September 21, 2020

The Making of a Public Space

Five years into a privately led massive reinvention, the redevelopment of the Village of Walloon Lake isn’t slowing down.
By Patrick Sullivan | June 8, 2019

If you haven’t been through the Village of Walloon Lake in the past five years or so, you will notice some changes — it’s gone from a sleepy, tattered ghost of a place to a vibrant, handsome town center that can draw tourists who formerly would have been only tempted by places like Harbor Springs or Charlevoix.

The man responsible for the change — Walloon native and Grand Rapids businessman Jonathan Borisch — is not by any means done, even though he expected to be by now. This spring, Borisch applied to the Melrose Township planning commission (the Village of Walloon is unincorporated and is governed by the township) for a planned unit development permit that will launch new phases of development over the next several years and further change the face of the village.

Borisch said what’s happened to Walloon Lake could happen to other struggling northern Michigan towns, but in addition to a lot of money, it takes a willingness to work with the community to build a consensus that (almost) everybody can live with.

Borisch originally planned to develop a hotel (Hotel Walloon, a luxury hotel that just celebrated its fifth anniversary), a restaurant (the Barrell Back), a park, a marina, and some commercial and retail space. Then — or so he thought — the Grand Rapids-based real estate developer would sit back and enjoy his retirement.

Instead, the reinvigoration of the village created new needs, and Borisch said he’s determined to meet them.

“I have people who keep asking me for office space, and we don’t have any, so we want to create some more office space. I would like to provide more to do in the village, and so we want to provide more retail space,” Borisch said. “And we’re going to have, I think six condominiums, that won’t be extremely expensive but more-high end. And then back in those woods, we want to put three apartment buildings that would provide some housing for people that can’t find a place to live up here.”

The apartment buildings will contain what’s hoped to be workforce housing, priced within the reach of people who work at the village’s shops, hotel, or restaurant. The 48 units are slated to go up for sale, but at a price that would cost buyers just $600 or $700 per month.

That kind of housing is critical for Walloon because right now, it doesn’t exist, Borisch said. Borisch hopes to bolster the year-round population in the village.

“It’s been successful, and there’s more opportunities,” he said. “I think the village will be better if there are more retail spots and the office space will provide some year-round population. That’s a good thing.”

This phase of project, Borisch said, will finish his work. After, someone else will have to have the vision and the funds to launch the next project.

“I think if we can get some housing and some more retail and office, I think the village will be fine, and I don’t think it will need anything else,” he said. “But who knows?”

How do you bring a dead or dying northern Michigan town back to life?

To begin with, Borisch said he looked to the era when the village was a successful, popular tourist draw, and he thought about how to recreate the kind of place that the Village of Walloon Lake used to be 100 years ago.

“It was very, very busy back then,” he said. “The village has so much history from back then, it just seemed like it would be good to play off that history. … It was busy before, why was it busy before? What was there that people wanted? When I was a kid — so that’s 60 years ago — there were just as many docks as there are out there today,” he said. “There were just as many boats out there. There were three marinas. There was a boat builder. Two general stores. A bowling alley. So it was there.”

Boating, Borisch understood, would be a key to Walloon’s identity, and he needed a way to connect the village and the hotel to the water in such a way that the village became part of a day spent boating out on the lake.

That meant that the 60-slip marina that Borisch would develop, which had been conceived of by an earlier developer to include only private, individually owned slips, would have to be able to accommodate anyone who wanted to launch their boat into the lake.

In fact, that ethic — making the village as accessible to the public as possible, even if, with high-end hotels and restaurants, much of the accessibility comes only at a steep price — characterized Borisch’s vision for Walloon Lake throughout the redevelopment.

Developers had showed up in the village before, and they’d gotten nowhere.

Some residents believe that Borisch had an edge — because he was born and raised in Walloon Lake, living there until his family moved to Grand Rapids when he was 10 and coming back every summer after — but Borisch doesn’t think that biographic detail was as important as the way he approached designing his development proposal.

For example, contrast Borisch’s approach with the developer who came to Walloon Lake most recently before him with a plan to turn the village into condominiums.

For one thing, Borisch said he thinks that was a terrible idea because it would have made the village private; it would have killed it as a public space. The plans didn’t include a restaurant or a hotel or, certainly, a public park.

