Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.
When Larry Bell started his brewery 37 years ago he wanted to make good beer, earn a good living, and be someone who benefits the community.
Less than a month after selling Bell’s Brewery Inc., which had become one of the largest craft breweries in the nation, the first two goals have been met. And he continues to try to benefit the community.
He’s done that by making seasonal gifts to various local organizations. But his annual donation to the Boy & Girls Clubs of Greater Kalamazoo will be joined this year by a $1 million gift to that organization.
“It was probably in the ’90s, that I guess I started to give,” Bell says. “In the ’80s I didn’t have anything to give away.” But he says, “I got to a point where every holiday season I’d go write them (the Clubs) a nice check which I still do just for their operations. This is a capital campaign item here, a special gift.”
Campaign funds will be used to build a $9 million, 30,000-square-foot central headquarters for the Boys & Girls Clubs on the 1.4-acre former site of the Edison Elementary School, at 825 Portage St.
Dubbed “Their Future Is In Your Hands,” the campaign was launched early in 2021 with contributions from nearly 100 donors. It had raised about $5.4 million through last October. The building is expected to be completed in 2023.
“I kind of feel like this gift gets them to a point where they can see the light at the end of the tunnel for finishing the campaign,” he says. “So that’s the job now, is to get out and talk to the public and get those donations sent in to finish this up.”
Matt Lynn, chief executive officer of the Clubs, says Bell’s longtime support of the Clubs and his leadership in the campaign “speak to the success our programming can bring to young people.”
“As a member of our campaign cabinet, Larry will continue to work with us to reach our $9 million goal,” Lynn says.
Bell is a member of the capital campaign committee and has had a long acquaintance with past Boys & Girls Clubs Executive Director Bob Ezelle and with his predecessor Dick Milne, who left the club in the mid-1980s and opened the Corner Bar & Grill, a popular Kalamazoo tavern.
That place was a lunch and dinner haunt of Bell and the late Milne was a big supporter of craft beer brewing in Kalamazoo. Through him, Bell was introduced to the work done by the Boys & Girls Clubs.
The Boys & Girls Clubs provide more than 1,300 area young people a free place to play, learn, and relax away from home. It also strives to provide purposeful programming to help them develop personally and professionally. The organization operates from locations inside Washington Writers Academy in the Edison Neighborhood, Milwood Magnet School in the Milwood Neighborhood, Hillside Middle School in the Westwood Neighborhood, and Northeastern Elementary School in the Eastside Neighborhood.
Bell says he has donated to various youth groups and “That’s sort of been a focus because there’s a lot of need for kids in town.” He gravitated to the Boys & Girls Clubs after having known Milne and then meeting Bob Ezelle.
“I was always impressed with them as individuals and by their leadership,” Bell says. “And from everything that I’ve seen, they have good results. They run good operations that actually make a difference for youth and that’s the kind of thing that I feel like putting my money there – that it goes to good use.”
Bell says his ongoing support for the building project will be to get others in the community to give.
Larry Bell, shown with wife Shannon at a Chicago Cubs game, says he intends to continue to help the Kalamazoo community.
Bell was born south of Chicago in Harvey, Ill., and raised in nearby Park Forest, Ill., but relocated to Kalamazoo in 1976 to attend Kalamazoo College. He started a microbrewery in 1985 in the basement of his Vine Neighborhood apartment, hired a few workers, and hoped to grow it from producing a few hundred barrels per year to 30,000 barrels per year. That was an amount that established family-owned microbrewers said would allow it to be self-sustaining but fly under the radar and avoid serious competition from larger brewers.
He says he also hoped to earn $100,000 a year for himself. “That was my life goal,” he says with a chuckle.
The maker of Oberon, Two-Hearted Ale, and other craft beers shot past the 30,000-barrel milestone sometime in 1998 or 1999. But Bell says he never wanted it to be the biggest brewer. “It was always just about making good beer, treating the employees well, and being a good community player,” he says.
When he sold the business late last year, it was producing about 486,000 barrels per year and distributing products in 43 states and Puerto Rico.
Why sell the business?
“I needed a succession plan. It’s time for me to retire,” says Bell, who at age 63 had no family members interested in leading the enterprise. He says the agreement to sell to Lion Brewery of Australia also allows the company’s 520 employees to have a continuation plan.
In 2019, Lion Brewery also purchased Colorado-based New Belgium Brewery. Its U.S. operations are now based in Fort Collins, Colo., but its parent company is Kirin Holdings of Japan, which used to be part of the Mitsubishi Group.
An artist’s rendering provides the layout of the location to be built for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kalamazoo at Portage and Vine streets just south of downtown Kalamazoo.
Bell, who successfully navigated a bout with cancer in 2019, says he intends to travel and stay active with projects in Kalamazoo. He says he has been extremely fortunate and the sale of the brewery put him in a position to do some things for the community that a lot of people don’t often get to do. But he says, “I’m happy to do it and try and continue to make Kalamazoo a great place to live.”
When the new Boys & Girls Clubs location is completed, he says, “I look forward to having that great facility for serving kids because they lost their facility over there in the Edison Neighborhood once the school got torn down. And obviously, that’s one of our key neighborhoods in the city where there’s a need for youth outreach.”
Edison Elementary was demolished as Kalamazoo Public Schools seeks to modernize its buildings. The leadership of the Boys & Girls Clubs, which had been located there, has temporarily relocated to 4000 Portage St.
“With the headquarters over at the school, I think the general public didn’t see a facility or have something in their mind’s eye that said, ‘Here’s where the Boys & Girls Clubs is.’” Bell says. “So I think this gives them a more prominent position in the community and understand more (about) all the services that they offer.”
According to information provided by the Clubs, the organization’s new headquarters will include space for computer work, arts and media activities, health and wellness activities, quiet study space, games, and sports space, science exploration, and teen activities as well as administrative space.
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Ezelle says. “As we work to provide the very best in programming for children and youth in our community, I am pleased to be part of an effort that truly gives children and teens a place where they feel like they belong, and it gives us an opportunity to mentor and build character.”