Tribal purchase of McKay Tower honors the past and secures the future

In January 2020, two Anishinaabe tribes, the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians (the Gun Lake Tribe) and the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi (NHBP), purchased McKay Tower, an iconic downtown Grand Rapids building located at the corner of Monroe Center and Pearl Streets.

“The tribes having a presence in downtown Grand Rapids speaks to the city's desire to be inclusive of all races. It's just such an iconic location — a first impression in the downtown area,” says Deidra Mitchell, president and CEO of Waséyabek Development Company, NHBP’s economic development arm. “It is not all that common to have tribes working together on a piece of real estate or operating a business. It really speaks to both tribes’ desire to work together to seek economic diversification and sustainability for their tribal members. And it's really a testament to the leadership of both tribes to have that vision and to be open to partnerships.”

Before colonization, the Anishinaabe lived on the banks of the Grand River, “Owashtenong,” the-far-away-water — the longest river in the territory. Governed by the Grand River Bands of Ottawa, their Grand River Valley villages encompassed territory from the Kalamazoo River north to the Manistee River, including Grand Rapids. Like in all of the United States, these original residents were deceitfully and violently displaced to lands far from home. In Grand Rapids, some had become legal landholders and were legally able to avoid forcible removal.

With the establishment of a Baptist mission on the west bank of the river and a Catholic mission on the east, settlers began to arrive, including Joel Guild, who built Grand Rapids’ first framed house on the site of today’s McKay Tower in 1833. The site has seen many structures come and go — a grocery store, saloon and restaurant and the Wonderly Building, which the Grand Rapids National City Bank expanded to its current height. In 1942, businessperson Frank McKay purchased and renamed it McKay Tower. Now, the site again belongs to the Anishinaabe.

“It's really important and really symbolic to both tribes. This is their ancestral land,” says Mitchell. “To be able to be the owners and caretakers of such an iconic building is really something that speaks to their cultural values and shows the presence of the tribes still in the region. Both tribes are very proud of it and very interested in preserving it for the town's use and for their individual real estate portfolios.”

The tribes’ plans for the building are to keep it the same — retail on the first floor, office space and executive residences on the top three floors. Rebranding is underway as well as routine updates and the establishment of long-term maintenance plans.

“There's no plan to change anything. That mix will stay the same,” Mitchell says. “We’ve maintained about 95% occupancy, even throughout COVID. The building serves the business district well. We've had so many people, even tribal members, who remember [this] building from their childhood. They were very, very familiar with the building, so we don't want to change that going forward.”

With the purchase of McKay Tower, the tribes are investing outside of casinos, gaming and hospitality to diversify revenue streams for a more economically sustainable future.

“When COVID hit, many of the casinos were shut down for a while. Those are most tribes’ primary economic drivers. So, from that aspect, this purchase is really important,” Mitchell says. “And again, it's a link to the past for current tribal members. This centerpiece, iconic building in downtown Grand Rapids — to have that building being tribally-owned is a source of pride for both tribes.”

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
Photos courtesy Waséyabek Development Company