EMPIRE — Striking a balance between mama bear’s not enough and papa bear’s too much is proving to be a daunting task for one little village in the shadow of the sleeping bear.
Quaint, charming and picturesque are words often used to describe the Village of Empire, tucked into the Lake Michigan shoreline in the southwest corner of Leelanau County. It’s an accurate description of several bright pockets of commerce, a hotel under construction and a library expansion.
But vacant buildings dot its downtown streets — a former gas station now used for storage, an empty school house, a trio of buildings that were once-thriving businesses.
Some locals say the little village is just right. They don’t want a tourist town full of burger joints, souvenir shops and downstate tourists. Others say nearly 1.7 million people last year drove by the village on their way to the Sleeping Bear Dunes, Glen Arbor and Pyramid Point — Empire should be enticing more of them to stop and spend their vacation dollars.
At the center of the debate is wastewater.
Building a municipal system would encourage growth in the village and fill up those empty structures, its supporters say. It would expand the tax base. It would protect the environment. It would allow the village to install public restrooms, something it does not now have.
“This is a great place to live,” said Joe Ball, who lives in Empire Township. “If it’s a better septic system ... then I’m a proponent. I believe in cleaning up your mess.”
But many residents and business owners balk at the price, which ranges from about $2 million to $7.3 million, costs that do not include the purchase of land or the annual costs to operate and maintain the system, which could be more than $100 per month for some users.
JoLynn Davis owns JoLynn’s Hair Affair, located in a small strip mall on M-22. She resides in a rental home on Front Street.
Many of her Front Street neighbors already updated their septic systems in the last five to 10 years, and she resents the fact that the village recently spent $9,600 to do a Wastewater Feasibility study to determine if a municipal sewer is needed, where it should go and how much it would cost.
“I think it’s a waste of money — a huge waste of money,” Davis said. “Most people in the village don’t want it. ... Most of them have spent lots of money to upgrade their septic already.”
Detractors also point to Northport’s $13 million super-sewer that many say is way too large and way too expensive. The sewer went online in 2008.
Village president Sam Barr said he’s not opposed to new business coming into Empire, but he’s not sure a municipal sewer is the way to go.
“It seems to me the costs are pretty high,” Barr said. “It’s not that I don’t want to see Empire grow. I’d like to see it utilize the buildings that we have, but they’re all in private hands. What people choose to do with their own property is their business.”
Village council member Dan Davis said he’s neutral on the sewer issue.
“I think it should go to a vote of the people,” Davis said.
Studying the problem
Empire was founded in 1851, when timber was harvested from Leelanau’s pristine forests and sold to passing steamers for fuel and later to Chicago for use as flooring. Empire’s population swelled and docks, a railroad and several businesses were established, with the village incorporating in 1895.
The lumber mill burned down in 1906, was rebuilt, but again burned in 1917. By then much of the virgin timber was gone and the lumber industry went by the wayside.
The village now has about 375 residents, and with its Lake Michigan beach park, ice cream parlor and ‘friendly’ tavern, has become a popular tourist spot.
Empire has 350 to 400 on-site wastewater disposal systems for businesses and homes, according to the Wastewater Feasibility Report done by Gosling Czubak Engineering. Most consist of septic tanks and drain fields. Many — about 40 percent — are at least 30 years old.
Empire began addressing those older systems in 2013, when a Point of Sale Septic ordinance was enacted, making the village the first municipality in Leelanau County to do so. The ordinance requires all septic systems to be inspected when a property is sold. If a system is failing, it must be brought up to code as part of the sale.
Of the village’s 35 commercial properties, 24 do not conform with today’s septic regulations and are “grandfathered” in; the other 11 conform to today’s regulations, but cannot expand in any way that would increase wastewater discharge.
Many businesses are hampered by the smaller, 50-foot lots that make up the core of the village and don’t allow for the reserve drain fields that are now required for all businesses. That means new restaurants cannot go into many of the village’s empty buildings and established restaurants cannot expand their seating.
In some cases, existing businesses have been allowed to use holding tanks that are pumped out, with the wastewater taken to a municipal plant for treatment. By law, “pump and haul” is no longer allowed.
