Village to decide soon whether an industrial harborside parcel will be a park, or possibly a pub
Short's Brewing Company wants to reinvent Elk Rapids’ waterfront the same way it has the taste of beer.
But while many residents want Short’s to open a brewpub at the site of a crumbling mustard factory, the proposal has run into resistance from village officials who were caught off-guard as they were drawing up plans for a park at the location.
They say it’s too soon in the process to be debating whether to sell the former Bech’s Mustard Factory to Short’s. First the village has to decide whether to sell the property at all, or to go ahead with plans started in September to build boat slips and a park at the site.
There will be a public hearing on the matter Feb. 21.
Daniel Reszka, village president, says the meeting is not about the Short’s proposal, even though that seems to be what’s on everyone’s mind.
“It’s not a forum about Short’s proposal, specifically, it’s about whether we should keep it public or not,” Reszka said. “The property, at this point, is not for sale, so we have to determine whether or not we even want to put the property up for sale.”
At the meeting the village will debate whether they should sell a portion of the property to a private company like Short’s, whether they should consider a public-private partnership to lease the property to a private operator through the Downtown Development Authority, or whether to demolish the buildings to make way for a park.
No matter what happens, around 20 boat slips are planned for the property.
HUGE DRAW FOR FANS
Short’s operations manager Matt Drake says his company understands they might not be the only ones to bid on the property, but he said he hopes they get a chance to make their proposal.
And they do have a lofty proposal. It includes a brewpub, an area for independent food vendors, three condos, and a banquet hall with a commercial kitchen to service weddings.
The centerpiece would be the microbrewery, which Drake said would showcase experimental, small-batch beers from brewery founder Joe Short and head brewer Tony Hansen. Every day or so there would be something new and different, in addition to the company’s well-known varieties.
“I think that would be a huge draw for our fans,” Drake said.
In the other half of that brick building, Short’s general contractor Chris Clore drew up plans for a local cuisine food court, where three vendors could bring food carts to rented stalls.
Drake said the plans were drawn up after he and Short walked through Elk Rapids in October, looking for a spot to build a brew pub. They realized they needed an outlet after so many customers stopped by the production brewery.
“People drive by and they see Short’s, and they stop in and say, ‘Hey, can we drink beer? Can we buy a growler or a t- shirt?’ and we have to say no,” Drake said. When Drake and Short happened upon the mustard factory site, they knew it was what they wanted. They liked the looks of the old buildings, and they liked the idea of bringing them back to life.
They thought their proposal would be embraced by Elk Rapids. After all, they’ve been lobbied by other towns and DDAs to open pubs. It would add jobs and mean more visitors for the village.
But they didn’t get the reaction they expected.
The Elk Rapids Harbor Commission already had plans for the property, and those didn’t include a microbrewery.
PARK CONSTRUCTION, TAX FREE
Just as Short’s thought its proposal would be a hit, the harbor commission members must have thought that what they were planning for the property would be lauded and celebrated in the community.
They had a plan to purchase an industrial waterfront property, clean it up and build a park, all without taxpayer funds. It would be paid for through marina revenue.
Since the Short’s proposal was dropped on the table, however, the harbor commission has not seen a lot of laudatory celebration.
“Everybody in the community seems to be on the Short’s bandwagon, which is OK,” said Joeseph Fisher, a harbor commission member. “For whatever reason, people have jumped on the idea that Short’s is the panacea.”
Fisher said plans for the park at the Dexter Street property were made through a public process with the entire community in mind. There’s been talk of a splash pad for the property.
“We’re not looking for a park for boaters,” he said. “If it’s going to be a park, it’s going to be a park.”
That said, Fisher also said harbor commission money – money earned through the operation of the marina – is restricted by law.
“The harbor commission is somewhat limited as to how it spends its money. It has to be on something related to marinas or boaters,” he said.
Fisher hasn’t decided what he believes should happen to the property. (The harbor commission makes recommendations, since the property was purchased for the village with harbor funds, but the village still has final say over the property.)
“I’m still open, there are many different factors at work now,” Fisher said. “The big issue is, should it go back to the public sector? Or should it become a park, or something like that?” Reszka said he also still has an open mind about the future of the property.
