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Growing Hope launches affordable rental venue and incubator kitchen, announces new director

Growing Hope has expanded its mission of improving access to healthy food by creating an affordable rental space in downtown Ypsi, complete with a licensed incubator kitchen that can be rented by small food businesses.


The new space is inside Growing Hope's Robert C. Barnes Sr. MarketPlace Hall at the Ypsi Farmers Market, 16 S. Washington St. The new space was announced at about the same time Growing Hope's new executive director, Cynthia VanRenterghem, came on board. Founding director Amanda Edmonds retired from the nonprofit at the end of 2017, and Renterghem came on board May 29.


The hall is named after the head of the family-owned Barnes & Barnes property management business in Ypsilanti, who rented the South Washington space and later sold the two lots that now house the Tuesday farmers market and the rental venue to Growing Hope.


The hall has been remodeled so the entrance faces the existing farmers market plaza space, but a few more changes are yet to come. Administrative offices will be moved out of the back of the hall to create more storage space for food businesses, and the small building at the front of the lot, a former KeyBank drive-thru location, will become Growing Hope's Welcome Center.


The MarketPlace Hall will be able to seat 105 or accommodate 166 for a standing reception. The outdoor plaza where the farmers market is held can also be used as outdoor space when the venue is rented, and the building includes a conference room and a commercial kitchen that became fully licensed the first week of June.


Prices will range from $75-$125 per hour from November to March and $100-$150 per hour for the rest of the year.


Kristen Teasdale, Growing Hope's interim director of engagement, says the organization's staff did a lot of research on market rates to make sure the space was affordable. Rates will also be lower for those using the space for a series of events or for food tenants who use the commercial kitchen multiple times a week. That structure is meant to encourage Ypsi residents to use it as a community gathering place.


Getting the new rental space finalized is important, but VanRenterghem says she is eager to return to the organization's original focus: its urban garden that began as a teaching garden for Perry Childhood Development Center.


VanRenterghem is originally from Flint, though she spent about a decade out of the state. She ran a small garden products company with a partner, which was launched in 2007 and sold in 2015. She hopes to bring her business savvy and entrepreneurial mindset to Growing Hope.


"At this time in Growing Hope's life development, my focus will be on operations, financial management and people management, and strategic planning, as we're moving from more of a relationship-based organization to more of a mission-based foundation," she says, referring to the fact that many nonprofits are started by charismatic people who grow the organization by creating personal relationships.


Van Renterghem says Growing Hope's urban farm at 922 W. Michigan Ave. is still the organization's "center of gravity."


"Once we get the MarketPlace up and running, I want to shift back to that core and what can come out of it in terms of education and community access, … empowering the community with both the practical aspects and the regeneration aspects of gardening," she says. "To me, in a way, as we move forward, we are also getting back to what Growing Hope has always been."


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in southeast Michigan. You may reach her at


Photos by Sarah Rigg.

Zoller USA makes major high-tech expansion in Ann Arbor

Rita Conroy-Martin, marketing director for Zoller USA, says nearly tripling Zoller's Ann Arbor space was a "no-brainer" for the manufacturing hardware and software company.


"Ann Arbor is an amazing location for investment from foreign companies," Conroy-Martin says, praising the city's infrastructure, quality of life, and innovation.


Zoller started in Germany in 1945, and the company's U.S. operations were founded in Ann Arbor in 1997 by Alexander Zoller, a third-generation Zoller family member. The company serves a variety of industries by making sure tools are correctly pre-set so that measuring for parts is within the necessary specifications.


Zoller's new building at 3900 Research Park Dr. in Ann Arbor allows for expansion of the company's North American headquarters as part of an overall growth strategy. The 44,000-square-foot facility is nearly triple the size of its former location and currently houses 99 employees.


Conroy says the company plans to add more employees, particularly staff to service machines when there's a problem, but she didn't have specific numbers on how many new hires the company was planning.


The new HQ includes space for corporate sales, service, and administrative offices as well as an 8,800-square-foot tech center spotlighting the connected and automated manufacturing technologies known in the industry as "Industry 4.0." Conroy-Martin says the company has already been inviting customers to come in and see demonstrations of its newest technology, and that will continue in the new tech center.


"As manufacturing drives toward 4.0 technology, where all the software and hardware is interconnected, we're positioning ourselves and our customers to adapt to the reality of the future," she says.


The company officially took possession of the building in January and plans a grand opening May 18.


"It's a brand new beginning for us to expand our footprint in North America and serve our partners and customers in a better way," Conroy-Martin says.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at


Images courtesy of Zoller USA.

Oxford Companies' new Employee Share Program turns workers into real estate investors

A local real estate company is offering its employees the opportunity to become investors in a 2 million-square-foot portfolio of Ann Arbor real estate.


