A Taste For Downtown Muskegon

May 20, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
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MUSKEGON — Baker College is adding its own ingredient to the recipe for an exciting new downtown shaping up in this old lumbering city: an $11 million culinary arts building featuring a student-run, full-service restaurant and specialty bakery.

Construction began this spring on the Culinary Institute of Michigan facility on the corner of Third Street and West Clay Avenue, adjacent to the site of the former Muskegon Mall downtown. Most of the mall structure was razed in recent years but the once-vacant land is now rife with construction crews and several new developments.

The CIM includes classrooms plus a restaurant, Courses, and a pastry/coffee shop called The Sweet Spot. The facility isn't expected to open until September 2009, but the dean of culinary arts at Baker College of Muskegon, Alex Erdmann, can't conceal his excitement and enthusiasm.

"We're not only building a new culinary school, we're also building a new downtown," said Erdmann, a Certified Master Chef from Germany who previously was a member of the faculty at Washburne Culinary Institute of Chicago, the oldest culinary school in America.

The Muskegon Museum of Art is very close to the site of the new culinary college, and the Frauenthal Center for the Performing Arts is just a short walk in the other direction down Third Street to Western Avenue, an intersection that some see shaping up as the new epicenter of cultural and business activity in downtown Muskegon.

As Erdmann put it, the new culinary facility is located "where the arts come together."

Erdmann said the new facility could accommodate far more than the 300 or so students now enrolled in the Baker culinary program in Muskegon, which is housed on the original campus at 1903 Marquette Ave.

"It is a pure culinary facility, which is also quite unusual" for culinary schools in Michigan, said Erdmann. He said the entire 39,000-square-foot building will be used solely for instruction in culinary arts, plus the open-to-the-public restaurant and bakery specialty shop, where students will get hands-on experience.

"The idea was to become like a self-sufficient operation — like a restaurant," said Erdmann.

"The students will basically run the restaurant," he said, and they will staff an adjacent section of the new building that will house The Sweet Spot, which he described as "like a Starbucks, but bakery retail also." It may also feature gourmet foods produced in the West Michigan region.

Courses will seat from 65 to 85 diners, with some outdoor seating, according to Erdmann, and he thinks it may be open seven days a week, although that has yet to be confirmed.

In announcing the decision to build the culinary building last fall, Rick E. Amidon, Baker College of Muskegon president, said it would "ultimately deliver a state-of-the-art culinary training facility that will rival the nation’s best.”

"We have simply outgrown our current culinary arts facilities and need significant improvements to meet the standards and expectations of our competitors and students,” added Amidon.

“We are truly bringing the culinary arts school of the future to Baker College,” said Erdmann. “Our vision is to build a facility that can accommodate substantial growth and enhance Baker’s position as a leader in culinary arts education. When the facility is complete, it will be unique to the Midwest and compare favorably to the best schools in the country.”

Baker College officials said the cost of land acquisition, construction, infrastructure, furnishings and equipment is estimated at $11 million.

Clifford Buck Construction Co. Inc. is the project’s general contractor, with Bosma Architects & Associates PC providing architectural design. Both are Muskegon-based businesses.

Amidon also predicted that over the long term, the culinary school will become an anchor for downtown Muskegon.

Baker College of Muskegon’s total enrollment stands at more than 5,000 students. The culinary arts program was launched in 1997 when Baker moved to its present location on Marquette Avenue.

Four degree options are currently offered: a baking and pastry certificate; a culinary arts associate of business degree; a food and beverage management associate of business degree; and a food and beverage management bachelor of business administration.

The largest private college in Michigan, Baker College is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission and is a member of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. It serves more than 35,000 students on 12 campuses and in four satellite locations. Baker grants certificates and associate, bachelor's and master's degrees in business, health sciences, education and human services, and various technical fields. According to Baker College, it has a 98 percent employment rate for its graduates. 

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