Community rallies behind ‘beloved’ music venue owners

Michelle and Gary Hanks have poured their hearts and souls into Seven Steps Up. But they didn’t realize how much their investment meant to others until recently. 

When they needed help, hundreds stepped up to help cover expenses until the Spring Lake music venue could reopen for concerts and other events. 
Michael McDermott performs at Seven Steps Up in 2019.
"It's really hard to talk about it without getting verklempt, but we knew how much we love this place, what we didn't know was that so many people in the community did as well,” says Michelle.

She also gets emotional watching the newly released video “The Song Will Rise,” sung and co-written by Muskegon resident and physician John Mulder, that pays tribute to the venue. One of the lyrics describes the experience of attending a concert at the listening room: This place where magic happens, the crowd laughs and cries, where hearts touch the audience.

“Live music venues were the first to close and will be the last to open. We've read about many venues shutting down permanently, and it makes us that much more grateful for the support and love that we've received,” Michelle says.

Devastated by shutdowns

Seven Steps Up is among the independent venues across the country that have been devastated by the COVID-19 crisis and social distancing rules intended to stop the spread of the virus. The venue hasn’t had an event since mid-March, when the cancellations began happening. 

Supporters near and far have contributed more than $38,000 to help with expenses of maintaining the century-old building to keep the business going until it can host events again. The majority of donations — about 60% — came locally, and the remainder from touring artists who have performed at the venue. Most donations were between $20 and $50.

The biggest donation came from Lilley Cares, the nonprofit arm of the Lilley Mansion, the soon-to-open Spring Lake bed-and-breakfast owned by Robert Lopez and Patrick Roggenbau. 

“Gary and Michelle are just beloved by people. These guys are the epitome of supporting a community,” says Lopez, who also organized a press conference in May to raise awareness for a GoFundMe page to help the venue. 

Funding match

The organization’s board of directors announced it would match up to $10,000 in donations through June 28. The match was maxed out in a few days.

Seven Steps Up at night. Helping the venue is the first step of the foundation's plans to support the community. Lopez and Lilley Cares are organizing a volunteer week for September and Festival of Lights for December in the community.

Seven Steps Up has a history of providing the space for nonprofits to use. Michelle also serves on the Village Council. 

Generating income

The Hankses bought the former Masonic Temple, at 116 S. Jackson St., in 2001 and renovated the brick landmark into a home so they could move into it in 2003. When the Great Recession hit in 2008 and Gary was between jobs, they came up with an idea to use the building to generate income so they could stay in Spring Lake rather than leave the state for other job offers. The venue – with a name inspired by the building's grand main entrance – opened in 2010.

The first two floors — including the building’s original ballroom —- are used for concerts or events that can accommodate up to 160 people. Their third-floor loft — which is their residence — doubles as a green room for performers. 

The couple’s reach goes beyond Spring Lake. Courtyard Concerts, the nonprofit they started in 2013 organizes music performances in Grand Haven, from the farmers market to local festivals, to larger concerts at the Lynne Sherwood Waterfront Stadium. All shows have been canceled through the summer, and the executive director has been laid off.

"We've just kind of shut everything down for the moment until we see what is going to happen. I can't really tell you how quickly we’ll be able to get back into the business and make money,” Michelle says. 

Ongoing expenses

Unlike the nonprofit, Seven Steps Up has ongoing expenses related to maintaining the 101-year-old building.

Gary and Michelle Hanks in the early years.
“Michelle has just been absolutely phenomenal at working with the community to really present some quality music programs, as well as promoting local artists,” says Joy Gaasch, Chamber of Commerce president. “Last year, at the Grand Haven Art Festival, we had a music stage, and she basically coordinated all the acts there. It was just a phenomenal partnership. She's just always willing to step up and really make sure that music is in the forefront in our community.” 

Angela Stanford-Butler, Spring Lake DDA Director, describes the venue as among the businesses that feed off one another and support the nonprofit community by opening their doors for meetings and events.

Fabric of the community

Seven Steps Up is part of the fabric of the community, providing a space to bring people together, adds Spring Lake Village Manager Christine Burns.

“I just can't tell you how proud I am that this community has come together to support Seven Steps Up, and I want to thank Robert and Patrick and Lilley Cares for everything that they're doing for local businesses,” Burns says. 

Related: Saving a landmark brings couple to Spring Lake

The way Lopez sees it, Seven Steps Up is a cultural cornerstone of The Village, and together with The Lilley Mansion, Windermere House, Epicurean Village, Stan’s Bar, and other businesses, creates a thriving downtown corridor.
“The loss of Seven Steps Up would be detrimental to the overall economic and social atmosphere of our village,” Lopez says.

This article is part of The Lakeshore, a new featured section of Rapid Growth focused on West Michigan's Lakeshore region. Over the coming months, Rapid Growth will be expanding to cover the complex challenges in this community by focusing on the organizations, projects, programs, and individuals working to improve conditions and solve problems for their region. As the coverage continues, look for The Lakeshore publication, coming in 2020. 
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Read more articles by Shandra Martinez.