The Employee Share Plan (ESP) established by Oxford Companies, 210 S. 5th Ave., will reward employees' commitment to the company through shares of ownership in real estate. The company believes the program will give employees greater incentive to take care of the properties since they will be their partial owners.


Project manager Melissa Gumenick says the ESP was created in an effort to align employees' and investors' interests, and to give the employees a sense of pride and ownership.


"The idea is that it will appreciate over time and then they’ll own something ... that they can utilize later on in the future ... something that they personally didn’t have to set aside from their income," she says. "It’s something that will grow and provide them with that benefit."


Oxford's ESP fund currently holds about $3 million. The first rollout of the program represents an investment of more than $1 million in the company's employees. Those who continue to work for Oxford for the next two years will benefit based on their position in the company. Future employees can expect to benefit from future rollouts.


Since Oxford Companies opened in 1998, it has invested more than $70 million from over 250 investors. The company is comprised of about 85 property managers, building technicians, construction experts, asset managers, real estate brokers, and other employees. The team manages and leases over 2.4 million square feet of commercial property, provides housing to more than 1,000 residents, and has built an investment portfolio worth more than $300 million.


Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.
Photos courtesy of Oxford Companies.

The American Center for Mobility is open. What's next?

Multiple test facilities are now in use and new partnerships are underway following the official opening of the American Center for Mobility (ACM) on the Willow Run site in Ypsilanti Township on April 4.


The connected and autonomous vehicle testing facility is a joint initiative of the state of Michigan, the Michigan Department of Transportation, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, the University of Michigan, Business Leaders for Michigan, Ann Arbor SPARK, and Ypsi Township.


ACM announced a new partnership with Microsoft at the opening and has since announced another one with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). More than 400 attended the grand opening, including Gov. Rick Snyder and a representative from Microsoft, says ACM president and CEO John Maddox.


Maddox says several test tracks on the 500-acre site were already up and running by early December of 2017, and that even before the official opening, ACM officials were already coordinating "a very busy schedule."


Currently in use is a highway loop, an inter-urban arterial track (similar to Ann Arbor-Saline Road), and a boulevard track (similar to Telegraph Road or Michigan Avenue). ACM also has its first-phase garages available for short-term use by companies that might want to store vehicles for a week or a month, perhaps to reconfigure software and then launch a follow-up test.


Construction will soon begin on garages for longer-term stays by companies that might want to store vehicles and conduct tests for five or even 10 years. Additionally, by the third week in April, ACM will start construction on a larger, more complicated test intersection, with three lanes running north to south and three running east to west, permitting speeds of up to 50 mph.


"Even as humans, we have trouble turning left across busy traffic, especially with bicyclists or pedestrians," Maddox says.


Plans are to have this test site open by July, and an urban area with traffic lights and traffic circles will be built after that. Maddox says automated vehicles currently find traffic circles challenging, especially when pedestrians are added into the mix.


Maddox says ACM's biggest news is its growing partnerships. Microsoft coming on board as a data and cloud partner was announced during the grand opening.


"It's pretty important to us because these vehicles are based on software, and data they take in has to be analyzed to make control decisions," Maddox says. He notes the data sets from these tests are enormous, up to four terabytes per car per day.


Microsoft will build a "first of its kind" data management and analytics platform that should inspire others to emulate it, Maddox says.


Another collaboration announced a few days after the grand opening was with IEEE, which will help ACM create new voluntary standards for the advanced mobility industry. Maddox says those standards won't be just for the vehicles but also for traffic lights and traffic controls.


Maddox says ACM currently employs 10 or 12 people directly. ACM also hired interns last summer and will again hire a team of interns for summer 2018.


Maddox says ACM is currently a "lean and nimble startup" that intends to stay small, so it won't be contributing a lot of jobs directly to southeast Michigan. However, the many partners working with ACM – including Intertek, which operates and maintains the site – will create new jobs. ACM is committed to hosting career exploration days to introduce students, veterans, and other job seekers to autonomous vehicle technology and related jobs.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at


Photos courtesy of the American Center for Mobility.

Grove Studios finds new location, adjusts plans for shipping-container studio spaces

Grove Studios, an Ypsilanti-based business providing rehearsal space for local creatives, has found a new home at 884 Railroad in Ypsilanti. The studio opened in its new space in early March and held an open house March 4.


The studio's founders started off 2017 with a bang, winning the inaugural Pitch Ypsi competition and a $5,000 prize to help bring their concept of a studio built from shipping containers to life.


However, in autumn, the owner of the building off West Michigan Avenue that Grove Studios was leasing sold the building to another owner, setting the partners on the hunt for a new space.


Grove Studios partner Rick Coughlin says Grove's old building wasn't the perfect fit for what the partners were envisioning. So although the move was done by necessity, it also presented an opportunity.


