Middleville activating downtown, river


Downtown Middleville soon will have a different look. The empty lot to the right is the site of a former hotel. Across the street on the corner is a building slated for $3 million in renovations. Courtesy Village of Middleville

Grand Rapids’ downtown isn’t the only one sitting on a river and undergoing a transformation.

With a population of about 3,400 within 2.4 square miles, the Barry County village of Middleville is working on updates to its own one-block downtown, bordering the Thornapple River.

To visit downtown Middleville, head south on M-37 from M-6 for about 7 miles and turn left at “the light” — the only stoplight in the town — at W. Main Street.

It is and always has been a quiet town with the amenities residents need, great for outdoorsy types who may like to occasionally visit a bigger city, said Duane Weeks, Middleville village manager.

Primarily attracted by the Middleville-based water heater manufacturer Bradford White Corporation’s continued growth and hiring, Weeks said more residents have been moving into the village and completing small private projects that have enhanced some areas.

To accommodate some growth and attract more visitors and residents, village leaders are planning to build, renovate and — similar to other area communities near bodies of water — activate the underused river and its banks to attract more recreation.

The downtown lot at 112 E. Main St. is empty, the site of a former hotel that was destroyed by a fire in 1981. The village has issued an RFQ for site development worth about $4 million, with hopes of seeing a mixed-use building with middle-income housing, ground-floor restaurant or retail space and a design that respects the downtown’s historic character.

Weeks said village staff is planning an event for developers to discuss ideas and answer questions, so he encourages any interested developers to reach out.

Right across the street from the empty lot, at 101 E. Main St., the 19th-century historic building is undergoing about $3 million in major renovations and remodeling starting in April, with a grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation for about $385,000 to become the Lofts of Middleville.

The former home to several businesses over the decades, renovation plans by Grand Rapids-based TJA Architecture include converting the upper level to two duplex apartments and the lower level to retail and office space, as well as outfitting the building with new windows, siding, an awning and more.

There are no tenants identified yet, but initial ideas for the ground floor include transforming it into a brewery.

Weeks and Brian Urquhart, Middleville planning/zoning administrator, expect this building to act as the catalyst for further redevelopment and new development within the village’s downtown area.

Across the river, still within the central business district, the abandoned former Baby Bliss manufacturing building, at 227 Spring St., is up for grabs.

Between Railroad Street and Thornapple River lies a riverside park community leaders have big plans for. The concept site plan by Grand Rapids-based firms Nederveld and Williams & Works includes a band shell and amphitheater, a pedestrian bridge, converting a former train depot into a museum, covered and uncovered patio seating, a picnic and seating river overlook, playground, fire pit and a decorative train caboose.

“We feel that river running through (town) is truly our greatest resource, and at this point, I think it's kind of an underutilized resource,” Weeks said.

It’s all about elevating the area’s natural features to encourage visitors, Urquhart said.

Urquhart said the village has initially gone after public investment in its community, with the hope of then attracting private developers, and the plan seems to be working. Weeks said the levels of investment are the most the village has seen in at least a decade.

“We're close enough to the Grand Rapids area to where the whole West Michigan-Grand Rapids development scene has still shown high interest in our community,” he said.

The downtown farmers market, finished about two years ago in Sesquicentennial Park, at 91 E. Main St., runs every Friday from May to October and has had strong placemaking success, Urquhart said.

Whether visiting the farmers market or one of the area’s several festivals or amenities, he said the downtown businesses — mostly restaurants, at this point — have noticed a benefit.

“When we get people in here for one thing or another, these businesses are seeing an increase of people coming in and out of the doors,” Urquhart said.

Middleville has a weekly summer music series, the summer Heritage Days Festival in August, Taste of Middleville in the summer, a fall color tour and the popular Holiday Holly Trolley. The downtown district is benefiting from recent investments in nearby amenities, such as the Paul Henry Thornapple Trail and Veteran’s Park. Weeks also touted the local Thornapple Kellogg School District’s level of education.

Long term, Weeks said they would like to see the downtown’s empty spaces filled in and attract a couple shops to accent the restaurants, as well as a couple offices.

An old, small village established in the mid-1800s, Weeks said downtown Middleville was a place where residents went for supplies and where friends and neighbors would spend time together.

“We would like to see Middleville get back to that,” Weeks said. “Activate the downtown so we can fill the streets and get people back to where you meet somebody and you can have a conversation.”

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