Former community center now home to growing businesses

Anyone will tell you, when you're looking for a new business to open or company to start, the smartest thing to do is identify a need in the community, and serve it.
 
In Sawyer, the former Air Force base near Gwinn in Marquette County, those needs were apparent. The community lost its only restaurant in 2011, and its fitness center in 2008.
 
It wasn't quite a coincidence that in the same time frame, a major building purchase was taking place in the small community. In 2011, Michael Van Damme, owner of the Cornell-based M.J. Van Damme Trucking, which provides transportation and construction services all over the U.P., bought the former fitness and community center, then called the "W," from its previous owner, West Branch Township.
 
Located in the heart of Sawyer's business district at 301 Avenue A, the huge building has since been remodeled and now is home to a new restaurant, the Black Bear Grill, and a new gym, the Cave Fitness Center, as well as serving as a hub and offices for Van Damme Trucking. It's not as strange a marriage as it might sound at first, either.
 
Hannah Erickson, manager of the new grill, says the whole thing came about as the Van Damme family considered the options for what to do with the new building, which came with a large indoor track, gym equipment, and a commercial kitchen, among other accoutrements.
 
"They were very interested in finding a way to re-open the gym; their daughter is an athlete and they wanted to have that open and available to people," says Erickson, a Gwinn native herself. She, on the other hand, brought a wealth of professional culinary experience, including a stint at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago.
 
"We put two and two together and decided to open it as a restaurant," she says. She spent the spring coming up with a fresh, seasonally-diverse menu and making contacts with local food suppliers for their bread, meats and seasonal ingredients.
 
"I wanted to kind of bring in the idea of fresh, but keep those fresh items rotating on the menu, and also combine it with the Gwinn or Yooper palate," she says. So far, that's included pasties made with locally-ground meat, fresh Lake Superior whitefish tacos, homemade breads and plenty of seasonal dishes like chili and venison burgers as the U.P. eases into the winter.
 
Erickson changes the menu to suit the season and the freshest ingredients she can find, which means you might walk in to the bright, airy grill to find Mexican specials one day or homemade remoulade sauce on a fish sandwich the next. She says she's thinking "grains and homestyle" for the winter.
 
The food is bringing plenty of people into the grill, which started out with just lunch and dinner, but now has added local delivery and even breakfast on the weekends. Once they get there, it's hard to miss the way the place is stepping into the community center role, for everyone from moms with gym bags and babies in highchairs to seniors, having a cup of the grill's specialty coffee.
 
A big part of that is the Cave Fitness Center, which makes use of that massive indoor track, cardio equipment, weight room and locker rooms from the original building. It, too, is drawing in Sawyer, Gwinn and surrounding residents with low daily or monthly membership rates, a promise of no startup or key fees, and a wide range of workout options including instructor-hosted classes like Zumba and circuit training.
 
"Everyone's been mentioning how good it is to have the gym here," says Erickson. "People out here really care about the gym and have been really excited."
 
Fitness center manager Jen Belmont says the classes keep expanding, with a new yoga session planned for January, and the gym has seen an uptick in traffic as the winter months set in and the indoor track appeals to more walkers and runners.
 
And, again, there's the community element.
 
"Right now we have quite a few basketball teams coming in to use the gym," says Belmont. That includes the Gwinn High School basketball team, local elementary school teams, and, this winter, fourth- to sixth-graders in three "Cave Crushers" tournaments planned over the coming months on the regulation-size basketball court.
 
A boxing club and other community groups also can be found at the fitness center regularly, whether it's for the weight room or just one of the conference rooms available for meetings and events.
 
The space has been home to a fall craft show, a health fair and other events in the short time it's been open, and Belmont and Erickson both say they're looking for more ways to get involved in Sawyer.
 
"I think that the whole purpose for us opening, this is for the community," Erickson says.
 
Kim Eggleston is a freelance writer and editor based in Marquette, Michigan.

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