In the beginning, the voices seemed loud. You’re crazy, they said. You’re crazy for opening a brewery in downtown Muskegon.
“It feels like yesterday, or an eternity ago, that we opened our doors for the first time. I do remember sitting in the taproom that first night, hearing everybody have a good time, seeing everybody interacting with each other and then having the naysayers playing through my head,” said Michael Brower, one of Pigeon Hill Brewing Company’s three owners. “I had this audio track and heard, ‘Opening a brewery in Muskegon is crazy…Anyone who wants to open a business in downtown Muskegon is a crazy person.”
A little more than four years after Pigeon Hill debuted, no one is saying they’re crazy—at least not pejoratively. After all, as it turns out, opening a brewery in downtown Muskegon has made for a crazy successful business. So successful that on Thursday, Aug. 30, Brower and the other two owners of Pigeon Hill, Joel Kamp and Chad Doane, celebrated the groundbreaking of their $2 million, 15,000-square-foot production brewery at 895 Fourth St. in downtown Muskegon, which is slated to open in March 2019. At the new location, they’ll have space for brewing, packaging, offices, tours, tastings, and more.
“I thought to myself that night, and I’ve continued to think to myself since, is maybe what Muskegon needs is a healthy dose of crazy,” Brower said during Thursday’s groundbreaking ceremony. “Looking around us today, I see a lot of crazy people, and I’d like to salute everyone in this crowd because we might be crazy, but we’ve taken Muskegon from a town where we think about what we could be and might be to a town where we look around and think, ‘We’re there.’ And we’re going great places from there, too.”
Perched right by Muskegon Lake and Heritage Landing, the new facility will be situated on a 77,000-square-foot property that the three owners purchased from the city for $98,400. The brewery’s main taproom is expected to stay at 500 W. Western Ave. until 2021, when it is slated to move from the Noble Building to Pigeon Hill’s current 7,000-square-foot brewing site at 441 W. Western Ave.
While this story alone—one of rapid growth, of a skyrocketing business, of Pigeon Hill beer now being sold in about 1,000 bars and stores throughout Michigan—is impressive enough, Brower and others were careful to emphasize it is nowhere near the entire narrative. This, too, is a story about history, about community, about loving a place others seemed to have given up on.
Pigeon Hill opened not long after Muskegon’s first craft beer outlet, Unruly Brewing Co., debuted in Western Avenue’s renovated Russell Block building at the end of November in 2013, and the two businesses have been part of a resurging downtown that has evolved from being filled with empty and unpaved roads following the demise and razing of the Muskegon Mall in 2001 to a bustling hub filled with restaurants, shops, an art gallery, and more.
“From the outset, Pigeon Hill was about more than just beer,” said Brower, who grew up in Muskegon. “It was about Muskegon. It was about tradition, and it was about this community. Everything from our decision to locate downtown to the wood we used to build our tables to the pictures that are on our walls to many of our beer names to the events we participate in followed that path. It’s about Muskegon, Muskegon first.”
The watering hole’s name too is a nod to Muskegon’s history: the original Pigeon Hill was a massive sand dune that towered above the western shores of Muskegon Lake and was named for the thousands of passenger pigeons that would congregate around the dune’s peak. An iconic attraction that drew tourists from throughout the region in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Pigeon Hill was sold in the early 1920s and mining operations began there in 1926. By 1938, the dune was essentially gone, the mining reducing it to a series of sandy bumps.
“There’s a lot of gratitude and a lot of thanks in everything I want to say: for you all taking this risk, for you all putting forth this effort and this investment,” Muskegon Mayor Stephen Gawron said at the groundbreaking. “And, really, it’s not just about the money and building a business. Everything that you’ve said has really focused on a love of community and a willingness to get your hands dirty and make sure we build up and continually become something better, greater, more energizing.”
Andrea Riegler, the project architect for Pigeon Hill’s expansion, focused on the sense of pride that the growing brewery instills in her home city.
“I’m just so happy to work with these guys,” Riegler said. “I’m so thankful for what these guys have invested in downtown Muskegon and Muskegon in general.”
As for the future of Pigeon Hill beyond the expansion? That story will continue to be all about Muskegon, the owners said.
“At the end of the day, we’ll keep growing as long as demand from our community and our state requires,” Brower said. “We’ll get as big as we have to to make sure everyone here is taken care of and to make sure we can export as much Muskegon beer throughout the state of Michigan as possible.”