Terrace Point Landing units are sitting on Muskegon Lake in the foreground, with downtown Muskegon in the background. Courtesy Greenridge Realty
(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Community leaders are taking further steps toward revitalizing downtown Muskegon and establishing its lakeside identity.
As laid out by the city’s Imagine Muskegon Lake plans, the downtown and area around the lake — from Pere Marquette Park in the west to the former B.C. Cobb power plant in the east — is undergoing continuous changes to centralize the lake after revitalization from decades of pollution that began in the 1800s logging era.
With Muskegon Lake as the pinnacle, the southernmost shore’s Lakeside District is foreseen as the downtown center, the existing center to be known as the historic downtown, according to Dave Alexander, executive director of Downtown Muskegon Now.
Leaders are promoting downtown Muskegon as not only a tourist destination but also a great place to live.
People seem to be getting the message.
About $50 million in projects was finished in 2018, including some apartment buildings, all of which were booked within a month of opening, even with some one-bedroom apartments priced around $1,200 and some two-bedroom apartments prices around $1,900.
And developers have taken notice.
Numerous projects leveraging more than $100 million in investment will be finished or underway this year.
One of those is NorthTown 794, going inside the renovated 21,000-square-foot, three-story former Al Perri Furniture building at 794 Pine St. Planned for opening mid-2019, the building will include a brewery, the restaurant Redmon's Kitchen & Bar, the restaurant Capone’s Speakeasy and Pizzeria, an Aldea Coffee location, office space, a rentable 1,500-square-foot conference room and an outdoor courtyard with seating.
John Essex, of Core Realty Partners, is investing in the project, which includes building restoration focused on revealing the original urban brick walls, tin ceilings and expansive windows.
Multiple new privately owned restaurants, markets and boutiques are popping up within new and old mixed-use buildings.
“Specialty independent, locally owned destination retailers are what are going to repopulate our downtown,” Alexander said, adding it will be important to ensure such businesses can move in affordably. They will bring people who treat those places as a destination, and then they’ll visit other neighboring businesses while they’re out, he said.
Muskegon is in a unique position of rebuilding a demolished downtown, which means leaders can decide how it should look.
While it will lack many of the historical elements other downtowns have maintained, Muskegon City Manager Frank Peterson noted there are benefits to managing a portfolio of modern buildings.
Recovering from wasted investment
The community gradually is rising from the dust after demolition of the downtown mall leveled much of the area.
The city finally paid off related bonds in 2017 and has been able to use those funds for the city’s benefit since the start of the 2018 fiscal year last July 1.
The nonprofit economic development organization Downtown Muskegon Now has been leading downtown management, normally the function of a Downtown Development Authority.
The Muskegon DDA existed but was using its resources to pay $360,000 per year in bonds for the mall, according to Peterson.
The mall’s owner requested the funds in the 1990s for property purchases and demolition costs that were meant to go toward an expansion of the former downtown mall, with the intention of attracting the now-bankrupt and liquidated company Bon-Ton.
Bon-Ton instead opened a since-closed Younkers in The Lakes Mall, and the expansion never happened.
“It was a huge waste of money,” said Peterson, who’s been in his role since 2013.
Now that the DDA is free of that debt and can assume its normal responsibilities, DMN and its resources are being absorbed into the DDA following a unanimous DMN board approval in December, Alexander said.
Between the consolidated funds, Peterson said the DDA will have an estimated $1.1 million annually to use toward its efforts, a significant increase from DMN’s $100,000. He said the DDA is in the process of creating a plan on how to use those funds that should be finished in the next six weeks.
Alexander said the plan is for him to take a business development manager role for the DDA, leading work similar to what he did at DMN.
Alexander said the DMN board has been in discussion with the city about this move since last April.
Downtown plans and challenges
Downtown Muskegon received an estimated 876,000 visitors in 2018. The city’s population is 38,000. The objective not only is to increase that but also to get some of those people to stay.
Alexander added leaders should be intentional about making downtown Muskegon a place for all, not some.
“One of the key goals is to have a downtown that reflects all of Muskegon County,” he said. “As we look at $1,900/month rents, that’s an issue. That’s an issue I want to be addressed as long as I’m here.”
He said there needs to be a stronger focus on affordable housing and action that keeps current residents from being pushed out.
One of those projects underway is the 73-unit Jefferson Apartments, at 1021 Jefferson St., meant as affordable housing for working-class families and younger professionals — the “missing middle.”
“We want to be proactive in making sure that this is not just an upper-class enclave, that we have a mixture through the inclusion of everybody,” Alexander said.
To make locating downtown plausible for families, Alexander said he believes there needs to be a focus on providing education downtown.
Peterson said some of the city’s plans include enhancing pedestrian friendliness of downtown, including lighting, walkways and landscaping.
One of the next projects planned is to enhance the Third Street corridor, now branded Midtown.
He said there is some work toward providing incentives for owners to improve their buildings’ facades.
Another pedestrian concern is road and sidewalk snow removal. Muskegon contracts for one daily snow removal downtown, which takes place at night and focuses on allowing pedestrians to get from one doorstep to another, Alexander said.
At a cost of $72,000 per removal, the city can afford only one per day. He said it’s up to the individual business owners to clear a path from the road up to the doorstep.
With increasing budgets, Peterson said there is expected to be more funds for snow removal in the future.
Leveraging the outdoor assets
Many area leaders say nearby Lake Michigan beaches and regional parks are among the features that set West Michigan apart, and for downtown Muskegon, sitting on the shore of Muskegon Lake makes it even more unique.
That is the message the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce recently revealed as its next attraction campaign. Alexander said the DDA will work with the chamber and others to promote that message.
The chamber’s “Taking it Outdoors” campaign has three focuses to highlight the water-related “blue economy”: to recognize and celebrate area outdoor-related businesses, to attract new outdoor-related businesses and highlight quality of life to attract more people to the area.
Whether marinas or marine transportation companies, fishing-related business, or water-related manufacturers, the chamber wants to emphasize those industries, said Tom Schultz, chamber board chair.
He said the chamber is partnering with Muskegon-based Hemisphere Design Works, the world’s largest kayak manufacturer, to promote Muskegon as the “kayak capital of the USA.”
He said the chamber will be working with municipalities to expand hiking and biking trails and other outdoor amenities.
“It's all about quality of life,” Schultz said, and attracting more millennials, in particular, as well as retaining current residents.
“The hope is that this will create awareness and draw more people to experience the Muskegon area and eventually relocate here,” he said.
Schultz said it seems like many from the Grand Rapids travel to the Grand Haven or Saugatuck areas to visit the beaches but tend not to consider Muskegon until they’re introduced to the city.
“I think what we've seen is the people that come here are in awe,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of momentum going in the community, and it's great timing.”
He was chair of the Kent County Convention and Visitors Bureau board before the DeVos Place convention center opened, so he said he is experiencing a similar initiative now as he was during his time in Grand Rapids, with a convention center slated to open in downtown Muskegon in 2021.
“All of those things are a piece of the puzzle that will tie in with this theme,” Schultz said. “It’s really capitalizing on the unique assets that we have.”
Downtown Muskegon projects
Projects completed in 2018
Terrace Flats (316 Morris Ave.), $1.7 million – 21 market-rate apartments in the upper two floors of Terrace Plaza
Highpoint Flats (285 W. Western Ave.), $7 million – Renovations of a nine-story historic bank building to create 47 apartments above three floors of restaurant, retail and office space
Heritage Commons (Clay Avenue between First and Second streets), $7 million – includes multistory townhomes, condos, apartments and commercial space
Berkshire Senior Living (275 W Clay Ave.), $16 million – 84 senior subsidized and market-rate apartments and commercial space
Muskegon Community College Carolyn I. and Peter Sturrus Technology Center (388 W. Clay Ave.), $18 million – houses several of the college’s applied technology programs
Downtown Muskegon PetSafe Bark Park (793 W. Western Ave.), $100,000 – first public dog park in Muskegon County is seven-tenths of an acre and includes space for large and small dogs
L.C. Walker Arena (470 W. Western Ave.), $1.7 million – Upgrades include open pavilion standing area, six private seating suites, a semi-private seating area, a second party deck and Rad Dads Taco and Tequila Bar
Projects to be completed in 2019
Delta by Marriott (470 W. Western Ave.), $6 million – Renovations of the 201-room Holiday Inn into a Delta by Marriott, to be completed in May
NorthTown 794 (794 Pine St.) – 21,000-square-foot, three-story former Al Perri Furniture building, to be completed midyear will feature: Redmon's Kitchen & Bar, Capone’s Speakeasy and Pizzeria, Aldea Coffee, a brewery, garden-level outdoor courtyard with seating, rentable 1,500-square-foot conference room, and office space
Nipotes Italian Kitchen (98 W. Clay Ave.) – New Italian restaurant to open this spring
Boomtown Market (285 W. Western Ave.) – Small local market, to open this spring
Dr. Rolf’s BBQ (477 W. Western Ave.) – Barbeque restaurant, to open in February
Pigeon Hill Brewing Company production facility (895 Fourth St.), $2 million – New 15,000-square-foot brewing facility
Lakeview Lofts (351 W. Western Ave.), $8 million – New six-story building includes 20 apartments and commercial space, to be completed soon
L.C. Walker Arena (470 W. Western Ave.), $3 million – Second phase of upgrades includes new restrooms, restaurants, roofs, entryways, HVAC systems and a sports bar
Projects underway in 2019
Terrace Point Landing (on Terrace Point Marina), $14 million – 70-lot home community development
Jefferson Apartments (1021 Jefferson St.) – 73 units of affordable apartments for middle-class working families and younger adults
Midtown Square phase two (near Fourth and Fifth streets intersection) – Urban housing units to begin construction in 2019
Midtown streetscape (Third Street area) – Pedestrian-friendly updates include slowing down traffic and redirecting parking, widening sidewalks, benches and lighting, easier access to buildings and landscaping
Watermark Center (930 Washington Ave.), $33 million – Next phase of the ongoing development includes 170 market-rate apartments and commercial space along Division Street
Lakeview Lofts phase two (351 W. Western Ave.), $8 million – Construction beginning on mirror image of phase one, which will connect internally
Heritage Square Townhomes (Clay Avenue between First and Second streets) – Completion of townhomes
Hartshorn Village (at Hartshorn Marina), $30 million – 60 condos and rebuild of the clubhouse and pool
The Leonard (292 W. Western Ave.), $8.5-million – New 44,000-square-foot, six-story building to include commercial space, office space, apartments and parking