The changing face of Midland Street: New and veteran entrepreneurs aim to transform the district

A group of committed, forward-thinking entrepreneurs is taking Midland Street Business District by storm, and they won’t be deterred by naysayers or pessimists.

Whether they own well-established businesses or have recently purchased vacant buildings, these business owners have taken it upon themselves to re-invent Midland Street.

A transformation as grand as this takes a lot of work. Fortunately, the key players don’t shy away from putting in the necessary effort.

New Linn Street occupants

Matt Nemode, Chairman of the Midland Street Management Board and owner of Mode’s Tavern, 108 N. Linn St., is optimistic about the direction the district is headed.

Photo courtesy of Heidi's Darn Good Cookies“There is a lot happening in the Midland Street Business District to be excited about. Linn Street is adding four new businesses this summer and early fall with Heidi's Darn Good Cookies, an indoor skate park, a coffee shop, and a recording studio.”

Major Skate, the indoor skate park that occupies one suite at 106 S. Linn St., is owned by Anthony Malenfant and is set to open on or around Aug. 16 after months of renovation and park installation. The building had been vacant.

LoLoBee’s Lounge, located in the same building, opened in mid-July and serves tea and coffee while offering a place to unwind.

Greg Kimbrue, a legendary Bay City restaurateur and wine connoisseur, says these kinds of new businesses are just what the street needs to breathe new life into the area.

“In this business we need vital businesses, not vacant buildings. The things that have helped Downtown Bay City develop into what it is right now are what will work here. The big thing here is re-investment and operators.”

Greg Kimbrue is selling two Midland Street businesses, VNO Wine Warehouse & New Age Restaurant and River Rock Cafe, to new owners. (Photo courtesy of VNO)Kimbrue sells two Midland Street businesses

In fact, Kimbrue is a pivotal part of the change himself. Recently, Kimbrue sold River Rock Cafe, 614 E. Midland St., a location he co-owned with longtime business partner Willis Wells since 1999. Additionally, he and his wife, Peggy, are in the process of selling VNO Wine Warehouse & New Age Restaurant, 512 E. Midland St.

Kimbrue says of the two closely timed sales, “The time to sell is when you have a buyer.” While he wasn’t desperate to sell, when the opportunities presented themselves, the 64-year-old took advantage of them.

Kimbrue has marked down prices on his huge collection of wines at VNO Wine Warehouse. (Photo courtesy of VNO) River Rock Cafe was purchased by a former employee of Kimbrue, Erik Thompson, along with Thompson’s stepfather. Though Thompson has taken possession of the building, Kimbrue says he won’t be able open until the contingent, or temporary, license clears all the state hurdles, which could be by the end of August.

While there are still details to be ironed out, Kimbrue believes the cuisine will feature unique, trending dishes, such as ramen bowls, saki, fresh fruit cocktails, and tandoori chicken.

Kriss LaRock, who renovated Duso's Bar from a pirate theme to a karaoke hotspot with gothic elements, is buying VNO. (Photo courtesy of Duso's Bar)The potential buyer of VNO is certainly no stranger to Midland Street. Kriss LaRock, owner of Duso’s Bar, 604 E. Midland St., is set to purchase the restaurant, though the process has been painstakingly slow, an issue that Kimbrue believes is due, in large part, to staffing at the state level.

“Everything is moving as slow as snails. There were issues with paperwork initially. Most recently there was a glitch with legal things. Potentially it could be final in 15 days,” says Kimbrue.

Though LaRock has released bits and pieces of his plan on social media, the new restaurant remains a bit of a mystery.

Kimbrue says, “He (LaRock) plans to do a lot of things in a more upscale fashion. He is well-traveled and has a lot of new ideas from things he has seen all over the country. Upscale liquors, cocktails, and things like that … things that put wow-appeal right in front of the customer.”

In the meantime, Kimbrue continues running VNO and liquidating its massive wine inventory.

“Anybody that knows me knows that I will be working until the last minute. Until the keys are out of my pocket.”

O's Pub and Grill is expanding from Auburn into the Midland Street Business District.From Auburn to Bay City: O’s Pub and Grill expands

Marc and Laura Owczarzak, owners of O’s Pub and Grill in Auburn, 123 E. Midland St., purchased the property that formerly housed Hooters at 966 E. Midland St. in June of 2022 in order to expand.

Marc says, “We at O’s are at a point where we either need to expand the current location or look for a second location. Since the building in Auburn is older and has a lot of character, we didn’t want to ruin what we had going on there. So what was best for us was to expand to a new location.”

The Owczarzaks’ vision for the new establishment includes a complete renovation of the building that has been vacant for several years.

“From a customer standpoint, the interior will be completely re-done. The open design kitchen that was there will be closed in. The seating area will be completely remodeled. Move the bar, new flooring, new tables, new chairs. It will look completely different.”

And the changes don't stop with the interior; the exterior will also receive a facelift, including the boat docks.

Though Marc believes the restaurant will open in October or November of 2022 in time for the holidays, the docks are another story. That lengthy project will require approval by the Army Corps of Engineers. Optimistically, the docks will be available to patrons on the river in time for the summer season 2023.

For those that love the cuisine at O’s in Auburn, the new restaurant will offer most of the established favorites, in addition to more options and a slightly different concept.

“We are excited to bring our product down into that area, into Bay City. To be one of the book ends of the district is very exciting to us. Growing up in the area and spending a lot of time in my younger years in that district, I am just really excited to be part of its revival. There is a long way to go, but we are on the road to getting there and I am excited to work with everyone.”

Earl Bovia, who owns Bay City Bill's in Bay City's South End, is excited to now own the Rathskeller, which is a long-time Midland Street establishment. (Photo courtesy of The Rathskeller)“The Rat” changes hands

Rathskeller Food & Spirits, a longtime fixture on Midland Street, also changed hands this past January. Keeping the name intact, Earl Bovia and Jason Gower purchased the business and building and opened for business in February, after giving the location a deep cleaning, new lighting, and upgraded kitchen equipment.

Bovia says the pair were thrilled at the chance to join the business district. “I feel Midland Street is a destination location for many people. So, when we had the opportunity to purchase an iconic bar such as The Rathskeller, Jason and I jumped at the chance to do so.”

Bovia also owns Bay City Bills Bar & Grill, 1215 Michigan Ave., with his wife, Michelle. Gower, a lifelong resident of Bay County, is also a criminal defense attorney with Gower Law PLC, 514 E. Midland St.

Though many just think Midland Street is synonymous with bars, Bovia is committed to showing all that the street has to offer.

“There are all kinds of new investments going on and new blood with new owners of longtime established businesses. Oftentimes the area gets a bad rap that’s undeserved. We invite people to come back down and rediscover Midland Street again.”

Lighting the way

A fundraising event on Sun., Aug. 28 seeks to raise money for a special lighting project in the business district. (Photo courtesy of VNO)Despite frustrating moments over the last few years, Nemode is sure that the future is bright for Midland Street.

To help ensure that, a Lighting Project Fundraiser will take place on Aug. 28 at VNO in order to raise money for a series of light arches that will span the street, starting with the 500 block. Tickets to the fundraiser are $25 each or two for $45. The 3-7 p.m. event includes live entertainment, silent and live auctions, and raffles. The ticket prices includes a baked chicken dinner. Tickets are available at Mode’s and VNO.

“The Management Board is in the process of planning some great District-wide events to benefit all of the businesses and will be very family friendly.  Every day the District feels a little more inviting which will only lead to great results.”