Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Vine Neighborhood series.
Not everyone knows that the corner business district of South Westnedge and Vine is officially known as Central Corners. And that’s a good thing.
Because the Vine Neighborhood Association
, which owns the building, is seeking suggestions for a new name.
Something catchy. Something that reflects the quirky, artistic, family-oriented, student-influenced, unconventional spirit of Vine. Something to attach to one of the most traveled-by business corners in the city.
“At the end of the day, the crown jewel of my time here is that we purchased this unit,” says Steve Walsh, VNA Executive Director. “It’s our flagship. If we can offer up opportunities for micro-development to people in the neighborhood, then that will be crucial to establishing the kind of neighborhood we want. Walkability. Bring your friends. Go get your haircut. Grab a coffee.”
Purchased by the VNA four and a half years ago when the Kalamazoo Neighborhood Housing Services Inc.
(KNHS) decided to divest themselves of managing the property and change office locations, Central Corners has since seen impressive improvements, including several businesses started by Vine residents or those who have a love for the neighborhood and established Vine associations.
At the time of the purchase, Walsh saw a rare opportunity to acquire a property that could have a significant impact on the neighborhood.
“Almost 30,000 cars come down the road. Half of them get stuck at that light,” says Walsh of the intersection of South Westnedge and Vine, adding that the events at Chenery also create a buzz that travels across the street. “Owning this has let us determine what we presented to the community.”
Not only does the VNA benefit from an additional revenue stream due to rent from the businesses below and the seven apartments above, the association now has some say over the types of businesses that would be located in the building.
“We’ve tried very deliberately to be affordable,” says Walsh of rents. “Most of the people who rent these (apartment) units work right on this strip. I don’t think you can underestimate how important or how crucial the development of this property is to the neighborhood.”
From the start, the VNA wanted locally owned or influenced, mission-driven businesses that were harmonious with the spirit of Vine.
“I did not trust the untethered hand of the free market,” Walsh says with a laugh. The VNA, for instance, recently turned down a large offer from an out-of-state developer to open a vape shop, preferring to rent to businesses and nonprofits with local connections, such as Read and Write Kalamazoo (RAWK).
Jayne Gulliver, owner of J-Bird Vintage, shopped at Souk Sampler, a popular vintage clothing store in Vine during the ’80s.
Four years and much volunteer “demolating” (Walsh’s word) and renovating later, the business corner of today is a far cry from what it looked like five years ago when several storefronts were empty, parking was scarce, and the storefronts that faced Vine included only a barbershop and the VNA office. “There was nothing here to get you to stop over and say, ‘Hey, check this out!’” says Walsh.
Now the corner has new life. Across from Chenery Auditorium and along Vine, sits J-Bird Vintage, a clothing store that was one of the first new businesses to inhabit the building after the VNA purchase, Sway Salon, a barbershop, Heirloom Arts, LLC, and on the corner of South Westnedge, the inviting and youth-friendly windows of RAWK.
Then along South Westnedge, NOVA, a virtual reality lab, Satellite Records, and Bagel Beanery are situated. In the back of the building, the VNA now has its offices, as well as smaller offices that are rented to an accountant and a few nonprofits. “We didn’t feel like we needed to be out front and center,” says Walsh of the VNA, which is why they moved from their Vine Street office.
With the renovations almost complete, the storefronts almost filled, and the refinancing settled, the VNA would like the new name of the corner to reflect the business district’s unique character.
“It speaks to a change in the times,” says Walsh of the work that has been completed on the building. “I wanted to make sure that this was an area we could be proud of, one that we could put public art on, one where we could host events, and that we could be mission-driven and for which the tenants could be proud.”
Walsh and the VNA board are happy with what’s been accomplished, Walsh says, though it hasn’t been without a ton of “growing pains.”
“This was so out of the norm of anything we’ve ever done,” says Walsh. “But in terms of property management, we’ve really upped our game.”
Tenants old and new: J-Bird Vintage and Heirloom Arts, LLC
Before Jayne Gulliver wrote her business plan for a vintage clothing store, she was hoping to locate in a place students frequent. So when she heard from Walsh that the VNA was seeking a new tenant for its former office, she threw her hat in the ring.
“I really wanted to be in the Vine neighborhood,” says Gulliver, who opened J-Bird Vintage at 511 Vine Street four years ago in April, four months after the VNA purchased Central Corners. “I knew that I would be dedicating a good portion of my life to doing a business and I wanted to do it in an area where I could make a positive difference. I wanted to be a part of something that was growing so that I could be a positive force.”
Gulliver hasn’t looked back. Her women and men’s vintage clothing store is a go-to for those looking for unique apparel.
And with fond memories of shopping at the former Souk Sampler, a vintage clothing shop many may remember that was a Vine staple during the '70s and '80s, Gulliver was excited about the prospect of bringing vintage clothing back to the neighborhood.
“With KAMSC across the street, Kalamazoo College and Western Michigan University nearby, it’s a great place for vintage,” says Gulliver.
Gulliver also had a daughter who went to El Sol Elementary, the magnet Spanish immersion school down the street, which increased her affection for the neighborhood. “I couldn’t ask for better landlords or better people to be around,” Gulliver says of the VNA and fellow business owners. “I’ve been loving it.”
Gulliver credits nearby businesses such as Satellite Records, as well as Fourth Coast and Crows Nest in the building adjacent to Central Corners, for drawing customers to the area. “We share a lot of customers,” she says. “We are all really supportive of each other.”
