KINGSLEY — Much has changed in the village of Kingsley over the past eight years.
Village residents have a new wastewater treatment plant, water mains, a village hall and an appealing little library. Its sleepy streets are now lined with decorative lights and sidewalks that feature stamped concrete. The village also upgraded Brownson Memorial Park with a new band shell and community stage, as well as a splash pad extension for kids.
Community leaders believe it's time to capitalize on all the improvements by luring new businesses and jobs to the village tucked in the southern end of Grand Traverse County.
"We built all this infrastructure; it’s time to make ourselves available to private investment,” said Village Manager Adam Umbrasas. “We are going to let everyone know what we have here.”
In February the village contracted with the Traverse City Area Economic Development Corporation to develop an economic growth strategy. Rob Richardson is an EDC project manager and works with village officials on the strategy. Richardson sees the potential to market Kingsley as a "bedroom community with lifestyle businesses in the downtown core."
"A good restaurant, a brew pub and coffee shop," Richardson said of what Kingsley could use downtown. It also could also be a hot spot for woodworking, crafts, the arts, and value-added agriculture businesses such as distilleries, wine and beer makers.
Richardson said Kingsley has a huge recruitment tool for new families and young professionals: median housing prices that in 2013 were $77,000 cheaper than Traverse City's.
“The sense of community oozes out of everything they’ve done here,” Richardson said.
Village President Rodney Bogart is a witness to how far Kingsley has come. He said when he joined the Village Council 35 years ago, "the village was kind of a mess."
"We had no sewer system and we had a water system that was barely viable," Bogart said. "We had an old wooden water tank on top of the hill.
"Over the years, we’ve just kept trying to improve things and make a better community for the people who live here and the people who want to move here," he said.
Kingsley resident Jenny Hengesbach likes all the improvements but pointed to high rental rates for businesses in the village's downtown as prohibitive. Hengesbach manages the Brightside Cafe in the village, which will close because the rent recently rose to nearly $900 a month. She wanted to open her own cafe in Kingsley but said she can't find an appropriate location with a rent she can afford.
"The rent is so high for the buildings they end up going empty," Hengesbach said. "People don't have a lot of money in Kingsley."
Rick Bond, an area resident for 32 years, said "I'd definitely like to see more business development. More downtown businesses. We could use a hardware store."
Umbrasas said the village has plans to lure artists and craftsmen. The village is looking to create "art parks, or pocket parks," at vacant village lots at Elm and Main streets and on South Brownson. An existing farmer's market is scheduled to move to a high-profile stretch of M-113.
Summer Minnick, director of policy initiatives for the Michigan Municipal League, said Kingsley's parks and sidewalks upgrades are smart moves because they further a community's sense of place. Small towns like Kingsley, with its agricultural roots and rural ways, can foster downtown business growth with an emphasis on local entrepreneurship, said William H. Lambe, director of the Community and Economic Development Program at the University of North Carolina.
"A network of support for entrepreneurs," Lambe said. "Even teachings kids about entrepreneurship in schools along with private and public support, financing for people who want to start businesses.
"There can be a shift in mindset from, 'We are going to bring in the business that’s going to save us from the outside,' to 'we are going to create it right here,'" Lambe said.