Coughlin says the separated, isolated rooms in the new space are a better configuration than the two large co-op spaces at the old location. The new location also allows staff to test out its technology around wifi-enabled locks for doors and a coded cloud-based entry system for all members.


The new space is built of solid masonry with sturdy core doors, so very little needed to be done in terms of sound-proofing, Coughlin says. Overall, he says, the new space is a better fit for the founders' vision despite being physically smaller.


"We don't have a performing space like at the old location, but we do have a courtyard, and we're going to build our demo shipping container unit there so people can see the product we've been envisioning for the long term," he says.


Grove Studios is still committed to the shipping container model, but there have been some changes there, as well.


"We're starting to focus on developing our own internal product, rather than relying on a partner company to provide the containers," Coughlin says. "Breck Crandell, our creative lead, is an architect, and with someone with his knowledge base on our team, we think we have the capacity to develop it rather than relying on containers that are already built."


In the time between leaving the old space and opening the new one, Grove Studios hasn't been dormant. The partners have established a community partnership with the Riverside Arts Center (RAC), putting on "Grove Studios Live" concerts that go along with monthly themes at the arts center.


"The partnership we have built with Riverside Arts Center is very symbiotic in nature," says Grove Studios partner Erich Friebel. "Riverside wanted to up their game on being able to present top-notch music events, but they're not necessarily music performance producers. We took this as an opportunity to try our hand at bringing a community of musicians together from all genres and walks of life."


The next Grove Studios Live performance is called "Every Woman has a Story," in honor of Women's History Month. Friebel says the event will combine not only music and art, but will also feature local food and body care vendors, a fashion runway, and DJ sets. It takes place March 24 at 7 p.m. at RAC.


Coughlin notes that there are still openings at the new space, and any interested creative types in the Ypsi area are welcome to stop by and get a tour.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at


Photos courtesy of Grove Studios.

Ypsi's Massage Mechanics expands, moves from Depot Town to downtown

Massage Mechanics is moving from its former digs in Ypsilanti's Depot Town to a bigger, brighter location at 7 S. Washington St. The move adds to the number of businesses that have moved to fill out storefronts on Washington in the last year or two.


Massage Mechanics co-owner Andrea Gruber says she "fell in love" with Ypsi when she was attending Eastern Michigan University for her bachelor's degree. After graduating, she enrolled at the Ann Arbor Institute of Massage Therapy and talked about her dream of owning a massage business in Depot Town with colleague Becky Smith.


A few months later, a building opened up for rent in Depot Town. A week after that, in April 2011, Gruber and Smith had leased a one-room storefront in the building, which they shared with an auto mechanic. (Smith has since retired from the business.)


Gruber says the name reflects that beginning, as well as the business's philosophy.


"Our goal for the business was to bring massage to the everyday working person," Gruber says. "We aren't a spa. We wanted to market ourselves as the place you go for stress relief and addressing chronic pain. The name and logo were a play off the mechanic shop and to convey this goal."


The staff quickly outgrew that first one-room shop and moved across the street, quadrupling its available space and hiring two more massage therapists.


Gruber says the business grew year over year, largely due to its staff's commitment.


"Our staff encompasses a wide variety of pressures, styles, and techniques, and we try very hard to pair each client with a massage therapist that best suits their needs," Gruber says.


What started out as two massage therapists has grown into a business currently featuring seven massage therapists, two office staff, and growing partnerships with several movement therapists, as well as one spiritual consultant, Gruber says.


Massage Mechanics will celebrate its new space and its seventh year of being in business April 6 with a "wellness funhouse."


"We will be providing information and demonstrations for our new small group yoga classes, raindrop therapy, and Thai massage," Gruber says. The event will also include a chance to sample various wellness products and get a tarot reading by staffer Emily Weir. "We wanted to put together a party to celebrate this and show off our new space, with live music and refreshments."

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at
Photos courtesy of Massage Mechanics.

Chelsea Alehouse to move to downtown Chelsea, expand brewpub offerings

The owners of Chelsea Alehouse Brewery will be moving into the heart of downtown Chelsea this spring and changing their business model to emphasize a variety of new offerings in their brewpub.


Chris Martinson, who owns the business with his wife Aubrey, says the public space in the new location at 115 S. Main in Chelsea is about the same as in the current location at 420. N. Main St., Suite 100. However, the move will provide about 30 percent more non-public space. That will allow Chelsea Alehouse to expand its kitchen and provide a more diverse menu.


The new customer space will also feel "cozier," Martinson says, with hardwood floors and exposed brick giving it more of a pub feel than the current location's warehouse atmosphere.


Martinson says he had always wanted to be downtown, but it didn't work out six years ago when he was establishing the business.


"Chelsea has a really busy downtown, and we're only a five-minute walk from downtown, but we find that people who might be downtown for the farmer's market don't venture down to where we are," Martinson says.


