Looking out the windows of the Muskegon YMCA Thursday afternoon, Mayor Stephen Gawron focuses his eyes on a rain-soaked Third Street and can easily remember the venues that once filled this neighborhood, places like Big Bob’s Restaurant, the Matson Oldsmobile dealership, and the Walt Plant Television & Appliances Store.
He remembers the vibrancy, the people spending their days there: for cars, for shopping, for food—for community. He recalls the area’s flight—and its fall: the disinvestment, the empty and boarded up buildings.
“When you look at the history of Midtown, we had some top-notch businesses here,” Gawron says, referring to the area of Third Street stretching from Muskegon Avenue to Jefferson Street in Muskegon’s Nelson neighborhood. “This was a thriving hub.”
Now, that thriving hub is returning. Cornerstones like Valy Vietnamese Oriental Food, Gifts & Market, which opened nearly 15 years ago, and Curry Kitchen, which debuted in 2012, have paved the way for a string of new successful businesses, all of which are independent and locally owned: Hamburger Mikey, The Griffin’s Rest, and Third Coast Vinyl have set up shop within the past couple of years. The Muskegon YMCA relocated to Third Street in 2016, and the building where Valy is located is currently being renovated and will soon offer five new apartments and commercial space.
“It was a hub of family-owned businesses, and it’s again a hub of family-owned businesses,” Gawron says. “We in Muskegon don’t waste time going, ‘worry, worry, worry.’ We roll up our sleeves and say: What’s next?”
For Midtown, what’s next is a $450,000 streetscaping project that’s meant to make the area increasingly pedestrian-friendly, support the current businesses and help to grow investment in the neighborhood. As part of that project, which is set to begin this fall, the Consumers Energy Foundation presented the city with a $200,000 check Thursday afternoon at the Muskegon YMCA.
“We are deeply committed to this community—we have been in the community of Muskegon for 130 years; we’re not going anywhere,” says Brian Rich, the senior vice president of customer experience at Consumers Energy. “Many of my coworkers live here, and we know we have an obligation to not just provide our service but to make sure this community thrives. And a project like this continues to further the momentum and revitalization we’ve already seen happening in the incredible community of Muskegon.”
A pedestrian-friendly Midtown
City planners and business owners alike are welcoming the streetscaping project with open arms, emphasizing that the outdoor seating, wider sidewalks, tree plantings, benches, and more that’s expected to ensue will not only benefit current shops and residents but draw pedestrians to the enclave that’s a short walk (about a couple minutes) from downtown’s Western Avenue.
“We noticed that Midtown was not really great for people walking around,” Jamie Pesch, a Muskegon city planner, says Thursday. “We’ve got all these businesses opening up here along the street with no place for them to have outdoor dining…We said there’s a streetscaping project that could be done right away.”
With the sidewalk extended by about eight feet on the Muskegon YMCA’s side of the street, restaurants like Curry Kitchen and Hamburger Mikey will be able to offer outdoor seating. As with the city’s streetscaping project in Lakeside, the Midtown initiative aims to boost walkability and entice people to explore Muskegon beyond the confines of Western Avenue.
“It will feel more welcoming,” Muskegon City Manager Frank Peterson says. “And we hope it’ll make storefronts more profitable.”
And, Downtown Muskegon Executive Director Dave Alexander explains, the project helps to boost an area that’s “a critical link between the Nelson neighborhood that’s up and coming and the core center of downtown.”
“It’s a corridor that’s critical to downtown and the community,” Alexander says.
Third Coast Vinyl owner Paul Pretzer emphasizes that he loves “that we’re finally getting some attention here.”
“I’m looking forward to it being more pedestrian friendly,” Pretzer says, adding that he’d like to see the momentum behind Third Street translate to additional activities in the area, like a Midtown art or music fair.
All of this movement in Midtown is increasingly drawing interest from investors, says Larry Spataro, Muskegon’s former vice mayor and a longtime leader in the Nelson community.
“People are saying it makes sense to reinvest in this neighborhood,” Spataro says.
One such investor is Kathy Dennison, who owns Lighthouse Property Management. Dennison owns a number of properties in Muskegon, including the buildings where The Griffin’s Rest and Curry Kitchen are located.
“There’s so much work going on inside the buildings, but if it looks dumpy outside, it’s harder to get people here,” Dennison says.
“This will be the frosting that brings it all together,” she adds, referring to the streetscaping project. “It will bring new people, new families here.”
Lighthouse Property too is leasing both residential and commercial space at the building that houses Valy Vietnamese Oriental Food, Gifts & Market, which is undergoing significant renovation work. The five apartments and commercial space are expected to be available by this summer. On the outside of the building, Lighthouse is partnering with Community enCompass on a mural that will be done by a local artist who has yet to be selected.
“We want to capture the history of Midtown with the mural,” Dennison says.
Across the street from shops like Hamburger Mikey and Curry Kitchen, at 1144 Third St., is a large piece of property that was once the Oldsmobile dealership and which city officials hope will be turned into family-owned shops and apartments. Brad Martell, a Grand Rapids-based developer, owns the property; earlier this month, the city tore down the former car dealership’s showroom and office building due to safety concerns. City inspectors found numerous structural issues with the buildings, including a collapsed roof.
When reached by phone Thursday, Martell said he was on vacation and wouldn’t be able to speak about the future of the property until later this month.
Another major Midtown property slated for development is a 20,000-square-foot brick building at 1185 Third St., which is owned by Steve Carey, an Ada, Michigan native who’s now working in government affairs and business development in Washington D.C. He did not respond to requests for comment for this article, but he previously said he’d like to transform the space into a hub for local vendors—think something akin to Union Market in D.C., a food hall that houses 48 local vendors.
“They’ve gutted this warehouse, and now there’s sushi, hamburgers, donuts, all this great food,” Carey said in a 2017 article. “Eventually, I’d like to do that on Third Street.”