How old schools are coming back to life

Some Upper Peninsula schools are being redeveloped into mixed-use developments--returning to their roots as community centers in the process.
Old schools are like a discarded baseball glove; they get a little dilapidated from lack of use, but can usually be brought back to life with some tender loving care. This is the case for two U.P. schools that are slated to reopen in new incarnations. Garfield School, in Sault Ste. Marie, and C. L. Phelps Middle School in Ishpeming, will once again become centers of activity and creativity.
Garfield Commons
An old school in Sault Ste. Marie that hasn't heard the footsteps of eager children in over four decades will come back to life in a big way when it is transformed into a multi-purpose retail and community event center.

"The old Garfield School," as it is known to the locals, will become Garfield Commons when it opens in the fall of 2015. The stately sandstone structure, located along the power canal in the Soo, will feature a European-style restaurant and bakery, a commercial kitchen facility that can be rented out for processing local produce, an event or conference room in the old gymnasium for weddings, proms, and conferences, and space for retail and businesses.

One might think this is the undertaking of a hot-shot developer from downstate. However, it is actually the dream of a retired school nurse.

"I've been thinking about this for over 15 years," says Lisa Corbiere, who recently retired from JKL Bahweting School after being in nursing for 28 years.

"I was originally looking for a building for a restaurant and tea room but when this came on the market I couldn't get my mind off it," she says. The building, which she purchased in 2014, had actually been a couple's residence before it went up for sale.  

Corbiere's vision is of creating a space where people can come and slow down and appreciate good food and views of the canal and the gardens she plans on creating. Corbiere says she will use the spacious property to create gardens with grape arbors, hops climbing on trellises, and old style roses, much in the style of European garden design. The bakery and restaurant will serve mostly European-style cuisine.

"I was born and raised in West Germany and that influence is still a large part of my life," she says. In addition to American cuisine, patrons will have a choice of European breads and pastries and things like rack of lamb and quail.

Perhaps the most unique aspect of Garfield Commons, besides the European influence, will be the commercial food preparation facility. For years local growers of produce, many who set up at the farmer's market, have desired a kitchen facility that could be approved for processing large quantities of food, such as canned vegetables and baked goods. Corbiere says it will also be most likely used by local 4-H groups. She is currently working with a local accountant to have the commercial kitchen designated as a nonprofit.

"I've got 119 people who said they're interested in using this space, including 4-H," says Corbiere. She says she also has four commitments from businesses to rent the retail space on the second floor and one for the third, a penthouse suite overlooking the canal and surrounding neighborhood.

The retired school nurse, who can't seem to get her mind off the kids she met and loved over the years, would also like to see proms and perhaps senior parties take place in the gymnasium after it is renovated into a conference and event room. To this end, she says she would offer a package deal where kids might come on a Thursday night for lessons in dining etiquette and then have the prom on Saturday night in a "safe environment."

While Corbiere may not have a background in business, she has done her homework in a big way, driving down to MSU on snowy roads to attend business classes and also doing hands-on work in a bakery to get a feel for it. She also has a business mentor and will draw on the business experience of her husband, Donald, who co-owns Arfstrom Pharmacies in Sault Ste. Marie and Cedarville.

Corbiere expects to employ 15 people initially. She's keeping mum about the chef she has already selected for the restaurant, but says he is currently enrolled in the Les Cheneaux Culinary School in Hessel, which just opened last fall. She also is looking to hire a former Sault Area School employee, who she says is a "closet chef."

The renovation work will be done by Nomad Construction, a local contractor. Architect for the project is Sidock Group, Inc., out of Novi, which has an office in Gaylord.  Corbieri says she is particularly thankful for the assistance she has received from Kristin Clause, executive director of the Sault Ste. Marie Economic Development Corporation, with tax abatements. The project is being financed by Old Mission Bank.

Phelps Square
Work is well underway on the old C. L. Phelps Middle School in Ishpeming which had been closed since 2010. G.A. Haan Development, of Harbor Springs, is transforming the vacated school into 24 living units for low to moderate income families. The project must meet stringent requirements set forth by the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, which is providing funds for the project.

"The old building was in really good shape," says Ben Ide, director of development for G.A. Haan. "The school district really did a good job of keeping it heated the last few years." However, like any renovation of an old structure, Ide says they dealt with asbestos and lead-based paint removal in the old school. Cleaning up these contaminants will make way for a safe, healthy environment for its new tenants.

Phelps Square will also be a multi-use facility, but not to the same extent as Garfield Commons. In addition to living units, there will be space in the old gymnasium for overflow activities from the Ishpeming schools. The Marquette County YMCA also has plans to use some of the space in Phelps Square for a child development center. All in all, it, too, is a great use for a building that could have been left abandoned like a ball glove in the bottom of a toy box.

"It's really compatible, symbiotic with the neighborhood--a great thing for the neighborhood," says Ide.

Apple Blossom Apartments

A similar project in Iron River was completed last year, as the town's old Central School, built in 1904, was redeveloped with MSHDA's help into an apartment complex, Apple Blossom Apartments. There were challenges to the renovation, but they are now providing low- and moderate-income apartment living in the community. More about that project can be found in our earlier story here.

Neil Moran is a freelance writer in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and owner of Haylake Business Communications. You can find him on Twitter at @moranwrite
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