The new location is across the street from the Common Grill and shares a back parking lot with the Purple Rose Theatre. Martinson says he expects that being "right in the mix" downtown will attract new walk-in business.


With the five-year lease on the brewery's current space running out, Martinson says it made sense to move and make some operational changes the Martinsons had been planning all at the same time, including switching from a microbrewery license to a brewpub license. That change reflects a lower legal limit to the brewery's production volume, and prioritizes on-site business over distribution.


"We will still make our own beers that people love and come in for, but we'll also have beers on tap from other breweries, along with wine and cider and spirits," Martinson says. "We really want to expand what we do with beer education and be able to bring in different beers and do more tastings."


Those tastings will focus on Michigan and regional breweries, which is in line with Chelsea Alehouse's core mission to focus on local ingredients when possible, Martinson says.


"We want to have events that highlight how beer is made and the different styles," he says. "We could bring in maybe a variety of lagers or New England-style IPAs from five different breweries for a tasting."


Live music by local musicians will continue at the new location, with bluegrass band Thunderwüde performing on Wednesdays and jazz on Sundays, but Martinson also thinks the new space might lend itself to experimenting with different types of music.


The current location will close in late February, and the owners are aiming to open the new space sometime in April, after remodeling is finished.


Updates will be available on the brewery's website and Facebook page.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at

Photo by Doug Coombe.

5 surprising takeaways from Swisher Commercial's annual report on Ann Arbor real estate vacancies

Ann Arbor real estate firm Swisher Commercial released its 2017 Year-End Vacancy Report Jan. 2, indicating that the total market vacancy rate in the Ann Arbor area was about 7.2 percent for 2017. The report breaks down categories further by type of office space and specific areas of Ann Arbor, and there were a few surprises in the data.


Read on for five main takeaways from Swisher's year-end report.


1. Ann Arbor loves its "flex space."


Flex space is defined as commercial space that includes a mix of uses, typically office space up front, with vehicle storage, laboratory, or shop space in the back. Flex vacancy rates decreased from 6.5 percent to 4.6 percent in 2017.


"Flex buildings really took off in Ann Arbor in the 1990s," says Swisher Commercial agent Bart Wise. "There was a big boom, particularly in the south Ann Arbor market." Interest in these flex spaces remains strong.


2. Ann Arbor's downtown is still tight on space, but has some "breathing room."


The report indicated that the downtown area moved from 2.1 percent to 3.6 percent vacancy in 2017. However, this wasn't due to companies vacating their space but rather to an increase of 26,000 more square feet of vacant space, Wise says. He notes that downtown continues to have the lowest vacancy rate in years.


Tech companies are driving that trend, because tech companies seek highly-skilled software engineers, and when an employee is highly skilled, they have choices about where they want to work, Wise says.


"Downtown has become a very desirable space, so companies who want to attract the best employees are locating downtown," Wise says. He adds that it's not just amenities such as bars and restaurants that attract the talent, but architecture figures into the equation as well.


"Buildings downtown tend to have architecture and other design elements such as higher ceilings and brick walls that are interesting and desirable," he says.


3. North Ann Arbor has the lowest vacancy rate.


While downtown does have a very low vacancy rate, the north side of Ann Arbor has the lowest rate overall. The vacancy rate on the north side fell from 3.1 percent to 1.6 percent in 2017, even though it had the second-highest number in terms of square footage of all areas surveyed.


"That north market is occupied by companies that are very stable," says Wise. "There might be other markets where they gained and lost tenants, but the north market tended to gain and not as often to lose tenants."


4. "Class B" office spaces picked up in 2017.


Office buildings are considered "Class B" when they're somewhat smaller and older than new and shiny "Class A" buildings. The low vacancy rates in the Ann Arbor area have spurred a number of business owners to seek out these second-tier office spaces, Wise says.


"In comparison to recent years, we saw significantly more activity in these moderately-priced, smaller office suites," Wise says. He notes that this increase might not be noticeable to someone focused solely on square footage, but the trend was evident based on the number of these types of transactions Swisher handled in 2017.


5. The east side of Ann Arbor saw the most dramatic changes in 2017.


The vacancy rate on Ann Arbor's east side decreased from 16.6 percent to 9.7 percent in 2017. Still, Wise says he would call this "steady" rather than "booming". He noted that, based on conversations both with other Swisher agents and with friendly competitors, the first few months of 2017 were full of activity, but commercial sales slowed down later in the year.


The full report is available here.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at

Photo by Doug Coombe.

Behind the scenes of the plot to save the Blind Pig

When it was announced this past February that the Blind Pig was for sale, a lot of local music fans worried that the legendary Ann Arbor music venue would soon be torn down and replaced with condos. Given that the neighboring Kiwanis building was also for sale at the same time it wasn’t hard to imagine.


