Traverse City Record-Eagle

April 8, 2013

Could community center be answer for vacancy in Fife Lake?

Special to the Record-Eagle

---- — FIFE LAKE -- Empty storefronts along Fife Lake’s tiny business district hint that the quaint village may be struggling with the same economic challenges facing many small Michigan towns.

But a handful of residents believe they’ve found a way to preserve one vacant downtown building and also breathe new life into the community.

Fife Lake residents Teresa Mills and Doug Bishop are two of a small group of Fife Lake residents who turned to the Internet for ideas on converting one of the town’s empty buildings into a Makerspace.

Makerspaces are a growing trend in cities and towns across the country, a movement in which nonprofit groups turn vacant buildings into community activity centers that offer educational environments for peer learning and knowledge sharing.

“The consensus is that Fife Lake is the lost corner of Grand Traverse County,” Teresa Mills said. “People have lost hope around here. Businesses are struggling to stay open. The pharmacy closed two weeks ago.”

To bring their Makerspace vision to reality, the Fife Lake group is eyeing one of the town’s landmark buildings, the former Kimball grocery store, that has been empty in the central part of the downtown for two years. The building, constructed in the late 1880s, housed a variety of businesses throughout the years, and some members of the town’s Downtown Development Authority think it has seen better days.

“One DDA member suggested getting an $80,000 loan, buying the building from the bank for $50,000 and paying a local contractor $30,000 to tear it down,” Mills said.

Mills chose a different path. She's working with Bishop, a 35-year resident and the village’s former fire chief, as well as retired pastor Stan Hayes and Mark Williams, the current pastor of the Kalkaska United Methodist Church, on a better use for the building.

“We see a central place for people of all generations to come together to learn, share, teach, participate in activities together,” Bishop said, adding that the Kimball building offers the most potential and is their first choice. “At 100-foot by 100-foot, it’s a big building, but ours is a big concept."

Bishop even sees promise in the building’s old garage bay, a remnant from a former business.

“It will let us reach out to our kids who are at risk only because there’s nothing for them to do here,” Bishop said. “Shop classes are no longer available through the school district, and we think we could interest kids by offering classes like auto repair, wood and metal shop. Those are skills that should be passed along to a younger generation.”

So far the group is discovering that sharing the vision isn’t easy.

Bishop expressed frustration at efforts to seek nonprofit and grant information from Grand Traverse County agencies.

“It’s not unusual to hear, ‘Fife Lake? Is that in Grand Traverse County?’ No wonder we’re riled,” he said.

Fife Lake DDA Chairwoman Linda Forwerck said the DDA is concentrating on providing immediate assistance to the community's remaining businesses.

“Right now the DDA is focusing its efforts on keeping existing businesses viable,” Forwerck said. “Our projects involve more visibility for businesses through new signage for the business district and we’re hoping a new dock with better signage and a new disk golf course will attract visitors.”

But the group headed by Mills and Bishop remains undaunted. Group members communicate online through social media and closely monitors the progress of two Michigan Makerspaces -- Mt. Elliott Makerspace in the Cass Corridor neighborhood of Detroit and the Geek Group in Grand Rapids that is converting a former YMCA building into a Makerspace there.

“We’ve been told we can’t do this,” Bishop said of the work ahead of them. “But we look at each other and ask ourselves, why not?”

The Fife Lake Makerspace group is holding a fundraiser spaghetti dinner April 27 from 1 to 5 p.m. at the Fife Lake United Methodist Church, 206 Boyd Street. The event will include auctions as well as presentations. To learn more, follow the Fife Lake Makerspace group on Facebook or call (231) 394-1981.