Lofts on Ludington a shining example of downtown redevelopment

Once one of downtown Escanaba's most prominent buildings, the former Delta Building faded into one of its most forgotten and useless structures in recent years.

Now, it is in the throes of a transformation by a husband-wife team who never dreamed the project would become a major part of this Upper Peninsula city's economic turnaround--in its new life as the soon-to-be Lofts on Ludington.

In addition to being one of the biggest economic boosts to come to Escanaba in decades, Matt and Beth Sviland's Lofts on Ludington, a modern, upscale living and shopping development in a 1900s-era brewery, is a prime example of the marriage of historic preservation and eco-conscious construction.

It is also a how-to in navigating the maze of state and federal grants and tax incentives offered to historic, brownfield, Main Street and environmental redevelopments, all financial enticements that have made what seemed a gorilla-sized renovation manageable for a couple with big developer ideas on a small developer budget.

"It really is a puzzle. We knew nothing about any of this when we started," says Matt Sviland, who left his birthplace of Escanaba to study architecture at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield before living in Houston and Vermont, later returning to his family's Escanaba business.

The 15-unit residential loft with three ground-floor retail spaces takes up a picturesque perch at the tip of downtown Escanaba's main thoroughfare. The lofts and yet-to-be-disclosed shops to open in the same building are at the town's westerly entrance and within view of Lake Michigan, a yachting harbor, an island, a park, and downtown Escanaba's business and recreation scene, all of which Matt Sviland describes as very "Norman Rockwellian."

Potential residents are already on a waiting list and emails and phone calls about the project come in daily. The market is year-round Escanaba residents as well as its summer visitors who want nice amenities and access to the harbor, but not the upkeep of a home.

The Svilands are accomplished renovators and designers, having taken on a condemned house on Lake Michigan and turning it into their family home. They moved on a few years later to updating Sviland Paint and Wallcovering, a business that's been in Matt's family for three generations.

Even with their way with blueprints and building tools, the Svilands have to laugh at having taken on a $5 million fixer-upper that had them remortgage their home, learn the intricacies of federal and state incentives, loans and grants. When all is said and done, three years will have gone into this old building.

It was a similarly-minded renovation of the paint and wallcovering store that showed the Svilands what an appetite Escanabans had for contemporary updating of the historic city.

"We wanted to give it a more urban and upscale feel. We had just an excellent response to that," Matt Sviland recalls. "The grand reopening drew 500 people. For Escanaba, that's huge.

Beth Sviland credits the HGTV effect with influencing people to seek out appealing and comfortable things, if not the latest in design.

"The reaction (to the paint store renovation) definitely got us going," Beth says. "We realized what we had a vision for; other people had a taste for."

The Svilands weren't sure what they were getting into when they called the city about taking on a project that might follow the paint store re-do in generating some economic excitement in Escanaba. The former DDA director suggested the old brewery. It was owned by an investor from Chicago when the Svilands went to check it out.

"Both Beth and I said, 'No way' at first," Matt recalls.

"But when we went inside ... We could see things were already there. You could tell it was going to make a beautiful conversion to loft apartments," Matt Sviland says. "The next visit we came with a tape measure and laid it out and thought it could work."

After nine months of negotiating, the building was theirs. That was the easy part.

"It's deceiving inside. Once you get in there it keeps going and going. The architecture is amazing," he says. "It's the sheer volume, the massiveness of the spaces, it just wows people."

While the Lofts on Ludington is a personal and professional accomplishment for the Svilands, it is part of a larger goal for Escanaba, the county seat of Delta County and the third largest city in the U.P.

"I think it's going to be the anchor to downtown Escanaba's revitalization," says Escanaba City Manager James O'Toole.

"The rehabilitation and repurposing of this property is a huge step forward in Escanaba and Escanaba's downtown because it has taken an obsolete building and repurposed it for a better use, which will be a benefit not only to downtown but to all of Escanaba," O'Toole says.

O'Toole says the former Richter Brewing Company was a 1900s operation that was shut down by Prohibition. It later became the Delta Brewing Company before serving as a series of businesses until about a decade ago.

"It's the second-tallest building in town ... probably five-plus stories. It was in the heart of the city, and nothing was there," he says.

Often called the Delta Building--for the brewery that began operation in the early 1930s and painted its name on the side--the renovation project has received remarkable community support.

"It has been a huge part of pushing this forward," O'Toole says.

And the timing of other downtown improvements, including a facade enhancement program that funded seven major facade updates in the last few years with another six expected this year, "is fitting in hand in hand with our revitalization plans," he says.

O'Toole says the building was probably headed for demolition without the Svilands' intervention, along with help from organizations such as the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, the Michigan State Housing Development Authority and the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office. One crucial financial piece of the puzzle came in a $240,000 facade improvement grant, one of the largest in Michigan for a single building. Construction should be complete in November.

"Without these incentives this project would not have happened," O'Toole says.

Kim North Shine is a Detroit-area freelance writer.
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