What nobody knew then was that a plan was already in play to bring investors on to not only save the Blind Pig but to also invest in the building and business itself. On December 6, music fans breathed a sigh of relief when it was announced that Nutshell CEO Joe Malcoun, Blind Pig talent buyer Jason Berry, and an investment team had bought the building and planned to maintain it as a venue with the same staff.


Concentrate sat down with Jason Berry and Joe Malcoun to talk about how the deal came about and their future plans for the Blind Pig.


Concentrate: Jason, how did you connect with Joe?


Jason Berry: About five years ago [former Blind Pig owner] Betty [Goffett] started talking about retirement. I was concerned then that the Pig would become condos, so I went to [Q+M Agency president] Al McWilliams as I often do. I said, "Hey Al, do you know someone who would want to buy the Pig but keep it the Pig?" And he literally pointed out the window and said, "You could go talk to Joe." He's like, "I'll text him." And then he texts Joe, and Joe's like, "Yeah, man."


Joe Malcoun: I think I was just like, "I'll be right there," and showed up to the office. So that was the first time we met. Basically I said, "I would totally be interested. Go find out what the deal is." And you went and talked to [Blind Pig general manager] Faith [Wood].


JB: And from Faith's perspective the timing was all wrong to even approach Betty about ownership.


JM: So we just said, "Okay, well, that's not gonna happen now." But Jason had already expressed to me some of the challenges of no longer being able to take full advantage of his booking relationships and not being able to do booking outside of the Pig. I'm a huge music fan, and just being involved in something like that was super appealing to me. So we basically put together a booking and promotion agency called Good Show where Jason goes out and books with other venues and I just financed it.


JB: I was basically allowed to keep doing my thing like I would have normally because Joe was like, "I got you." It's great because now we're in this ownership place and it's all coming back together – Good Show and the Pig.


JM: Yeah, and the Good Show thing basically just kept our relationship alive and focused on this. As it became clear that Betty was ready to move on, we already had the partnership in mind. So Jason brought with him, obviously, all of his expertise of being the promoter of the Pig and the relationships that come with that, but then also the relationship with Faith, who is key to the operations of the rest of the bar. I was able to bring in partners to raise the money. So that's basically the bare bones of the partnership.


I don't want to take too much credit here though because ultimately I think the fact that Betty was committed to finding a buyer who wanted this was what made it happen.


JB: Yeah. She definitely was.


C: So who are some of the other partners in the deal?


JM: There's a couple of layers to it. Honestly, because it's a business and a real estate transaction, it created lots of complexity in the deal structure, more so than I'd ever been a part of.


First I went to some real estate investment partners of mine, Jason Costello and Bennett Borsuk of Cabrio Properties here in town. I said, "Hey guys, this isn't exactly a real estate deal. What do you think?" And, to their credit, they didn't say no. Honestly. I told them the other night, "I still can't believe you guys stuck it out with me through this." Because this is pretty far off of what they normally do. They learned how to deal with a liquor license and how to deal with setting up all of the back-end systems for operating a bar.


So we're kind of like the managing partners, in a sense. We're the ones who kind of did all of the work to get the deal done. And then, through our shared networks, we brought a whole other group of investors to the scene, some of whom just want to be financial investors, and quiet. But many of them are there to participate, some of them very passionately.


C: So about how many investors are involved?


JM: A little over a dozen. I've never been involved in a capital race where I saw so much interest initially. Many known people through the community initially were like, "Yes, I'm really interested in being a part of that." As you get closer you always expect people to fall out when it's time to actually write a check. There was a lot of that, but it was really fascinating to see the people who came together on this. It's a very unusual cross-section of folks. And that's one of the cool things. One of my friends, Pete Katz, is general counsel over at Duo Security. He just wants to be a part of it and he's gonna be there to help us with legal. Rishi Narayan from Underground Printing is gonna help us with merch. Noah Kaplan from Leon Speakers is gonna redesign all the sound.


JB: Not only will the sound be better in here but you also won't hear it outside.


JM: We’re also going to rebuild the stage, and the music budget is maybe the next biggest thing ... – being absolutely open for business with local music. Jason believes in that deeply – investing in local music again, and developing those bands so that they bring bigger and bigger crowds, and they one day grow up and they can refer back to their experience at the Pig. That's super important. [We're also planning on] diversifying some of the programming a bit and hopefully extending the brand outside the bar at points.


C: Meaning?


JM: Well, if we want to do a festival in Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor doesn’t have a big music festival. There’s no reason why it shouldn't.


JB: It used to.


JM: The cool thing is we now have this group of investors who are all really well tied into so many parts of the community and can make the thing happen. I think it's just really a matter of Jason doing the hard work to get the bands together.


JB: It's just us being us. Nothing new, really. Just letting it grow as it will.


JM: Ann Arbor has the ability to punch out of its weight class. We do that in every industry, like in my industry, tech. We punch way out of our weight class, and we should be doing that in music. The Blind Pig is our best opportunity to do that.


