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A vision for the Spirit of the Woods Manistee Gateway Project presented to city officials in September. A vision for the Spirit of the Woods Manistee Gateway Project presented to city officials in September. COURTESY RENDERING

Putting pieces together in Manistee

BY Sunday, January 03, 2021 05:30pm

MANISTEE — The lakeshore city of just more than 6,000 people is seeing multiple new downtown developments that local officials and investors say are critical for reinvigorating empty storefronts, diversification and emerging better off after the pandemic.

In Manistee, two planned hotels, a larger downtown “gateway,” and a new education center hold promise for the city’s transformation. The projects also involve a variety of local interests and investors, including regional developers, the local American Indian tribe and a nearby community college.

“There are a lot of pieces when you’re transforming a downtown,” said Scott Ward, president of West Shore Community College, based about 20 miles south in Scottville. The college and community groups have been instrumental in redeveloping a vacant and deteriorating former retail building for offices and classrooms.

“These projects downtown are really moving forward partly because of this cohesiveness from everyone in the city, county, Chamber, college, tribe and private entities working hand in hand to see what we can do,” Ward said.

Suburban Inns’ evolution

Marc Miller, economic development director at the Manistee Area Chamber of Commerce, said it’s “spectacular” to have two hotel projects moving forward during the pandemic, which led to mass hospitality layoffs and ongoing, historically low occupancy rates. 

Hudsonville-based Suburban Inns plans to manage a 108-room Hampton Inn and Suites at 101 South Lakeshore Drive. The proposed Hilton-branded, five-story hotel is expected to be completed in April 2022 and would replace the two-story Lakeshore Motel now at the property along Lake Michigan.

“There’s not another Hilton (hotel) property for 90 miles, and we saw this as an opportunity to develop a property on a very unique location with a very sought-after brand and loyalty program that Hilton has,” Suburban Inns CEO Peter Beukema told MiBiz

The hotel will be owned by Hotel Ventures Manistee LLC, a separate company registered to Beukema that’s a common ownership structure for Suburban Inns. The new hotel is part of Suburban Inns’ evolution during 2020 to diversify its properties and services in the hospitality industry, Beukema said. Suburban Inns’ portfolio includes eight hotels in Midland, Grand Rapids, Holland and Grandville.

Since the pandemic hit, the company is increasingly partnering with investors, including on the renovation of the McCamly Plaza Hotel in downtown Battle Creek that’s expected to be completed in 2022.

“We look at these projects as an opportunity to grow and take advantage of opportunities during the pandemic because all these projects are going to take approximately 18 months to open,” he said. “We are taking the opportunity to double down right now, knowing in 18 months we’ll be climbing out of this.”

A more inviting gateway

Conceptual plans for the Spirit of the Woods Manistee Gateway Project were presented to the Manistee City Council in September 2020. The project is being developed by Peru, Ill.-based CL Real Estate Development and Little River Holdings LLC, the economic development arm of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians. The project plans include improvements to the entryway into downtown Manistee, as well as the construction of a 100-room upscale boutique hotel. 

The vacant businesses in Manistee currently lining US-31 are not inviting to travelers as they pass through town, said Little River Holdings COO Tyler Leppanen. The city also saw a 6 percent population decline from 2000-2010, according to U.S. Census data.

“This project will bring the community together, including a group that isn’t always involved in the city, and gives them an opportunity to develop their ancestral homelands,” Leppanen said. 

The upscale hotel planned at the gateway project could also accommodate Little River Casino Resort visitors at peak times. The casino resort is about six miles northeast of downtown. 

“Our market studies show that if guests aren’t able to find hotel rooms at the resort then they are not looking to stay in the Manistee area. They instead look at Traverse City or Petoskey and leave the community for lodging,” Leppanen said. “Bringing in another hotel with visitors circulating through the downtown will generate a lot of spending in the Manistee area and downtown.”

Project construction, which has been delayed some by the pandemic, is expected to start sometime in the late summer or fall of 2021.

“This is an important project for the community and the tribe,” Leppanen said. “It’s very visible and transformational and we want to make sure we get it right.”

Educational anchor

Development projects aside from the hotels are also planned in Manistee, including at a large deteriorating, vacant building downtown that was renovated with a $5 million investment from several community agencies to form the Manistee Downtown Education Center. The space includes offices and meeting rooms that accommodate West Shore Community College, the Manistee Chamber and Michigan Works!

“We were able to move this project forward by all of us working together,” said Ward, of West Shore Community College. “I always try to stress to people how tied the community colleges are to the local economy. A strong community college helps make a strong economy — it’s a symbiotic relationship.”

The downtown classroom space could also accommodate a larger number of high school students looking to dual enroll in classes by shortening their commute, Ward said. 

While the street level of the building is nearly complete, the lower level is awaiting a potential tenant that could occupy the space by mid-2021, Ward said. The building was renovated with $1 million in community donations, $500,000 from the Manistee Downtown Development Authority, and about $3.5 million from West Shore Community College, which Ward said was supported by the college’s board.

“We know the economy is suffering now, so we said let’s not weaken the college at this point and let’s be ready to help our community when the economy can open back up,” he said.

A plan for growth

Community leaders say part of the reason why the West Michigan beachtown is seeing economic development interest is a targeted approach to developers that has spanned several years.

“Our economic development approach was novel for a community of our size,” said Miller, of the Manistee Chamber. “We have been gathering steam and progress by having that dedicated focus for economic development, and we’re seeing the fruit of that now with these projects.”

Miller’s position at the Chamber was created when he was hired about a year and a half ago. The position was the result of the Chamber’s effort to jumpstart the stagnated development that had unfolded over the years. 

“We were not seeing a cohesive movement for economic development at the time,” said Ward, who also sits on the Chamber’s economic development committee. “Some different entities were organizing and stepping on each other’s toes. The Chamber stepped forward to provide leadership, but they needed funding for the position,” which came from various organizations, the city of Manistee and the county. 

Looking forward, Miller is planning to work with the Michigan Economic Development Corp. to recertify underutilized sites in the area as “redevelopment ready.”

“One of the benefits is it highlights five or six sites, and we’re looking at expanding our list and adding new properties,” Miller said. “We still have opportunities for historic preservation, housing and other opportunities. There is more room for growth in the city.” 

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