the tourist trade, Journeyman was able to grow at a more leisurely pace.
"We were able to grow into this in a way that I think that we wouldn't have been able to do in a community where we would have been busy right off the bat," Millar says.
Journeyman's presence was a draw for Gebben and partner Theresa Gray. The pair worked together in a gallery in Saugatuck before opening the Gebben/Gray Gallery next door to Journeyman two years ago, and she says the restaurant had a lot to do with their choice of location.
Gebben says business in Fennville has been "surprisingly good."
"For us, with the type of market we have selling art, it really is a destination-type business. I think Theresa and I both believe if you do something well and believe in what you're doing, people will find you. And people have," Gebben says.
Neighboring gallery owner Bruce Cutean wasn't planning on opening a new location when he sold the original ThirdStone Gallery& Art Works building in Laketown Township between Holland and Saugatuck last year after 11 years in business.
His apartment above Journeyman and the Gebben/Gray Gallery became ThirdStone's new home out of necessity last year when the space he was planning to use for his lucrative annual holiday show didn't pan out. Someone suggested using his apartment, and before he knew it, he was back in the gallery business, doing as well as he ever has.
"This thing has a life of its own, apparently. It's not following my basic plan. But something tells me I need to go with that natural evolution, because it's happening for a reason," Cutean says.
Fennville is ethnically diverse – with nearly a third of the city Latino – and that diversity is one of the things credited for helping Fennville's rise. Locals describe Fennville as more like a big city on a small scale, rather than a typical small town.
"You just wander through the grocery store, you'll talk to a dozen people from all walks of life. You'll have cottage people from the Lakeshore; you'll have Hispanics who don't even speak English to ones who have lived in this community for a long time. You've got farmers. You've got artists. It's a genuine little melting pot, which is what I like about it," Cutean says.
The mix of people reminds Cutean of his hometown of Chicago, he says, adding: "In a small town to have that big of a mix, it's unusual."
Millar agreed that Fennville's ethnic blend is a contributing factor to its success.
"There's a cultural diversity here that is akin to what you would see in a big city," Millar says. "I think you're foolish if you think the Latino population hasn't had a huge impact on what the city is today."
What makes the current culturally rich business climate so remarkable is that it seems to be a grassroots thing – it's not a result of tax incentives or grants or other government assistance.
"I found that the city government and the Chamber of Commerce and the (Downtown Development Authority) board were as mystified as everybody else, but were liking it," Cutean says.
Cutean now sits on the Downtown Development Authority board, and things are being done to capitalize on Fennville's rising profile. For example, the DDA has decided to fund the removal of some city-owned buildings downtown in the hopes of attracting some much-needed retail space.
"The thing is, everybody functions as community, as friends," Cutean says. "There is a good local community energy here now, and everybody seems to be supportive of everybody else," Cutean says.
For Millar, the joy of being part of the community comes from discovering a hidden gem and pitching in to help make it better.
"One of my favorite things about being down here the last couple of years was discovering what was really in this community and how many unique things were just kind of bubbling under the surface," says Millar.
"There's something to be says for being in on the ground floor, something to be says for coming into a town when you can help define how the community is going to grow, rather than coming into a community that's already got a personality and trying to fit in," Millar says.
Theresa Gray and Kristin Gebben of Gebben Gray Gallery
Welcome to Fennville
Matthew Millar, Executive Chef and co-owner of Journeyman Cafe
Interior of Journeyman Cafe
Bruce Cutean of Thirdstone Gallery
Interior of Gebben Gray Gallery
Exterior of Journeyman Cafe in downtown Fennville
Photographs Copyright Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved