High-energy Rooks is a resourceful person


Sarah Rooks, the president of Watermark Center in Muskegon, claims she has never had a problem finding a job — not even before she married Ben Rooks, back when she was still named Sarah Sass.

“Yes, being named Sarah Sass did get a lot of laughs,” said Rooks. It was never an encumbrance, though, she said. Early on, she became used to people calling her “Sassy,” “Sassafras” and even “Sasquatch.”

“But I never felt picked on, or cared. I never had any problems finding a job or anything like that. I don’t usually get bent about things that don’t really matter, such as having a unique last name. What could I do about it, anyway?” she said.

Actually, Sass is a good name to have in the Muskegon area. Her family roots in the area go back to the 1800s, and her late father owned Sass and Sons Drywall, a business operated today by her brothers.

Watermark Center includes Watermark Lofts, a new banquet hall and a planned movie studio. The lofts and banquet hall are in renovated parts of the old Shaw-Walker office furniture factory near Muskegon Lake in downtown Muskegon.

Watermark Center is a project of ANM Group of Brooklyn, N.Y., a real estate company that bought the mostly vacant site about 10 years ago. Knoll office furniture leases part of the plant for some of its production.

ANM poured millions into renovation of one wing of the old factory, building 53 loft condos, and was about to start construction of the banquet hall when the Great Recession came crashing down. Today, the 53 condos, many of which have views overlooking Muskegon Lake, are fully occupied, but like other condo projects completed as the economy was melting down, they are a mix of renters and owners.

Late last year, the banquet facility, called Watermark 920, was finally completed. With a full liquor license and downtown location, it has proven popular for wedding receptions and meetings.

“We have been booking solid,” said Rooks, with some dates in 2014 already taken.

Part of the empty factory was used as a movie set for a low-budget horror flick in 2008, and ANM had plans to invest in a state-of-the-art production studio there. The recession halted those plans, and then the downsizing of film industry incentives by the state government made the studio idea even less feasible. However, Moses Gross, president/CEO of ANM, announced last year the film studio project would go on, with or without the incentives.

Sarah Rooks
Watermark Center
Position: President
Age: 40
Birthplace: Muskegon
Residence: Norton Shores
Family: Husband, Ben; daughter Veda, 18; son Owen, 9.
Business/Community Involvement: Greater Muskegon Woman’s Club, Rotary, Muskegon County Museum strategy committee, volunteer with Adopt a Classroom through Muskegon Public Schools.
Biggest Career Break: Being fired from a job she wasn’t happy with anyway.

Rooks said she enjoys working for Gross because he likes new ideas — and she does get ideas. To Gross, she said, “no idea is too big. It just has to make sense.”

Rooks is resourceful — a survival trait perhaps bred into Muskegonites, who have had their share of economic setbacks over the generations. Muskegon was a major center of the lumber industry, until the white pine forests were gone. Design and production of wood-working machinery gave the city an industrial base, and it produced tank engines during World War II. While it still produces engines and transmissions for armored military vehicles, much of the area’s manufacturing has left for foreign shores. One of Muskegon’s last major employers — the paper mill that operated on Muskegon Lake for more than 100 years — closed a couple of years ago.

Rooks wanted to be an artist at age 17 when she enrolled at Muskegon Community College on a scholarship. She worked three jobs while carrying 12 credits. Her education later was interrupted by marriage and the birth of her daughter, but eventually she earned an associate’s degree in fine arts.

She also studied marketing, and her first professional job was “answering the phones” at the downtown Muskegon Mall. Eventually, she became a full-time employee in the mall’s office and its marketing manager. By age 28, Rooks was general manager of the mall, which by that time was in trouble. Many of its stores were relocating to the new Lakes Mall southeast of the city.

“I was the last general manager of the Muskegon Mall,” she said, “so I was the one who turned out the lights.” She described that experience as “real sad. I kind of grew up working there.”

Rooks landed a job in marketing at the Frauenthal Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Muskegon, but barely lasted a year. The chemistry wasn’t right, and she was fired, she said, yet she still relishes the relief she felt, and wasted no time going after another job. That was about the time Gross was buying the Shaw-Walker factory, and a friend put her in touch with him. She went to work there around 2004.

Rooks admits she doesn’t know how to relax the way most people do. On impulse in 2008, she started riding a bike to work each day in good weather. That’s five miles each way, providing her with 25 low-pressure minutes.

Another way she “relaxes” is playing on a real roller derby team with her 18-year-old daughter, Veda. Rooks joined the Skee Town Skirtz roller derby team a few years ago after watching Veda play in a youth roller derby league.

“I absolutely fell in love with it,” said Rooks, even though her first game, played in Wisconsin, was marred by the sudden death of her father from a heart attack that same day.

Now she and Veda are training to play on a new team called the Lakeshore Misfits. Roller derby is “aggressive and it’s not scripted,” she said. The players come from all walks of life.

One example of Rooks’ creativity is the Fat Garden Project involving Watermark and Fatty Lumpkins Sandwich Shack, a small, independent shop across from Watermark that has a lot of fans in Muskegon. Next door, there was an empty lot where an abandoned house gutted by fire had been cleared away by a new owner. Part of the lot is now parking for the sandwich shop, but part of it is the Fat Garden Project, a small and unusual urban green space with a planned garden, which will also feature works by local artists. Mat Moore, who works for Watermark Center in maintenance and also is an artist, has been building furniture from materials salvaged from the old factory for the garden.

At one point, Rooks traded “Iron Man” for some live bamboo to be planted in the Fat Garden. Iron Man is a goldfish that was living in a big tropical fish tank at the Watermark office. The fish grew to be a foot long — too big for the tank. Now he’s living the good life in an outdoor goldfish pool.

The Fat Garden Project was entered in the Let’s Save Michigan contest sponsored by the Michigan Municipal League, which is trying to make Michigan a better place to live and work. Forty-seven projects across the state were entered and first place went to a Detroit project, but Fat Garden took second place and a $1,000 prize that will be used to help complete the project.

Earlier this year, Rooks was among several women named Muskegon County Women of Accomplishment by the Greater Muskegon Woman’s Club. They were honored for their professional accomplishments and exemplary volunteer work. In Rooks case, that included her participation in the Adopt a Classroom program through Muskegon Public Schools, where volunteers each month interact with kids in the classrooms and help teachers by donating needed classroom supplies.

Rooks also was honored in 2011 among the Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 young business leaders.

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