Doug Coombe is Concentrate's managing photographer. He met his wife at the Blind Pig during the Bang! on New Year's Eve.


All photos by Doug Coombe.

New recording studio opens in Willis church

Two Ann Arbor tech entrepreneurs and musicians have combined their passions to open a new recording studio, Willis Sound, in an 1880s church in Willis.


Ben Lorenz and Jason Magee are the owners of Ann Arbor software firm Human Element, and they've played in notable local bands including the October Babies and Restroom Poets. They knew the full-time musician life wasn't for them, but they still wanted to be involved in the music industry. The two had been recording private projects at a studio in Ann Arbor and they wanted a recording space they owned, rather than leased, so they could modify it for their needs.


Lorenz says that if you ask a group of musicians where they'd like to record, many times they'll say a church would be ideal.


"The acoustical space is geared toward being open and having a wonderful reverb sound in the main sanctuary," Lorenz says. "So many positive, serious experiences have occurred there, and that energy gets into a space. When you walk in, you feel it and can vibe off it."


They started talking about buying a church and found a realtor who took them on a tour of three potential studio sites.


"We walked into this place, and knew this was the one," Lorenz says.


Despite the church's great aesthetic and acoustics, the basement was full of mold and the wiring had to be completely redone in order to accommodate the studio's high-end recording equipment and musical gear. Renovations took more than a year and a half, and the studio finally opened up for business in July.


The owners plan to treat it as a gathering place for local musicians. They recently hosted a grand opening that combined an open house with a swap meet where musicians could trade and barter instruments, microphones, and other equipment. About 200 people toured the space that day, Lorenz says.


Lorenz and Magee market the studio as "full-service." That includes access not only to rehearsal, recording space, and high-end equipment, but also video capture of all recording sessions.


"The heartbeat of the recording studio is the ability to do two-inch tape, analog recording, like they used to," Lorenz says. "We also have an API 1608 console, a really nice analog console, and that sets Willis Sound apart from most recording studios in the area."


Also available are a Steinway grand piano, a Hammond organ, and classic drum kits most aspiring musicians can't afford to buy, Lorens says.


Another amenity that makes the recording space unique is a house on the same property as the church where musicians can stay overnight. Lorenz says this type of studio exists on the East and West Coasts, but there's no recording studio like Willis Sound anywhere else around southeast Michigan.


"Our idea was to get a band into a situation where they could focus on the music and on their bandmates and have a recording vacation," Lorenz says. "It's been used several times already. A band will come in, spend a night, connect, and hang out, and then go in the next day and cut a record."


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at


Photos courtesy of Willis Sound.

Black Ypsilanti Historical Signage Project moves toward spring kickoff

Organizers of a collaborative project to install historical markers commemorating Ypsilanti's black history are hoping to schedule a big kickoff event for spring of 2018.


The goal of the Black Ypsilanti Historical Signage Project is to develop signs highlighting African-American contributions to Ypsilanti's history and install them at various locations around the city. The project started when the city of Ypsi received a $10,000 Community Tourism Action Plan (CTAP) grant from the Ann Arbor Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. However, the city soon realized that would not be enough to hire designers and historians to work on the project.


The city partnered with Engage @ EMU, Eastern Michigan University's outreach organization, and won another $10,000 grant through the Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development.


Jessica Alexander of Engage @ EMU says the project aims to encourage "historical tourism" by spotlighting Ypsi's community and its stories. Organizers developed several broad themes, ranging from the history of the Parkridge Community Center to the Civil War and the Underground Railroad to black protests.


Organizers sought community feedback during a number of public sessions in 2016 and 2017. There will be three more public meetings for residents to provide feedback on Jan. 11, 18, and 25 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Riverside Arts Center, 76 N. Huron St. in Ypsi, is the location for the meeting on the 18th, but locations have yet to be confirmed for the other two dates.


So far organizers have finished four signs, and hope to have three more done before a spring ribbon-cutting ceremony. Challenges have included deciding which historical movements to focus on first, getting permission from landowners to place the signs, and keeping the community informed of progress on the project.


Jermaine Dickerson serves as graphic designer for the project. While he has lived in Ypsilanti since 2009, he says he wanted to make sure his designs reflected lifelong city residents' desires and aesthetics. He worked closely with historian Matt Siegfried to gather historical data and use community feedback to inform his creative choices. Dickerson says his goal was to create "an Afrocentric aesthetic that reflected the bold nature of the project."


"What we're trying to do is create an experience that Ypsi's black community would want to be a part of," Dickerson says. "I wanted to make sure their voices were being heard and their story was being told."


Caroline Sanders of Engage @ EMU says these seven signs are a "first phase," and if additional funding can be found, more signs could be created during a second phase.