Most of those who run and own businesses in Central Corners are not new to Vine, even if they may not currently live in the neighborhood. Emily Kastner, cofounder of RAWK, a nonprofit that promotes creative literacy for youth, for instance, initially started RAWK with a $500 grant through the VNA funded by LISC. RAWK moved into its prime Vine corner location in 2017.
Heirloom Arts, LLC., a licensed body arts facility, is opening at 505 W. Vine in early August. Eddie DeGraw, owner and tattoo artist, is a member of the VNA board of directors and works in Vine as a community organizer for Building Blocks.
“We know a lot of our customers are in Vine,” says DeGraw. “We wanted to make it more convenient for them to get to us.”
Heirloom Arts’ current location at 902 Gull Road is on a bus stop, but a “little off the beaten path,” says DeGraw. Another advantage to the new location is that the shop will be able to take some walk-in clients rather than by appointment only.
Heirloom is unique in that its mission is to be “open and inclusive” in a tattoo business that is largely a white-male dominated industry.
“We strive to be more inviting,” says DeGraw. “We want to provide services to folks that might not feel comfortable in a tattoo business, and to give opportunities to women and folks who are gender queer.”
Sarah Stammers, who is finishing up her apprenticeship as a tattoo artist, will be working in the Vine location, along with other tattoo artists.
“I think we fit really well with the Vine neighborhood,” says DeGraw. “That’s a great location for us.”
As the businesses fill up on Central Corners, store owners have noticed more foot traffic.
“This area is headed in a good direction,” says Gulliver. “I see it in my store. I’m getting people not just from Vine, but from Portage and Mattawan. Some of them you can tell are a little out of their element. But they have a good experience. And then they come back.”
A little backstory
Back in the early '90s, Kalamazoo Neighborhood Housing Services Inc. was looking for a building to house their offices. A private developer was selling the building on Vine and South Westnedge, which at the time, had only a 200-square-foot barbershop on the Vine side.
KNHS, with leadership from then Executive Director Chuck Vliek, began rehabilitating the corner with the help of historical district tax credits, Kalamazoo Community Foundation and Irving S. Gilmore Foundation grants, and financing from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation
(LISC) that together amounted to over $1 million dollars. KNHS created seven new affordable housing units on the second floor and commercial space on the bottom floor. And they dubbed it Central Corners.
“It was the early '90s, and here we have a major intersection with a very blighted and vacant building,” says Vliek of the property then. The first business attracted was a Klein’s Deli and Bagel Factory, the first bagel shop in the city limits. Under new ownership and name, Bagel Beanery is still located at 812 S. Westnedge. The building also housed the Visiting Nurses Association.
Emiliana Renuart and Jason Conde work at the nonprofit RAWK.
In 2015, KNSS wanted to relocate and divest from the property, Vliek says, and when the VNA expressed interest, KNHS and LISC helped to make the sale possible. KNHS had already given office space to the neighborhood association on the building’s northwest side. The purchase was financed through LISC, for which Vliek is the current Program Vice President. Just last month, the VNA refinanced through LISC so that the VNA could continue with plans for rehabilitating the building.
“We’re still in that deal and happy to be in that deal,” Vliek says of working with VNA on the project. “The Vine Neighborhood Association has successfully converted that area into neighborhood retail. It’s in the heart of the neighborhood.”
Vliek says that the former condition of the building sent a “blighted message about the condition of the neighborhood.
“We wanted to demonstrate something that had vitality with a building that was fully occupied and was right on the corridor.”
Vliek says he’s very pleased that the VNA purchased the property, which has become a “revenue-generating piece of real estate that helps operate and sustain the neighborhood association.”
In addition, the VNA then can help shape the character of the corner by managing and maintaining the property.
“It creates a little control mechanism that helps them create their own destiny,” says Vliek. “That’s important in neighborhoods. That’s why nonprofit neighborhood association exists. But when they actually own real estate, they can control what eventually ends up there.”
VNA and the name of the future
The purchase of property, either business or residential, by a neighborhood association within a neighborhood is not completely unusual, but it’s rare for a neighborhood association to own such a prime business district, especially one that has such a high traffic count.
With the addition of two murals
in the past two months, adding to a total of six around the building, the Central Corners has become an attraction in the neighborhood, and one for which residents have expressed a sense of ownership and pride.
“I believe the time is appropriate to rename Central Corners to both reflect the new direction the corner is going in as well as capture the new verve of the location,” says Walsh. “While Central Corners is a fine name in and of itself, it has unfortunately fallen out of common usage and is unknown to all but a few of us local history aficionados.”
On Aug. 2
at the Vine Art Hop, the two newest murals will be celebrated, as will the opening of the building’s newest tenant, Heirloom Arts, LLC.
“I love the direction in which we’re going,” says Walsh, adding he’s grateful for Vliek and current KNHS Director Matt Lager for supporting the project. “We put our mission first and put our fears and doubts in the rearview. We wanted to be independent, locally-owned and locally supported. And we are.”
••• ••• •••
Submissions for the building renaming contest will be accepted here until Aug. 4. Residents will be allowed to vote for their chosen winner beginning on National Night Out, Aug. 5, and continuing until Aug. 18. Results will be reviewed at the VNA at their Board of Directors Meeting Aug. 20 and the winning name will be announced at a special reception at the VNA Office on Sept. 6.
Photos by Taylor Scamehorn. See more of her work here.