The Spirit of the Woods Gateway project promises to ring in a new era for downtown Manistee.
By Patrick Sullivan | Nov. 28, 2020
The entrance to downtown Manistee, as it stands today, is drab. On each side of River Street for the first block, buildings are crumbling and vacant or else look like they should be. Trash blows into empty, unkempt lots, and a House of Flavors restaurant, vacant since the business shuttered last year, stands as a fading symbol of an era gone by.
Now, a group of Manistee business leaders wants to revamp the entrance to Manistee’s Victorian-era downtown, a business district whose ornate architecture hints of a heyday that happened over a century ago.
In September, the project — dubbed the Spirit of the Woods Manistee Gateway — was unveiled before the city council.
The project is expected to feature a 97,000-square foot, 100-plus room hotel, along with a rooftop bar, underground parking, and outdoor public plaza; an event center that could hold up to 300 people; office space and a welcome center; and a business incubator area where fledgling entrepreneurs could rent small booths and attempt retail ventures that, if successful, could move to permanent quarters elsewhere downtown.
The new development would encompass all the parcels on the south side of River Street from US-31 to Division Street and many of the parcels on the north side.
Stacie Bytwork, president of the Manistee Area Chamber of Commerce, said the project is in preliminary stages and is subject to change. The project is currently under review by the city brownfield authority and is expected next to go before the planning commission for approval of the overall plan.
Mark Miller, the chamber’s economic development director, said he is “98 percent” certain that the project will happen, and it could see ground broken in 2021.
The genesis of the project goes back to June 2018, even before Miller took the economic development job, when Bytwork organized a “developer day” for Manistee. Dozens of developers visited Manistee, toured the town, learned about opportunities, and basically listened to a sales pitch for Manistee.
“One of those developers took a keen interest in our town and the assets we had, and he saw the potential for redevelopment,” Miller said.
Once that developer got on board, Miller said, Little River Holdings, the economic development arm of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, joined the project, and the group settled on a development that would revamp the entrance to the city’s downtown.
Miller said Little River got involved because they’ve been dedicated to reinvesting in Manistee; they share the vision, he said, that something like this could be the catalyst to spur a transformation of River Street, which in recent years has seen small sections come to life, but the progress has been slow.
Bytwork said she’s been with the chamber for seven years, but that in the last three, the organization has shifted its focus to economic development, and the effort is paying off — not just with the Gateway projects, but with other developments springing up downtown.
Down River Street, at the other end of the downtown district, toward Lake Michigan, West Shore Community College has launched a $5 million renovation of an old Glik’s department store building, turning it into an economic development and education facility. The new building will house the college, the Manistee Area Chamber of Commerce, and Networks Northwest.
“Three years back, we kind of assembled our board of directors to really take the lead on economic development,” she said. “It’s kind of pushed us in that direction. I think we’ve always had the kind of assets and the infrastructure to have investment and development come into the community. We’ve just kind of taken that next step in the selling of our community.”
Bytwork expects that once completed, the Gateway development will entice travelers along US-31 to turn into downtown Manistee, to park, and to explore.
“There are currently empty and blighted buildings that will be demolished and replaced with new buildings that will reflect the architectural assets of our Victorian-era downtown,” she said.
APPEAL AMID A PANDEMIC
Miller has lived in Manistee for a little over a year. He moved to Manistee to take the job at the chamber. Prior to that, he worked for state government in Lansing.
He’d visited Manistee before. In his role with the state, he’d worked closely with the county commission, and he's also spent time in the area on vacations, fly fishing and staying in a bed and breakfast in near Arcadia.
He said he was drawn to Manistee because of the access to outdoor recreation it offers.
“The move here was a quality of life moved for my wife and I, and we love a lot about things up here. One is it’s affordable. Also, all of the things that we like to do, the outdoors, the water, you know, hiking, biking, hunting, fishing,” Miller said. “All that stuff is readily available here. Just a short drive. And we’ve got a great state park. We've got a lot of really great trails.”
What drew Miller to Manistee — its small-town, northern charm — in part explains why this latest push for redevelopment has such a good chance at success and also how Manistee could experience an economic turnaround amid a pandemic that’s causing trouble for the economy as a whole.
“I think that this community was well-positioned before the pandemic,” he said. “And this actually has not been a slow year for us at the chamber. … People are looking at this as a great opportunity to invest.”
What’s happened, he said, is that the pandemic has caused people to look at small-town life differently — to see its appeal and to realize that they could move back to their hometown now, because they are working from home anyway.
“There are instances of people moving back to Manistee, who grew up here and maybe went to Chicago and Minneapolis or the East Coast,” he said. “They are moving back and bringing families with them and coming back to work remotely or to retire. We also have seen people reaching out, who want to invest in a small town, move away from the larger cities and we’re seeing that.”
A TURN TOWARD THE RIVER
Miller said he is hopeful that the Gateway project will spur development up and down River Street.
There are already signs it’s happening, he said, in addition to the West Shore Community College development that’s already underway.
“Things are looking up economically,” Miller said. “The development that’s coming, this is going to become a pretty happening place. … We have fielded a number of phone calls from people who are interested in starting a business and getting into those storefronts on River Street. They are looking for ways to join in and be part of this this.”
Part of making that happen means figuring out what will best work on River Street to draw visitors. Miller said they’ve made some progress figuring that out and looking at what’s already there.
There are two art galleries that are expected to open on River Street soon, one that will feature Michigan artists exclusively, something that Miller said he thinks will contribute to the Up North appeal of Manistee’s downtown.
“I think we envisioned for the future something that really folds in an authentic northern Michigan experience,” he said. “I think we’re moving towards that. And when you look at the Gateway project, we can see that that is part of where we’re heading.”
There’s also another restaurant expected for downtown, one that’s significant for a couple of reasons: First, the chamber managed to attract the development and find a location through, Redevelopment Ready Communities, a state program that offers assistance to projects that reclaim historical sites. The restaurant, Fricano’s on Manistee River, is slated to be located in a renovated downtown building.
The second reason why this development is important, Miller said, is because Fricano’s will have outdoor seating facing the river, marking the start of a push to develop the city’s riverfront.
“The Riverwalk is an absolutely fantastic, underutilized, underappreciated space,” Miller said. “And there are storefronts that face that direction. With a little bit of work, you could have a boardwalk experience there. We want to turn back towards the river. Let’s turn back, face the water.”
“PEOPLE ARE HOPING”
On a recent afternoon, Brad Newport stood behind the counter at Cadillac Plumbing and Heating, where he is the manager.
The business sits in one of the buildings on the south side of River Street that’s slated to be demolished to make with for the Gateway project. Newport said the company he works for is seeking a new location.
Despite the disruption it’s sure to cause him personally, Newport said he likes the looks of the project, and he hopes that it breathes new life into downtown Manistee. He said that he senses that most people in Manistee are in favor of the project. He said he is hopeful the developers will commit to designs that acknowledge Manistee’s Victorian heritage.
“I think it has great possibilities for the entrance to the downtown,” Newport said. “I think people are hoping that they just do a good job.”