Eaton Rapids eyes riverfront development with adaptive reuse of historic property

Just a little more than 17 miles from Michigan's state capitol building a small town teems with big city plans.

Situated at the edge of Lansing and other metro areas, Eaton Rapids boasts a history shaped by rivers. Grist, lumber and woolen mills lined the riverbanks and powered the economy, while artesian wells and mineral baths made Eaton Rapids the "Saratoga of the West" for wealthy health seekers in the 1800s.

Water continues to define the character of this 3.5-square mile city that is home to about 5,200 people. The downtown district itself is an island, encircled by the Grand and Springbrook rivers and accessible by several bridges. And while riverfront commerce in the "Island City" ebbed in the mid-to-late 1900s, the tide is shifting as 21st century civic leaders see the value of shoreline business.

"Our immediate focus is on the waterfront and underused properties," says Gary Wichman, president of the Eaton Rapids Development Corporation. "And there's a big push because we have lots and lots of water—about 14 miles of shoreline. It's a great resource for a small town."

Take me to the river

Wichman is among a small group of citizens in Eaton Rapids that banded together in 2008 to focus on the redevelopment of the city's neglected riverfront areas. Initially, the group of about 40 private investors concentrated on revamping blighted properties and bringing niche retail, entertainment and dining to the island business district. Inspired by the activity, a Michigan entrepreneur Scott Fraser opened a kayaking school close to downtown, while other residents rallied to rebuild the rapids that had been calmed by the dams and the industrial era.

"We're all into this for the community," says Wichman of the increasing momentum and vision. "We want to see the town grow and improve, as well as become a destination." Few supporters of Eaton Rapids development live that vision more passionately than Eddie De Leo. A Philadelphia native with a 33-year track record in the redevelopment of industrial space, De Leo came to Eaton Rapids on the advice of a best friend.

"We stood right over there and looked out over the river," says De Leo of a day a few years back when he and Paul DiMeglio, the late founder of the ERDC, discussed the rebirth of the Eaton County town. "I saw the potential immediately for something that would be unrivaled and unlike anything with 45-minutes of this town." De Leo is talking about the historic structures on the Grand River that were once home to the Horner Woolen Mill.

Complete with an iconic smokestack, the framed buildings from the 1840s were later refurbished by the Detroit architect Albert Kahn, adding to their architectural charm and significance.

For the past 45 years, the red brick buildings on an eight-acre peninsula have served as rented commercial space for small businesses and nonprofit organizations. In 2013, De Leo purchased the real estate and began envisioning a new life for the 150,000 square feet of space. "All the infrastructure is there," says De Leo. "I cut my teeth on buildings like this back in Philly and New Jersey. This space is just dripping with character." 

Village people

De Leo's idea starts with a village. His idea, he says, is to transform the current buildings into three main business centers with 15 smaller venues, all while preserving the historic features, charm and integrity of the structures. His business plan for the Riverwalk Village at Horner Mill includes a brewpub, boutique inn, Italian restaurant and pizzeria, a Costa Rican chickee hut, steak house, coffee house, banquet hall, cigar bar, a retail strip, as well as a boutique movie theater, miniature golf course and kayak launch. Four artist lofts, 60 loft style apartments, and a 12-foot wide paved brick walkway also figure into the mix. De Leo says the nearly $11.5 million project has potential to create about 140 jobs and generate close to $750,000 of economic activity a month for Eaton Rapids. Those numbers have captured the attention of city leaders who support building the city's commercial base by leveraging existing resources.

"The big thing is to take something old and make the interior more functional and user friendly," says Jon Stoppels, Eaton Rapids City Manager. "We have no hope of bringing a woolen mill back here, but there is a lot of floor space and unique character for housing, retail, restaurants and recreation." Historic preservationists have also supported De Leo's plan, stressing that projects like Horner Mill speak to keeping economic development in local economies as much as possible. 

"We like to promote adaptive reuse of existing structures, not just conservation," says Amanda Reintjes, greater Michigan field representative for the Michigan Historic Preservation Network and National Trust for Historic Preservation. "We often let people know that preservation isn't just standing still in time. Adaptive reuse promotes economic development and preserves our past at the same time." That, De Leo recognizes, is critical to note since Eaton Rapids' downtown recently made the National Register of Historic Places.

"I'm trying to build on and deliver cool to the city and region," says De Leo. "This development is meant to attract people beyond Eaton Rapids. What I've learned about Michiganders is they don't mind driving if there's a great dinner or attraction at the end of the line."

A grand vision

For now, De Leo is refining his business plan, seeking investors, working with a management team, and putting finishing touches on another Eaton Rapids development he's confident will propel riverfront commerce. Tavern on the Grand has been a work in progress since early 2013, and is ramping up construction to open in late spring 2014.

De Leo has invested about $100,000 to remodel the former Miller Dairy property across the river from the Horner Mill that has sat vacant for six years. When open, the 4,000-square foot riverfront eatery will feature a pub, sit-down restaurant, and wrap-around decks.

The new pub and restaurant will create about 40 jobs and will accommodate up to 100 guests between indoor and outdoor seating. "We're focusing on Michigan jobs, Michigan contractors and lots of Michigan products with our food, wine and beer," says De Leo. "At least six of our draft beers will be from breweries in the state, and we'll source some goods from local farmers, too."

On the dining side, the Tavern will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner overseen by local chef Sean Thelen, a seafood specialist and graduate of the Culinary Institute of Michigan. The menu, De Leo says, will be lively and affordable, with dishes priced between $10 and $22. On the pub side, guests can enjoy smaller meals, appetizers, and a panoramic view of the Horner Mill through a 16-foot window overlooking the river.

Repurposed wood from the Horner Mill and reclaimed Italian marble from Michigan State University will accentuate the decor, while live music and outdoor fire pits help ensure the Tavern's cache as a destination. "When we get this Tavern open, this will be a TV show for people to watch every night," says De Leo as he looks through the back window to the mill. "People will come here just to sit and say, 'Hey, look what else Eddie is doing over there today.'"

De Leo is confident the Tavern will fuel investment and development of the Horner Mill, starting with the brewpub. The brewpub, he says, will be the push that generates positive momentum, simply by virtue of the 45-foot ceilings, monster skylights and rooftop decks that will be unparalleled in Michigan. "I'm just one click away," says De Leo. "It will happen. When I'm done here with the Tavern, I'll have a quick glass of Michigan wine, go with my construction crew, and get going on the next catalyst—the brewpub. Once we can get that going, the rest will come."

Ann Kammerer is the development news editor for Capital Gains.

Photos © Dave Trumpie
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.

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