ALBION — Businesses in the small eastern Calhoun County city of Albion mostly operated on the fringes of town until a slow but steady spark of development several years ago started breathing life back into downtown.
These redevelopment projects also held steady during the pandemic. The most recent major changes downtown have been led by ACE Real Estate Services LLC founder Joe Verbeke, a real estate broker who has been renovating several Albion rental properties as well as overseeing the redevelopment of vacant commercial properties through his real estate company’s affiliate, ACE Investment Properties LLC. Verbeke helped lead the redevelopment of the Peabody Lofts and Brick Street Lofts downtown along with Caster Concepts Inc. CEO Bill Dobbins.
“Those were major projects at essentially blighted buildings,” Verbeke said. “Some of the space had retail on the first floor, but essentially all the apartments hadn’t seen the light of day for maybe the past 40 years.”
The $1.8 million mixed-use Peabody Lofts project was completed in 2018 and redeveloped four apartments and first-floor retail space where Verbeke’s wife, Emily Verbeke, operates Foundry Bakehouse and Deli. The $2.8 million Brick Street Lofts development opened in 2020, containing eight apartments and five revamped storefronts that are fully leased. The Brick Street Lofts project was awarded a $931,534 performance-based grant from the Michigan Community Revitalization Program.
“The interest is really starting to spark because what used to be vacant storefronts are getting some new life and foot traffic is really starting to pick up downtown,” Verbeke said. “Downtown is starting to wake up more and there are a number of things at play.”
Vacant and run-down storefronts are still plentiful along North Superior Street running through Albion’s downtown. The extent of the dilapidated buildings make for challenging and expensive redevelopments without the help of state tax incentives, Verbeke added.
But the new investments — including the recent addition of Albion Malleable Brewing Co. — could build momentum and provide more reasons for people to go downtown again, Verbeke said.
“It’s been exciting to see a lot of the barren storefronts start to fill back in, get remodeled and see some exciting things happening downtown,” said 44-year-old Albion native Ben Wade. “In my lifetime, there hasn’t been much of that.”
Wade is a co-owner and the head brewer at Malleable Brewing, which opened in May 2018. The brewery opened the same year as the downtown Courtyard by Marriott hotel, when downtown was still “hot on the heels” from the major renovation of the historic Bohm Theatre that wrapped up in 2014, he said.
“To me, that felt like the impetus to reinvest in downtown,” Wade said, referring to the theater renovation. “It gave us a hope that we can do more than just accept the state of things. That felt like a real turning point for me and got us talking about trying to open something that was above the standard the area is used to.”
Malleable Brewing owners — Wade, John Rogers and Charles Moreau — knew the brewery couldn’t just rely on patrons from Albion, so the team has worked to create hand-crafted food and Belgium-inspired beer, Wade said.
“We didn’t want to be just good enough for Albion,” Wade said. “For a long time the city didn’t expect high caliber businesses downtown. Many new businesses would close after a few months, and nobody invested or wanted to invest a lot of money and take that gamble on a new business.”
Additional businesses and restaurants would only help the brewery instead of serve as competition, Wade said.
“We had a record year in 2021 despite some unplanned closings that we had to adapt to at first from COVID,” Wade said. “It’s continued to grow and we’ve reached a point where we have a solid reputation in the state. It’s normal for us to have people travel a long way to get here. We’ve become a destination.”
Growing from a standstill
Albion’s population is down by about 1,000 people from 2010, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Albion’s population has been on the decline since the city’s major employer, Union Steel, closed in 1995. The blighted mill was demolished in the summer of 2020.
“When the steel mills left, that took the guts out of Albion. There aren’t many major employers here like there are in Jackson, Battle Creek and Marshall, and there is a higher poverty rate here,” Verbeke said. “All sorts of things have taken a toll on the housing market in town.”
Verbeke went to Albion College, moved away, then returned to the city in 2018 with his wife, whose family owns Caster Concepts. Verbeke dipped his toe into real estate by managing Caster Concepts’ 10 rental houses that the company owns to house its employees. He then got his real estate license and opened ACE Real Estate.
Verbeke’s real estate brokerage has grown since launching in 2018, recording about $2.5 million in sales for the first three quarters of 2021.
“There was not another modern real estate office in town before I opened,” Verbeke said. “Lots of dilapidated houses tend to be the focus of what we purchase and develop through Ace Investment Properties. We do a lot of work to modernize them and bring them up to code.”
Verbeke flipped six homes in the neighborhood near Albion College last year and sold them to employees at the college, he said.
“I am trying to get a foothold in serving people, especially minority populations in town who might feel like they are stuck in a rental home and that they can’t afford home ownership,” Verbeke said. “Most people don’t know how to go through that process, but there are so many affordable homes downtown that are in pretty good shape. I have only done this for a few years, but when you’re in a small town and feel like the momentum is moving forward, you want to broaden your base and make sure everyone is feeling the improvement in the community.”