"This is an exciting opportunity to make people aware of the important contributions black citizens made to Ypsi and its history," Sanders says.


More information on the project and a map of proposed sign locations can be found at

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at

State Theatre to reopen after $8.5 million renovation project

A 10-month, $8.5 million renovation project at Ann Arbor's iconic State Theatre gives a nod to the theater's movie-palace past while updating the facility for a modern audience.


The theater, located at 233 S. State St., will host a grand reopening Friday, Dec. 8, with a full slate of movies starting on Saturday, Dec. 9. Ann Arbor native and filmmaker Qasim Basir is scheduled to come to town for the reopening, and a special engagement of Basir's film Destined, shot in Detroit, will run from Dec. 8-13.


Renovation efforts were focused on the balance between restoring many of the building's original Art Deco touches — designed by renowned Michigan architect C. Howard Crane and opened in 1942 — while also creating more legroom and making the building more accessible to those with mobility impairments.


"I am personally thrilled to be honoring C. Howard Crane, an under-appreciated Detroit-based architect," says Russ Collins, executive director for the State and Michigan theaters.


Renovations included updated movie projection and sound systems, increasing the number of screens from two to four while providing more legroom, and adding a full-sized elevator, escalator, full-service cocktail bar, and completely renovated concession stand.


Recreating the original 1942 carpet was one of the most challenging aspects of the renovation.


"It was this cool, spacey Art Deco design that was removed in the 1970s or early 1980s," Collins says.


Photos gave a general idea of the color and pattern, but it wasn't until a patron offered the theater a 12' x 18' piece of the original carpet that designers were able to confirm the exact colors and size of the pattern.


Collins says the most exciting part of opening the theater again isn't the aesthetics, but the wide range of films the State and Michigan theaters will now be able to offer their customers.


Collins says that, with the exception of a few obscure formats, the theaters will now be able to "show any kind of celluloid film cinema ever made."


Theater projectors can slow down the speed of the film to make sure silent films are projected at the right speed. The theaters will be able to handle 35mm film, 3-D movies, and all other kinds of films, from blockbusters to archival footage to art cinema.


Collins says other big cities like Los Angeles have the ability to show many different types of films, but not all "under one roof."


"Together, the State and the Michigan will be the most outstanding set of cinema screens capable of a wide variety of archival and exhibit content unrivalled in the rest of the country," Collins says.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at


Images courtesy of the Michigan Theater.

Seeking to unite Ann Arbor and Ypsi, "Bridging 23" series to host third event Dec. 2

The Dispute Resolution Center (DRC) and the Association for Youth Empowerment (AYE) will host their third "Bridging 23" event, aiming to build relationships between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti community members, on Dec. 2. The free event takes place from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. at the 14A District Courthouse, 4133 Washtenaw Ave.


The events grew out of the vision of founder and organizer David Abramson, who passed away just before the groups put on their first event in April. Abramson heard Belinda Dulin, DRC's executive director, talk about peacemaking at a community event, and thought it was a concept that could apply to the division between Ann Arbor and Ypsi along US-23.


Dulin says peacemaking is a process that brings people together to have important but uncomfortable conversations in a nonjudgmental way that's about finding shared values and connectedness.


"The highway divides the community in intense and unique ways," Dulin says. "We wanted to bridge that and identify what we have in common."


Jeff Gabrielson, a volunteer with AYE, says this kind of community division has been addressed in the past in Detroit with a series of community forums called "Bridging Eight Mile."


"We were committed to bringing people from inside the city of Detroit and outside the city of Detroit together, and David saw 23 as the same kind of dividing line as Eight Mile," Gabrielson says.


The point of the community forums is not to specify a topic such as public schools or affordable housing, but to bring people together, facilitate discussion, and let the community drive the conversation about what needs to happen next, Dulin says.


Participants sit in a circle and are invited to share their values and the personal experiences that shaped them. Values that come up over and over again build the foundation of the rest of the dialogue. As people begin to know one another, they begin to trust one another, and that trust makes it possible for community members to work together on shared goals.


At the second event in August, participants discussed what kind of community they live in and what kind of community they aspire to be in, as well as who wasn't in the circle of discussion but should be invited to future conversations.


"We talked about what changes can happen and what we can do individually or collectively to effect positive change," Dulin says. "The magic of it all is that, just by listening to each other's story, we see barriers start to melt away, and when those barriers melt away, we begin to see how we can build that bridge over 23."


One major benefit of the discussions is making participants aware of resources available to them that they might not have known about, Gabrielson says.


Concrete actions or initiatives coming out of the conversations are driven by participants, not by facilitators. After two sessions, many friendships have been made, and one participant suggested having a unity march from Ann Arbor City Hall to Ypsi City Hall. Another participant admired the peacemaking circle idea and introduced it at her place of worship for business meetings.


