Your neighbor is a developer: Small-scale investments in the Great Lakes Bay Region

One of a community’s biggest assets and a catalyst for growth is a familiar, motivated and thoughtful investor.

But where do you look for this person?

Often, you’ll find them in plain sight, or maybe even right next door.

Locally built, maintained and owned 
The impact of community-led, locally-owned, small-scale investments stretch far beyond what may initially start out as a small neighbor project. Yes, the multi-million-dollar buildings and sprawling design plans are nice, but the simple projects move the needle too – like a building with two rental units.

Investments of this kind meaningfully chip away at a segment of community development that has lacked a significant amount of investment over the last several decades, and one component that also ties communities together – Missing Middle Housing.

Missing Middle Housing comprises a large number of urban setups for accessible living. (Image Credit: Missing Middle Housing)

In particular, such investments in the missing middle open the doorway to affordable, desirable, walkable housing options for those who want to live in an urban area with access to amenities or may lack transportation.

Having such housing options allows for the development in a number of scenarios, including helping entrepreneurs start a business with cheaper rent, creating a mixed-use community space or cleaning up a block by putting a vacant building to use.

Several local efforts – by neighbors and names you’ll recognize – are aiming to add some local color to the region – namely Infuse Great Lakes Bay.

For Infuse co-founders and local development gurus Jenifer Acosta and Wayne Hofmann, the effort is one that hits home. The two started the effort with the intention of cultivating resilient communities through bringing the connections of knowledge, capital and resources to community revitalization projects.

Jenifer Acosta, of Jenifer Acosta Development.

Acosta is also a traveling faculty member of Incremental Development Alliance, speaking with communities nationally and in Canada about small-scale development. Not one to shy away from a challenge, Acosta has honed her craft over the years, transforming the former Bay City Times building into The Times Lofts, recently completed The Legacy in Bay City, is currently making headway on the Bearinger building in Downtown Saginaw and is also eyeing up potential spaces in Midland for development.

“I travel and speak about this all over, so naturally I want to see more projects come to fruition in our communities here at home,” she says.

Bernice Radle, founder and CEO of BuffaloveDevelopment in Buffalo, New York.

Recently, Incremental Development staff toured and gave several presentations throughout the region featuring Bernice Radle, developer, founder and CEO of Buffalove Development in Buffalo, New York. Radle spoke about her experience starting small, with her first building purchase at 25, to now transforming a good part of Buffalo over several projects with her current staff of more than 15 people.

Small development, big impact
In hearing Radle speak at February’s session, the message hit home for Renee Deckrow, owner of The Ashman Plaza in Midland.

Renee Deckrow, local developer and owner of TheAshman Plaza and Live Oak Coffeehouse in Midland and Bay City.

For Deckrow, who owns the building that houses Live Oak Coffeehouse, Parker Lane Design Studio and several other businesses, as well as Live Oak Coffeehouse in Bay City’s Uptown neighborhood, the session inspired her to extend her and her husband Aaron’s current mission of helping people. She is also keen about picking up a few more tools to keep in her pocket and the knowledge to deal with particular challenges, like zoning requirements.

In addition to The Ashman Plaza, the Renee and Aaron own two houses across the street and the couple have no plans to stop improving the community anytime soon.

“I love to be able to learn new things and help people, sharing whatever knowledge or piece of our community I can,” says Deckrow. “When you buy a building like Ashman Plaza, there is that feeling of ‘oh no, what did we just do?’, but I was inspired by Bernice and her work, and her message that buying and rehabilitating an old building is a noble thing.”

Live Oak Coffeehouse in Midland.

“I’ll be attending Incremental Development’s upcoming Great Lakes Bay Region workshop and we want to continue to develop this area,” says Deckrow. “We don’t have any firm projects in the works, but we are looking at a couple residential properties, and possibly a mixed-use development down the road.”

“This has taken something that can be intimidating and demystified it, making projects that may sound big initially, much more approachable. I really am looking forward to learning more about the possibilities for having both commercial and residential units in the same property.”

