C+R Research named Brewery Vivant the most popular brewery in Grand Rapids by search volume. Photo by Michael Buck
(As seen on WZZM TV 13) When Mike Stevens and Dave Engbers walked into an empty rundown truck depot in 2007, they saw something others didn’t.
They transformed the rusted-out building on the south edge of downtown Grand Rapids into a warm, friendly taproom and production brewery. Now, seven years and another $25 million expansion later, it’s even warmer and friendlier. The owners of Founders Brewing Co., 235 Grandville Ave. SW, have turned the old industrial transportation hub into a thriving brewery, not to mention a cultural hub of Grand Rapids — or Beer City USA.
It wasn’t the first time Founders had searched out such a location. The brewery started in 1997 in the Brass Works Building on North Monroe, which was not the hopping location it is now. The main draw of both locations: plenty of space at a cheap price. Both qualities are a necessity for breweries because startup costs are expensive and equipment takes up a lot of space.
“I look back to North Monroe: We were boarded-up windows, no retail,” Engbers said. “People were interested in coming down to see what we were doing — people thought we were crazy. But within a few years, the area started to blossom.”
Low-cost neighborhoods appeal to businesses that don’t have a lot of capital to get started. Once a business moves in and sees some success, like-minded business owners often follow suit.
When Founders moved into its current Grandville Avenue location, Custer Office Furniture was nearby and The Intersection nightclub was a few doors down. The Rapid Central Station provided a hub of activity and Grand Rapids Ballet’s Peter Martin Wege Theatre drew arts patrons. Soon a steady crowd of people were being drawn to the neighborhood. Before long, Founders began to receive national attention, and the neighborhood became even busier.
Now, as they pour more money into the expanded facility and watch more businesses and residents move into the neighborhood, Engbers and Stevens offer a semi-joking comment about how the property values are going up.
Still, they know they didn’t do it alone. “We were a part of it, but not exclusive,” Engbers said. “The city helped a lot, too. They threw a lot of money at the road.”
Development magnets are not just limited to breweries. The Founders owners pointed to the Wealthy Street corridor, where Electric Cheetah, Brick Road Pizza, The Meanwhile Bar, Sparrows Coffee Shop and other businesses helped turn the neighborhood into a thriving area.
One company key to such sustainable urban development is Bear Manor Properties, a property management company that owns and operates Harmony Brewing Co. in Eastown. Harmony — and Bear Manor, in general — has a special place in its business development plan for neighborhoods that could use a bit of fresh air.
“We wanted to form neighborhood nexus points,” Bear Manor co-owner Barry Van Dyke said. “Just a place for people to come together and help set the neighborhood’s culture.”
In February 2012, Bear Manor owners — brothers Barry and Jackson Van Dyke and sister Heather Van Dyke-Titus — opened Harmony Brewing at 1551 Lake Drive SE, transforming an old liquor store that had sat empty for nearly 10 years. They spent nearly $300,000 on the renovation. Barry Van Dyke said the siblings like to develop properties in walkable, urban cores.
Less than a year after it opened, Harmony won the Gerald R. Helmholdt Grand Award from the Neighborhood Business Alliance. It was the second straight year a brewery walked home with the award: Brewery Vivant won it in 2011.
Although Brewery Vivant located in an already busy block of Cherry Street in East Hills, owners Kris and Jason Spaulding have taken on an important role as neighborhood leaders in sustainability, community engagement and charitable giving.
“I definitely believe that breweries seem to have a big economic impact on revitalizing neighborhoods,” said Jason Spaulding. “I even sat in on a tradeshow of real estate and economic development and downtown development professionals where they solicit breweries specifically to locate in areas where they want to bring an old neighborhood back to life. So I think that has been proven to be true and is finding traction in the real world.”
The city’s first west-side brewery since Prohibition, The Mitten Brewing Co. took the historic Engine House No. 9 on Leonard Street NW and converted it into a fast-growing brewery. In its first year of operation, the Mitten donated nearly $30,000 to area nonprofits, despite its relatively meager output of 512 barrels of beer. The Detroit Tigers-themed brewery also recently leased the root beer stand across the street and is seeking a nearby building for a production facility in a neighborhood in need of some revitalization.
While The Mitten is dedicated to the west side, it won’t be the only brewery there for long. The Harmony Brewing owners took the former Little Mexico Cafe on Stocking Avenue NW out of receivership for $800,000 in November.
“Before we even started thinking about financials, we were talking to the neighbors,” Van Dyke said, adding they even stopped at The Mitten. “We asked if it was something they would like in the neighborhood and if it would add value.”
Mark Lewis, executive director at Neighborhood Ventures, said breweries don’t actually serve as anchors of such urban development but do help round out the neighborhood.
“When you’re talking about microbreweries, they serve as an aspect,” said Lewis. “They’re as successful as other entertainment establishments would be. It’s the same as additional retail.”
Although neighborhood development may not depend on the breweries, they do add a significant cultural aspect, Lewis said.
“They add a certain culture and vibrancy to the city we’ve never seen before,” he said. “It adds to the character and vibe of neighborhoods.”