Business booming in Metro Lansing, as multiple projects come to fruition in 2017

If you stand in a particular spot along Michigan Avenue in Lansing’s Eastside Neighborhood, two major construction projects will take up a good part of your view. They are the Venue at East Town, a $6 million mixed-use development project, and Arcadia Ales & Smokehouse, a brewpub and restaurant that clocks in around $1 million. A little farther east, a bank of trees obscures another project, the largest new construction mid-Michigan has seen in years, the $90 million SkyVue project. All are expected to be complete sometime in 2017.
“These are my old stomping grounds,” says Scott Gillespie, president of the Gillespie Co., which is building Venue “There’s nothing better than doing what you’re passionate about in an area you hold so dear to your heart.”
The Venue will be home to Rajje’s Taphouse, a new pan-European eclectic restaurant that will focus on inventive dishes and creative cocktails, and Strange Matter Coffee Co., a pour-over café that started across the street in 2014. Strange Matter will more than double in size when it moves into the Venue this fall. Last year, owner/operator Cara Nader raised over $40,000 on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter to add a scratch bakery to the business.
“We need a doughnut movement,” Nader says. “I think we’re primed for a wave of craft pastries.”  
No retail tenants have been named yet for the nine-story SkyVue, which will have over 300 apartments and boast amenities such as a heated pool, a fitness center, and a lounge on the top floor lounge with an unparalleled view of both Lansing and East Lansing. One of those sights will be the forthcoming Punk Taco, a taqueria concept from the inventive Potent Potables Project restaurant group. It will be half sit-down Mexican restaurant, half carryout destination, with a focus on grab-and-go six packs of craft beer. It’s another new construction, built on the site of a former gas station.
“(Potent Potables) is dedicated to the revitalization of the Lansing dining scene,” says co-owner Sam Short. “Normally, we prefer to (renovate) existing buildings for our concepts, but our vision for Punk Taco was so unique, it needed to be built from the ground up. I think people are going to be amazed when they see it. It’s like nothing else in town.”
This theme of destination dining carries over to several other new restaurants scheduled to open this year. In downtown Lansing, the Lansing Beer Exchange will be the second iteration of owner/operator Jim Flora’s Kalamazoo-based bistro. It will have a chef-driven menu with high-end comfort food, such as designer mac-and-cheese and burgers featuring a blend of four types of gourmet ground beef. The Hurd Building will undergo a $1.5 million makeover to accommodate the new bar.
“I think Lansing is going to blow up soon,” Flora says. “(Lansing Beer Exchange) is going to fit in perfectly with what’s there now, and bring people back downtown.”
Dishes influenced by traditional French cuisine will fill the menu at EnVie, which is set to open any time now. And several blocks south in REO Town, the Rusty Nail will have an open kitchen and a menu that will feature upscale dining options to the historic neighborhood’s rapidly changing scene.
“REO Town has come a long way in recent years,” says Rusty Nail owner/operator Jeff Oade, who’s overseeing the building’s $150,000 overhaul. “We’re seeing a lot of new faces here, and (the Rusty Nail) is being designed to be the neighborhood gathering spot for them. People are looking for other options besides downtown (Lansing) and East Lansing. I think 2017 will be the year that happens for REO Town.”
Another tried-and-true concept that has its roots out of town is coming later this year to Lansing Township. After finding success in Detroit with Green Dot Stables, Michigan State University graduate Jacques Driscoll will return to Lansing to open a Lansing location in the building formerly home to Whiskey Barrel Saloon. The menu will carry over the gourmet sliders and craft beer list that made the original Corktown location such a hit.
“I was initially hesitant about opening another location for Green Dot, but there’s so much going on in Lansing right now,” Driscoll says. “It seemed like a matter of right time, right place.”
Two Lansing eateries may expand into Okemos in 2017. Saddleback BBQ was recently granted a special use permit to add a smoker to a possible location in Central Park Plaza, across from Meridian Mall. And developer Kris Elliot (also behind the Arcadia Ales buildout) was approved last year to add a 1,700-square-foot extension to the former Meridian Asset Resource Center and become the second location for his downtown Lansing watering hole, Tavern & Tap. But the biggest construction news for Okemos is the groundbreaking for the Elevation mixed-use development project later this month. The $67 million mini-village will be built in two phases near the corner of Jolly and Okemos roads, and feature a food market, entertainment venue and a possible microbrewery.
“Okemos is wonderfully accessible, which is the main reason we chose it for building Elevation,” says Brent Forsberg, president/broker of the Forsberg Real Estate Co., which is developing the project. “It’s central to the area, and that centrality makes it very attractive to a wide range of apartment seekers.”
Two other microbreweries are in the hopper for 2017. In Dimondale, Michelle and Chad Rogers will soon tap the kegs at Dimes Brewhouse, a 1950’s-themed brewpub. And after nearly three years of doing part-time business at the Allen Market Place, brewer Jeremy Sprague will open a full-time, brick-and-mortar craft beer brewery in REO Town.
“It’s a great location and a really cool building,” Sprague says. “Allen Market Place was a super place to learn how to be a better brewer and to wade into the business aspect of launching a brewery, but I’m really excited for what’s to come.”
Another big project that looms large in the capital city in 2017 is the Gillespie Group’s plans for the former Clara’s Lansing Station. Last summer, the property developer bought the iconic downtown restaurant one month after it closed after 38 years of business. At the time of purchase, company president Pat Gillespie said there were plans to turn the building into an “entertainment venue,” but no plans have emerged yet. The Gillespie Group was behind the award-winning historic preservation of the Marshall Street Armory, among other projects, and according the company website, it plans to honor the traditions of the Clara’s building, which has elements that date back to the late 1880s.
“We are honored to take Clara’s onward and upward as a new chapter of its history begins,” reads a statement on the company website.
And could 2017 be the year Mr. Taco finally returns to Lansing? Owner Bill Bonofiglo seems to think so. Nearly two years after announcing he was going to revive the fast causal Mexican restaurant started by his father in the 1960s, he continues to do renovation work at the original location on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on the city’s south side. Last year he even reinstalled the original sign, driving the curiosity of Lansing residents who apparently still miss some of the signature menu items. 
“Of course Mr. Taco will open in 2017,” he posted recently on Facebook. “We want to see you all soon. Expect good news and talk of hiring very soon. Hang in there, we are.”


Allan Ross is a frequent contributor to Capital Gains.
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