DDA helps both builder and brewer

April 30, 2012
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The Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority recently added a heaping amount of hops to a formula that will help revive the Grand Rapids Brewing Co.

The board agreed to award two $50,000 building-reuse grants to a two-building renovation project that will offer two storefronts as space for a new version of the iconic local brewer. One of the grants went to Ionia Ventures LLC, while the other went to Seven Ionia Ventures LLC. Both are for the restoration of the Hawkins and Gunn buildings at 1 and 7 Ionia Ave. SW.

$50,000 is the most the DDA can award to a single project.

Derek Coppess is a principal in both LLCs and also owns 616 Development, which is planning to invest about $5.8 million into the project that will combine the structures. Besides the ground floor space the brewing company will occupy, the renovated building will offer office space on the second floor and 28 market-rate apartments on the upper levels.

"Right now, the buildings are essentially vacant," said Eric Pratt, DDA planner. "The Grand Rapids Brewing Co. will be the key tenant."

Local entrepreneurs and nightspot owners Mark and Michele Sellers are reviving the brewery, which Mark described as the 800-pound gorilla of brewing companies in its heyday. The company began brewing in 1893 when six small brewers cast their lots together, and was successful until prohibition arrived in 1918 and put the business on the sideline.

Schelde Enterprises, a local casual restaurant chain, reopened Grand Rapids Brewing Co. in 1993 and located it just outside what was then Eastbrook Mall, now Centerpointe Mall, in the former Jose Babushka space on 28th Street. Schelde operated the business for about 15 years, but sold it a few years before it closed last June.

Mark Sellers told the Business Journal that he and his wife are confident they can resurrect the business. They believe the name is golden and that they can manage the microbrewery better than it had been operated. They also feel the firm's location was a barrier to its success.

"Malls of all sorts have become less popular in recent years, and a brewery is supposed to be a locally focused, craft-beer, artisan-kind of mentality. Those are the type of people that like to go to one and are the exact opposite of people who like to go to malls. So it was like trying to stick a square peg into a round hole: It didn't fit," he said.

Sellers said he also thought the Schelde version was too much of a restaurant and not enough of a brew pub. The business model and the location were, in his mind, a bad combination. "It should be downtown, where it belongs," he said.

And so it will be. The Sellers are investing about $1.5 million into the 10,000 square feet of space they'll lease on the corner of Ionia and Fulton, just a short jaunt east of Van Andel Arena in the heart of the downtown entertainment district.

The Sellers plan to brew a new edition of the company's trademark beer, Silver Foam, which has been described as a light-bodied, malty pilsner with a mild hop finish. They'll brew as many as eight other original beers, offer food choices for lunch and dinner, and employ 60.

In a relatively short time, the Sellers have successfully opened several nightspots and have sponsored noteworthy street events, such as a localized version of Oktoberfest and a St. Patrick's Day celebration. They own HopCat, Stella's Lounge, The Viceroy and McFadden's and are co-owners of The Pyramid Scheme with Jeff and Tami Vandenberg. All are located in downtown, south of Fulton.

Sellers feels the local craft-beer industry is growing and there is room for the new GR Brewing Co. He noted that Portland, Ore., has roughly the same population as Grand Rapids but has about five times the number of microbreweries.

The Sellers plan to have Grand Rapids Brewing Co. open by late summer.

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