Let's drink: Michigan bolstering its downtowns with brew pubs, bars and bistros

Posted on July 20, 2012

Michigan downtown development professionals learned about the power alcohol can play in creating a vibrant central business district.

There are half a dozen ways prospective bar, bistro or brew pub developers can obtain a liquor license from the state. Communities can create new licenses in special redevelopment districts, downtown development authorities or, as Birmingham created, a special “bistro” district.

The Michigan Downtown Association met in Muskegon’s Frauenthal Theater on Friday to explore common issues in better developing and promoting the state’s downtowns. Coffee shops are giving way to brew pubs, wine tasting rooms and small bistros throughout the state, association members heard.

Such downtown development strategies were well received by the host delegation from Muskegon. Working the past 10 years in recreating downtown Muskegon after the closure and demolition of the former Muskegon Mall, local officials have been working with brew pub promoters trying to get one to develop here.

“Brew pubs are hot and the commerce is amazing,” said Brett VanderKamp, president of New Holland Brewing Co., which located in downtown Holland in 2002. “Beer tourism is huge. We love being downtown.”

Muskegon is not the only downtown looking for its first brew pub. Birmingham in Oakland County doesn’t have a brew pub yet, but that doesn’t mean business isn’t booming in the downtown Birmingham Principal Shopping District, long known for its upscale retail.

The city established a special bistro development district, which allowed for special state liquor licenses to be created, said John Heiney, executive director of the Downtown Birmingham Principal Shopping District. Since 2008, Birmingham has created dozens and dozens of new small establishments with 90 bistros operating today, Heiney said.

Bistros are smaller eating and drinking establishments with a maximum of 85 restaurant seats and 14 bar seats. But all of them have outside seating, he said of what the city has encouraged in its downtown.

“It has added to the atmosphere on our streets and it has brought us more sales,” Heiney told the association members. “Some of the existing owners were not happy with the new competition but I think we are making the pie larger.

“There are more people and more money in town,” he continued. “We are becoming a dining and nightlife destination.”

Both VanderKamp and Heiney sang the praises of outside dining and how cities can help development with regulations that allow for flexibility of sidewalk dining and decks even built over city parking spaces along the street.

“Cities who want to encourage such development can give that space away for free because it allows for more turn of tables without much additional cost,” VanderKamp said how an outside seating area in front of the New Holland Brewing Co. bolstered business.

The old Muskegon Athletic Club in downtown Muskegon, which closed last summer, had sidewalk tables and an overhead garage door that opened the sports bar to the outside during good weather. Club Envy in Muskegon also is using its sidewalk to serve customers.

Outside of the downtown in Muskegon’s Lakeside Business District, Marine Tap Room owner Steve Warmington has built a deck on the sidewalk in front of his neighborhood tavern, spreading it over a space in his parking lot. The deck was constructed so it can be removed during winter months, Warmington said.

Meanwhile, Downtown Muskegon Now officials continue to court brew pub or micro-brewery developers into the downtown. Andrew Haan, the director of the downtown development agency, said several brew pub concepts are progressing for the downtown with one close to selecting a location.

One of the most difficult development aspects of a brew pub — where craft beer is brewed within the restaurant — is the expense of the brewing equipment, Haan said.

Unruly Brewery developer Jeff Jacobson sat through the Michigan Downtown Association’s discussion of brew pubs and bistros. He and his development team announced earlier this year they were exploring a community brew pub for Muskegon.

Jacobson said his group’s plans have been delayed in trying to find the right location and building in downtown Muskegon. He said he hopes to find the right combination shortly to allow for the business to open yet this year.

By: Dave Alexander, MLive