Not-so-sleepy: Downtown Lake Orion ups its game with music venue, eateries

Lake Orion began as a playground destination in the nineteenth century, a place for Detroit families eager to escape the heat of the city and summer on the lakes. The surrounding township even carries the somewhat kitsch slogan “where living is a vacation”.

However, as the resort lifestyle declined in the twentieth century, downtown struggled to fill vacant storefronts. The village was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.  But rather than simply existing as a relic of the past, a recent Main Street make-over and new businesses are now attracting a vibrant crowd to these once-sleepy streets.

With new music venue, trendy café, boutique wine bar, sustainable chocolatier, and a variety of restaurants that have all boosted the downtown, downtown Lake Orion is experiencing a resurgence.

Joe Young took over as Village Manager this year, and says the town is booming, with four major developments currently under construction.

“We are no longer a sleepy destination coming alive only in the summer when filled with resort visitors,” says Molly Downtown Development Authority Executive Directo LaLone. “People are rediscovering Lake Orion.”

Joey Young, Pam Belding, Molly Lalone

One of the most important renovations downtown has been 20 Front Street, which opened its doors as a music and theatre venue just over a year ago, bringing a certain legitimacy to the village’s night life. Described as a “listening room”, the small. 90-person space was repurposed in a 1940s building and sports repurposed church pews from an 1890’s church and a stage from the original Michigan State Fair gymnasium.

The venue offers a hushed atmosphere and a rare, intimate opportunity to appreciate musical performers. The venue regularly pulls sell-out crowds, and the six families behind the venture were recently awarded the Economic Impact Award for the Orion area. Concert-goers have been treated to the likes of American Idol Winner Lee Dewyze, The Voice Winner Javier Colon, and renowned guitarists like Calum Graham.

Allan Goetz at sound check.

Co-owner Allan Goetz says he wanted to create a space where people could connect through music. “With the level of talent coming to perform, Lake Orion is becoming a destination for people who love the arts,” Goetz says.

“We already have welcomed people flying in from DC, New York, and other states to see concerts, and people are driving from as far as Traverse City and Chicago to see their favorite artists,” he says. “After only being open a year we can already see why Lake Orion's original name was Canandaigua (the chosen spot).”

A café scene has also emerged in the village, with the cozy A Bean to Go supplying the caffeine on Flint Street. Across the downtown, the upstairs Social Café at 20 Front Street boasts a gourmet tea selection, including popular beverages from New Kombucha in Farmington Hills. The vintage décor includes the kind of record players more common in hipster hangouts of Ferndale, yet fits seamlessly with the historic building. The attached creamery ran a popular summer trade in its first year, with Royal Oak’s Rays Ice Cream providing the ice cream and occasional live entertainers creating a festive ambience.

Lake Orion hasn’t escaped growing popularity of wine bars across Michigan, either. Wine Social opened this year, and the owners couldn’t be happier with their clientele.

“It is an unusually friendly community on a very fundamental level,” says owner Ed Bosse. “People here are still are experimenting, trying new things, talking about wine, sharing it with friends. In some communities, people are mysteriously driven to expensive, big name, bad brands because of some unseen social pressure. In Lake Orion, wine is fun, and social.”

This year a chocolatier opened in the downtown as well. Nutz about Chocolate is a sustainable sweets company, using biodegradable and compostable packaging. Co-owner and resident Tina Morin says she and her husband chose Lake Orion because they loved the vibe of the town.

“Lake Orion truly is a great representation of our state,” she says, “The people are welcoming, involved, and supportive one another and the local businesses.”

Wine SocialDining trends have also seen a growth in local restaurants.

“Two years ago, Lockharts BBQ opened and that became the catalyst for an enormous amount of economic development in the downtown area,” LaLone says.

Between Sagebrush Cantina’s busy wait-times for Mexican food, Valentino’s Italian restaurant, and Lockhart’s Barbeque menu, you might think that Lake Orion had its food groups covered for the downtown strip, but the opening of a new Fork n’ Pint suggests there’s still more room to grow. It hasn’t all been smooth sailing for beer-vendors in the area though, Fork n Pint have opened in the premises of a closed micro-brewery 51 North, after it was forced to close its doors.

“Having a successful business is a challenge anywhere, not just here,” Young says.

One area the DDA has been mindful of is keeping the town’s history intact, despite new development.

“The DDA offers historic preservation grant funds to achieve and maintain the historic architecture features of buildings in the downtown, which has been very successful,” Young says.

Three of the prominent buildings have been renovated by Jack Kabliska, a local property owner and historic preservation enthusiast.

“His work has helped return buildings that been prey to bad 'modern' design decisions to their original glory,” LaLone says. “The building he is currently renovating is the future home of Anita’s Kitchen. He has uncovered original signs painted on the building and plans to incorporate them into the final design,” she says.

So what else is in store for this not-so-sleepy town?

“We are in the process of taking a good look at our parking,” LaLone says. “With new development coming in, it is possible we are going to need to get creative with the parking space we have already in order to create more. It is a good problem to have and to solve.”

Lake Orion residents will also be looking forward to a total of 38 days of special events each year, including Dragon on the Lake Festival and Boat Race, Dueling Fireworks, Jubilee Street Carnival, and the 2nd-largest lighted holiday parade in the country.

Perhaps living here really is a vacation after all.

Read more articles by Kate Roff.

Kate Roff is a freelance writer and editor, currently based out of Detroit. Contact her at kate@wanderoff.com.au
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