HARBOR MONEY STAYS IN THE HARBOR
The fact that harbor commission money must be used for the harbor could work in favor of Short’s or another private developer, if one comes along.
Fisher said because the village used harbor money to purchase the property, the property has to be used for the benefit of the harbor or the money has to be paid back.
One way to pay back the money is through a private sale of the property.
“We will have to give serious thought to putting it back into the private sector,” he said. “We’ve got to be paid back, and if that means having to put it back into the private sector, then that’s what we’ll ask for.”
Reszka said there is still a lot of support for a park. He said around a hundred people attended a design meeting in September where the consensus was for a park, but that was before the Short’s proposal.
“There are people who are very interested in keeping it public, so this is going to be an interesting decision,” Reszka said.
One of the arguments against a brewpub proposal is lack of parking around the property.
Short’s plans include a parking lot, but the size of the lot is likely not big enough for parking at peak times.
Fisher said he thinks it’s premature to talk about parking for a commercial outcome, but he said should Short’s prevail, the harbor commission would likely act to protect parking spaces for marina users.
There is a public parking lot across Dexter Street from the lot which is also adjacent to the marina.
“As a harbor commission, we would probably ask the village to assist us in passing an ordinance to regulate who parks there,” Fisher said.
NO OTHER APPARENT LOCATION
Many opponents have said they love the idea of a Short’s brewpub in Elk Rapids, just not at that location.
‘”What we’re largely hearing from the harbor commission is we like you guys, we just don’t think you’re a good fit for this spot,” Drake said.
He said they’ve looked around and haven’t found another place they like.
The commercial space available along River Street is rich in historical and architectural character, but it’s suited for retail, not a brewpub, he said.
Drake said that when they took a good look at the mustard factory site, it was everything they wanted.
“We just kind of fell in love with it, it’s just perfect for what we think we need,” Drake said.
Their vision also includes plans for the white building on the property. That vision is not shared by all concerned; even when Fisher and Reszka talk about the possibility of a commercial development on the site, they say they think the white building will likely have to go.
Drake says he hoped the village considers all or any part of what Short’s wants to do.
But they have big visions for the white building, which they see as a banquet hall that could host weddings catered by local restaurants.
Drake said they were impressed by the size of the interior of the space and the high ceilings.
“We get a million requests a year for a Short’s wedding and we don’t have a spot available,” Drake said.
At other times, the venue could be a public meeting space.
Above that building, where the mustard company owner once lived, there would be room for several condos with views of Grand Traverse Bay.
BREWPUB BOOSTS BELLAIRE
This isn’t the first time Short’s has faced opposition. When Joe Short wanted to open a brewpub in Bellaire in the early 2000s, the reception was decidedly mixed.
Then, Short was unknown as a brewer and a businessman. You’d have a hard time finding those opponents now.
“The thing that Joe Short and Short’s Brewing has brought to this area is just phenomenal,” said Patti Savant, executive director of the Bellaire Chamber of Commerce. “He has a following that just keeps this town hopping.”
Savant remembers driving through town years ago on the Forth of July and not seeing any other cars.
Since Short’s took off, the town is bustling with business year-round, she said. Other businesses, like Lulu’s Bistro, have also contributed to the resurgence.
Savant said people come from all over to go to the Short’s brewpub, and some people stay at a local bed and breakfast just to be close to the beer.
Like in Elk Rapids, there were also concerns in Bellaire about parking. After the need for more spaces became apparent, there was a successful push to turn a village-owned property into a parking lot.
“I don’t think it matters where you go in this world, you’re going to have parking problems,” Savant said.
In fact, if a town doesn’t have parking problems, then it’s probably got much more serious issues.
“On holidays when you could drive through and you didn’t see a car in town, those were problems,” Savant said. Lack of parking is “a nice problem to have – you might have to walk a block or two, but it’s a nice walk.”
A year-round draw would be great for Elk Rapids, said Lindy Bishop, economic development director of the Elk Rapids DDA.
She said she hopes the village at least entertains proposals for private development of the property. She said if the village ends up unsatisfied with the Short’s proposal and other proposals, they could go back to the park option.
“Our village council and our harbor commission have really been trying hard to make this a process where a lot of people could have input,” Bishop said.