For Daniel Buzzell, Vice President of Operations at Midland’s Ace Hardware, the inspiration was constantly hearing that Downtown Midland lacks good, affordable housing options.

Daniel Buzzell of Ace Hardware in Midland has plansto develop future rental units in Downtown Midland.

Ace Hardware also owns the building that houses Mr. Mustache on Townsend Street. Above the business there are currently four rental units, but the building is currently configured with several different stairways, which breaks the units up inefficiently and a four-unit layout makes them all a bit small for occupancy.

Buzzell plans to work on contracting, construction and development specs in the coming months after the session with Incremental Development.

“The plan is to end up with two nicely situated units, with ample-sized bedrooms, living spaces and in-unit laundry,” says Buzzell.

The space above Mr. Mustache in Downtown Midlandcurrently has four small rental units.

Buzzell has also thrown around the idea of additional options for the building, including the potential for a speakeasy someday.

“We’ve thrown around some other possibilities too, so you never know,” he says.

Developing affordable housing options
These investments help out communities in other ways, too. ALICE, which stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed, comprises households that earn more than the Federal Poverty Level but less than the basic cost of living for the state (the ALICE Threshold).

As part of Michigan Association for United Ways 2019 Report of Financial Hardship, the total number of households in poverty, or within the ALICE Threshold in the Great Lakes Bay Region is 44 percent (data pulled from Bay City, Midland, Saginaw, Clare, Isabella and Gladwin counties).

“The ALICE project shines a light on the many hardworking families in our region, who may be one emergency away from slipping into poverty,” says Holly Miller, Executive Director for United Way of Midland County. “The groundbreaking ALICE report looks at a typical survival budget, that includes housing, childcare, food, transportation, healthcare and technology. Combined, housing and childcare costs can be the biggest barrier to sustainability. United Way’s across the region continue to make ALICE a priority through helping to meet the needs of today, while equipping them for success long term.”

The Legacy Building in Bay City, a project recentlycompleted by Acosta.

Bringing local investment to Main Street
Along with his role in Infuse Great Lakes Bay, Hofmann has recently taken on a new challenge as the Michigan Project Director of LocalCode and CEO of LocalCode Bay City.

LocalCode functions to revitalize Main Streets through community-centered development, combining apprenticeship for local entrepreneurs with venture funding and real estate development.

With the goal of strengthening cities from the inside, LocalCode aims to drive local ownership of businesses and real estate, strengthening the economic heart of communities.

Hofmann will focus some of his initial efforts withLocalCode in Bay City.

Hofmann and his partners plan to announce specific projects in the coming months, specifically in Bay City.

“We selected Bay City to start with because it’s an excellent example of the type of community we want to work within,” says Hofmann. “It has the size, economic history and intrinsic value that we were seeking. The proximity to other communities in the region also provides the opportunity for us to work on a regional level and we’ve already identified key areas where we can work to make an impact in the Great Lakes Bay Region. And for me, it's always been home.” Wayne Hofmann, Co-founder of Infuse Great LakesBay, Michigan Project Director of LocalCode and CEO of LocalCode Bay City. (PC: Infuse GLB)

Hofmann noted the community itself is the most integral part in the process of investing in our region.

“This is an opportunity to create a turning point for our communities and we need to change the perception that the only projects that can move the needle and create value are the big ones,” he says. “Enabling more incremental projects gets investors engaged, more buildings contributing value to the community, and most importantly, promotes more avenues to local ownership and wealth generation.”

“We have some hurdles to clear, notably with demographic projections for the region pointing in the wrong direction, but they already have been for the past 30 years. We can continue on this path, or decide we want to invest in our communities, to make them stronger and prove the projections wrong – so we’re investing to build the community we want to see in 30 years,” he says.

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Read more articles by Courtney Soule.

Courtney is a longtime Midland resident and enjoys telling the story of the community's evolution. She ran Catalyst Midland as the publication's managing editor from October 2017 through September 2020. Her favorite topics are interesting people, change makers, outdoor recreation and design. Aside from Catalyst, her published work can be found various places including Elephant Journal, Thought Catalog and a number of other websites, papers, menus and the occasional one-liner.