One such pump and haul business is Deering’s Market, owned by Phil Deering, an Empire Township trustee, and Sue Carpenter, a village council member. Located at the end of Front Street where it meets Lake Street, the market has been up for sale for several months. Carpenter this week said they accepted an offer on the store, and hope to soon close the sale.
“It’s under contract,” Carpenter said. “Hopefully, the deal will go through. I think it will be good for the community rather than having an empty building.”
She thinks the new owner plans to keep the business a grocery store, but she’s not sure.
If a business is sold and its use doesn’t change, the septic does not have to be brought up to current codes. But if a building has been empty, generally for a year or more, the system must be brought up to code.
A future Empire hub
In the past few years the little village has fought off a would-be dollar store and a propane business, which residents said would not have fit in with Empire’s picturesque vibe.
Developer Jim Bagaloff has a different idea. Over the last 15 or so years, he purchased three properties on Lake Street, which runs perpendicular to Front Street — a former hardware, a former livery and a house.
He’d now like to see the parcel developed into a brewery, restaurant, bar or even condominiums or a wedding venue — businesses that would benefit the village.
He’s looking for investors into what he considers a focal point for the community, said Bagaloff, who built the Storm Hill and Heritage Hill housing developments in Empire.
“The property is one block from the lake and three blocks from National Park Headquarters,” he said. “Anybody going to the beach has to come by the property.”
He’s had a lot of interest, he said, but no takers yet.
About a year ago Bagaloff got approval from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality for a closed wastewater treatment system on the property that would use processing tanks to filter chemicals and bacteria out of the wastewater before pumping it out to a drain field. Solids remain in the tanks and are periodically pumped out.
The systems are widely used in government facilities, shopping centers and subdivisions because they can handle a larger amount of wastewater using a much smaller footprint, he said.
The cost is estimated at $450,000 to $500,000.
“Given the fact that the system can handle up to 20,000 gallons of effluent per day, it’s pretty reasonable,” he said.
Unlike other lots in the village, the system would also allow for just about anything to go in there, he said. But if the village were to build a municipal sewer, his properties could just hook up to that system, he said.
The cost of treating wastewater
The Gosling Czubak study presented three sewer scenarios — one that would cover all of the village and would have 317 customers; one that would cover the village commercial zone and would include 71 customers; and one that would cover the central village and would consist of 174 customers.
The three options are presented with both STEP systems, which use electricity to move wastewater, and gravity systems, which use gravity. For both, solids stay in the tank and must be pumped out.
Costs to build the systems range from about $2.1 million to about $7.5 million. The project would be financed through a USDA Rural Development low interest loan. There are also USDA grants available to offset costs, though there is no guarantee that Empire would receive such a grant.
Customers would be billed monthly to pay off the debt service per Equivalent Dwelling Unit (EDU), with a single residence typically making up one EDU. A business could be one or more EDUs, depending on the quantity and quality of wastewater used.
The study projects that monthly costs would range from $65 to $114, which includes debt service as well as monthly operation and maintenance costs.
But Megan and Peter Schous, who also own Empire Lakeshore Inn on Front Street, are dealing with the issue now — in terms of the new hotel they’re building.
After several delays, the new Sleeping Bear Inn finally has a foundation, footings and a driveway. The 20-room, $1.35 million project is located next to the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center, which also houses the National Park Service.
The couple had to buy an extra lot to put in a septic system that includes a reserve drain field.
Barr called it part of the cost of doing business, said Barr.
“They may need to purchase an extra lot,” Barr said.
Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate, which was established in Empire about five years ago, is moving to a spot on M-72 next to Anchor Hardware where anyone coming into the area from Traverse City will pass it.
The chocolate shop is currently housed in a leased building on M-22 south of Front Street. The new shop will allow for seating for 10 customers, while the current place does not allow any seating.
Owner Jody Hayden said she and her husband really wanted to make an investment in their own real estate and in Empire. The drain field at the the new place is adequate, she said, but still has problems with capacity.
Hayden would like to see a municipal sewer system in Empire.
“This is something Empire is going to have to tackle,” Hayden said. “Do we invest in short-term septic systems or do we invest in a long-term system for our community?”