“Privatizing the whole village, that’s what the original plan was, by somebody else. That to me would have been a crime,” he said. “There’s plenty of private living space around the lake. Forty miles of it.”

But a more important difference between Borisch’s approach and his predecessor’s, if you want to understand why one project stalled and the other succeeded, was how each approached the community with their ideas.

“As a developer, I came in with a lot of ideas, and a lot of those ideas I came in with never happened. But ideas that the people at the general store or the people at the township hall or the people on the lake, they all had the opportunity to provide ideas, and lots of them were better than my ideas,” he said. “I know that the developers before me had some issues with local people. And I think that was because they thought they had all the best ideas. Nobody has all the best ideas.”

He said his willingness to compromise was a bigger advantage than being from Walloon Lake. He’d been gone long enough, he said, that when he came back, folks were unsure.

He said above all he wanted to come up with a way to improve Walloon Lake in a way that wouldn’t pit the wealthy people who own houses on the lake against the regular people who live and work in the village.

“I’d been gone a long time and they wanted to see where my loyalties lied. It’s tough up here because you’ve got all these million-dollar houses on the lake, or multi, multi, multi-million-dollar houses on the lake, and then you’ve got people that are in the village,” he said. “And there are some people that would just as soon like to see them butting heads. I told everybody that my goal was to bring these groups together. If I did anything that was going to separate them, that was a bad plan. Whatever I did was going bring them together.” 

Along the way, Borisch paid for it all without government redevelopment grants. That included development of the private sewer system and the “circle” park located between the hotel and the restaurant (which is located in the second floor of a building that also houses one of his son’s boat-dealing businesses).

“It was somewhat irritating that the state would never spend a dime,” he said. “But the only way the state spends a dime is if you go to them and say, ‘If you’ll do this, I’ll do this.” I just went and did it. And so then they go, ‘Why should we help?’ And they never did.”

Well into the redevelopment, it became clear that Walloon Lake needed sidewalks, and its road needed to be reconstructed. Borisch said he became resolved not to pay for that.

Nonetheless, effort after effort to get the Michigan Department of Transportation to redevelop M-75 through the village were met by refusals, he said. Part of the problem was that Walloon, because it is not incorporated, doesn’t qualify for a lot of the funding that would otherwise be available.

“It was dirt sidewalks. I mean, even after the hotel was built, it was dirt sidewalks,” Borisch said. “I just refused to pay for fixing a road through here. And finally, I think we embarrassed the state, and somebody said, ‘Well, I think we can get some federal funds.’ And so, they assisted us in getting federal funds.”

The Downtown Development Authority also helped. Federal funds of $250,000 paid for sidewalks and landscaping, and the DDA paid a half-million to fix the road.

Borisch is also hopeful that the township will, with the help of a Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund Grant, purchase the circle park so that it can be operated and maintained as a public park.

“I’m trying to make it so that this continues without anybody from my family being involved,” he said.

Real estate broker Wally Kidd, who now has his office in one of Borisch’s Walloon Lake buildings, said that to do what Borisch did takes a lot of money.

More than that, though, he said, it takes vision and guts, because when Borisch set out and invested so much money into the village, there were no guarantee that he would succeed. He was taking a big chance.

“It’s always easy to look back and say, ‘He made a great move,’” Kidd said. “Jon took a huge leap of faith.”

Kidd, who, like Borisch, grew up in Walloon Lake, said the changes brought by Borisch have been nothing short of amazing. The town, in Kidd’s opinion, used to look something “like Newark, New Jersey, on Walloon Lake” and today it is posh enough to attract well-off travelers from around the world.

Kidd said Walloon Lake languished for years, and it took someone like Borisch to come along and change things.

“I think it was a normal course of events. The original owners of these businesses down here, they grew older and it just naturally fell into disrepair; there was no succession plan,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say that Jon is driven by the desire to provide people with a higher level of experience.”

Linda Penfold, owner of the Walloon Lake Village Store, said what Borisch has done is amazing. She said village is completely different a few years after he returned.

“It was a lot different place,” she said. “There’s been a lot of forward progression in prettying up the downtown.”


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