Dulin says the format of the Dec. 2 event will remain the same, but the conversational prompts will change a bit, focusing on next steps, including celebrating what has been accomplished and talking about how participants can give each other additional support.


Additional information and tickets are available at the Eventbrite page for the December event.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at

County's first hyper-energy-efficient "passive house" to break ground in Ann Arbor

Webster Township-based Architectural Resource is set to break ground on what is expected to be the first Washtenaw County home to meet the stringent energy-efficiency requirements of the Passive House Institute U.S. (PHIUS).


The architectural firm is hosting a Visible Green Home seminar on passive home technology from 9-11 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 11 at the Builders and Remodelers Association, 179 Little Lake Dr., followed by a noon groundbreaking at the construction site, 4567 Boyden Dr. in Ann Arbor.


Michael Klement, an architect with Architectural Resource, says that to understand the idea behind passive homes, one can envision two buckets, one for energy gain and one for energy loss, on a seesaw, with the goal being to get those two sides to be as balanced as possible.


He says the first and most important step is minimizing what's in the energy loss "bucket."


"The way most houses are built today, we build whatever we want, and then add a furnace as big as needed to take care of the energy demand," Klement says. "This certification looks at that in a completely different way, making reducing the energy demand a fundamental design principle."


He says a PHIUS-certified house uses about 80 percent less energy than a standard house built to code.


During construction, the building team works on minimizing energy loss primarily by creating an extremely airtight "thermal envelope," whether that means building walls that are half an inch thicker than required by local building codes, or eliminating studs that conduct energy from the inside of the house to the outside.


As far as the "gain" bucket, builders look to renewable energy sources, most often solar cells.


Klement says his team has gone through a rigorous computer design program to make sure the project hits five metrics related to heating, cooling, and the use of renewable energy sources. That process has gained the project the status of PHUIS+ 2015 "pre-certification."


"We have an opportunity to really reconsider our relationship with the natural world and our responsibilities to future generations," Klement says. "We're really excited about this approach to building and this project in particular as one possible answer to that challenge."


Klement says the seminar is almost sold out, but Washtenaw County residents who are curious about the home will have other opportunities in 2018 to tour the home while it's under construction. Updates and future tour dates will be available on the Visible Green Home tour series website.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at


Renderings courtesy of Architectural Resource.

Trio of events invites Ypsi residents to discuss gentrification, economics, and racism

A three-part event series is delving into the connection between gentrification, economics, and racism and how those issues pertain to the current state of Ypsilanti.


The second part of the Gentrification, Economics, and Systemic Racism series took place at Parkridge Community Center, 591 Armstrong Dr., on Wednesday, Oct. 25, from 6 to 8 p.m. The panel discussion was moderated and organized by lifelong Ypsi resident Bryan Foley, and featured chief storyteller for the city of Detroit and author Aaron Foley, Ypsi mayor pro-tem Nicole Brown, Ypsi human relations commissioners Ka'Ron Gaines and Amber Fellows, and Ypsi resident Steve Pierce.


Bryan Foley says he wanted to host the event series because he believes many Ypsi residents don't know what's happening in local politics and city officials have a tendency to ignore those who are paying attention. His goal is to encourage civic engagement by starting a community conversation that allows residents to make themselves heard and listen to what others have to say.


"We’re just here to talk and to discuss. We’re not here to beat up on the mayor. We’re not here to beat up on council members. We’re not here to beat up on the city administration or staff," Foley says. "However, we are here to hold them accountable, and to let them know that we have a voice, and a voice cannot be discounted."


The proposed International Village development on Water Street was a focus of the second part of the event series. Four members of city council, including Brown, were in attendance to directly answer the many questions about the development, like why no one investigated the funding source behind city staff's controversial trip to China in advance.


The panel and audience discussed a forthcoming community benefits agreement, which would require International Village's developer to follow certain guidelines, like hiring local contractors and construction workers. Councilperson Lois Richardson assured a few audience members who were concerned the community benefits agreement was being drafted behind closed doors that the city attorney is only in the process of working on an ordinance that will allow councilors to work on the agreement alongside residents.


On Sept. 11, Foley hosted the first part of the event series, which focused on the history of Ypsilanti. Discussion topics at that session included how escaped slaves traveling on the Underground Railroad found a safe haven on Ypsi's South Side and how their descendants are worried about being displaced from the neighborhoods where their families have lived for generations. He says he was prompted to host two more events after that because there were still many unanswered questions and uncharted discussions after the first event. The third part of the event series will be held sometime in November.


"The city of Ypsilanti has a very rich history," Foley says. "Ypsilanti’s motto is pride, diversity, and heritage. And what we’re seeing is we’re willing to sacrifice — in my opinion — the city of Ypsilanti wants to sacrifice its heritage for pride and diversity, and that’s very troubling."


Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.

All photos by Brianna Kelly.

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