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Going in Big

The former paper mill in Vicksburg offers 420,000 square feet of building space. © 2019 Encore Publications/Brian Powers
With plans for event spaces, breweries, museums and more, a hometown boy takes on the revitalization of Vicksburg mill

One day in March of 2014, Chris Moore’s mother, Sue Moore, editor and publisher of the South County News in Vicksburg, called him in Seattle with disheartening news: Vicksburg’s historic paper mill was scheduled for demolition. Though abandoned since 2001, when the sprawling facility’s last owner, Fox River Paper Co., pulled up stakes, the mill had for many decades thrived and infused lifeblood into the small community 15 miles south of Kalamazoo. Many Vicksburg residents had family members who had worked inside the iconic structure, including Moore. His mom’s tearful announcement clenched his heart.

“I remember thinking, ‘Well, that’s too bad,’” says the 54-year old Moore, who grew up in Vicksburg and founded Concord Technologies, a cloud-based document-processing company for health care and other industries, and co-founded Old Stove Brewing Co., both in Seattle. “There’s nothing I can do. I have a business in Seattle and I come back occasionally. How could I do anything?’”

He pauses, smiles slightly and adds, “Well, I came up with a few ideas eventually.”

Inspiration strikes

Those “few ideas” have evolved into The Mill at Vicksburg, a massive undertaking to revitalize the entire mill site by repurposing the 420,000-square-foot structure and its grounds into a mixed-use campus to include multiple indoor and outdoor concert venues, craft brewing and distilling, residential units and a hotel, craft food and beverage production, beer gardens, a community taproom, and museums (see story on museum plans here). At the same time, Moore’s plans include restoring and renovating several buildings in Vicksburg’s downtown.

The “genesis” of this project was his mom’s tearful phone call, Moore says, but the first “inkling of entrepreneurialism” occurred when he returned home and toured the mill with his parents and former Vicksburg village manager Ken Schippers. When the group stepped onto the roof above what once had been the mill’s machine room, inspiration struck.

“I was like, ‘That would be a good place for a concert,’” Moore says.

A few months later, Moore initiated the purchase of the mill property from the Kalamazoo County Land Bank, established Paper City Development LLC and began assembling a team to tackle the project. In 2016, he purchased an adjacent 80-acre parcel and started acquiring vacant historic buildings in downtown

Vicksburg for restoration.

“The commitment took hold in me pretty fast,” he admits.

It’s not like Moore lacked things to do. In addition to running Concord Technologies, Moore was in the midst of launching his second business, Old Stove Brewing Co., located in Seattle’s world-famous Pike Place Market, which gets 20,000 to 40,000 visitors daily. In 2014, the brewery won the right to become the anchor tenant in the market’s new $74 million expansion, Pike Place MarketFront. Old Stove Brewing Co. opened in 2016 in a smaller space and moved to the MarketFront in 2017.

“Taking on a third project … I wasn’t sure how I could get it done,” he admits.

But Moore’s passion to save the mill overrode his reservations. A successful entrepreneur who was named Ernst & Young’s 2019 Entrepreneur of the Year in the Mold Breaker category in the Pacific Northwest Region, he applied his business acumen to the mill project. And if his track record is any indication, he’ll rise to the occasion with The Mill at Vicksburg.

“What I do as an entrepreneur is build good teams of people that are inspired by the project,” he says. “That is the case for the daytime job — Concord Technologies — and that’s the case for Old Stove Brewing, and that’s certainly the case here for the Vicksburg mill.”

A good team

Enter Jackie Koney and John Kern. Moore tapped Koney, 53, his best friend since meeting her at the University of Michigan in 1984, to be Paper City Development’s director of Vicksburg operations. Koney had years of experience leading nonprofits, including working as the development director for the Salzburg Global Seminar, a national nonprofit whose mission is to challenge current and future leaders to shape a better world.

Koney’s face breaks into a grin as she describes how she and Moore first met: Moore just wandered into her dorm room and plopped down on a couch.

“We were like, ‘Does anyone know this guy?’” Koney says she and her roommates asked. Nobody did, but Koney and Moore have been best friends since.

Moore called Koney to tell her about the mill, and they had long brainstorming sessions over the phone about its possibilities. Moore hadn’t mentioned anything about her participation, so finally Koney cut to the chase.

She recalls saying, “You know, Chris, I’ve never said this to you before, and I’ll never say it again, but I’m so jealous of this project. This is going to be the greatest thing ever.”

Moore replied, “I’m not talking to you about this to make you jealous. I want you to run it.”

The second person Moore had in mind was Kern, Koney’s husband. Kern had an extensive 27-year background in teaching and public speaking, and Moore tapped him to be the project’s community outreach and education coordinator. The couple came to Vicksburg in the summer of 2015 to evaluate the new career opportunity, and their decision was swift.

“It’s impossible not to see the potential of the place and the things that are planned,” Kern says, “so in taking the tour and just being around it, I guess I knew right away I wanted to be part of it.”

Koney calls overseeing the mill project “a dream job.”

“It puts together everything that John and I have ever done in our careers,” she says.

Also, both are Michiganders — Koney grew up in Troy, and Kern in Muskegon Heights — and welcomed returning to their home state. But both say what truly attracted them was Moore.

“The kind of passion he exudes is infectious,” Kern says. “That’s item No. 1, without question.”

A noble cause

The mill is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Since the first meetings with architects, site planners, mechanical engineers and others involved in the project, Moore has emphasized one thing: the honor in working on the project.

“I’m not sure how we’re going to pull it off just yet,” he says he told the team at those initial group meetings “but we’re doing this for all the right reasons: preserving history, recharging an economic engine in Vicksburg, and allowing an ‘Oh, my goodness’ moment for that fourth-grader (who visits the future gardens and museums).”

“The cause is noble” might be deemed the project’s unofficial motto. Moore says the nobility of the endeavor attracts people and inspires the team to reach its goals. Plus the “sheer audacity” of the project attracts top talent from around the country. “For pretty much everybody working on the project it’s a once-in-a-lifetime project for them, the biggest thing they’ll ever do,” Moore says.

The team includes HopkinsBurns Design Studio, an Ann Arbor architecture firm specializing in historic preservation that has done projects for the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island and the Michigan State Capitol; the Johnson Hill Land Ethics Studio, also in Ann Arbor, a landscape architecture firm that emphasizes environmental sensitivity and sustainability; and Frederick Construction, a Vicksburg-based general contractor and construction management company.

“We’re so lucky to have Frederick Construction right here in Vicksburg with us shoulder-to-shoulder all the way,” Moore says.

Past, present, future

Many Vicksburg residents still remember hearing the long, drawn-out whistle announcing shift changes at the local mill. The whistle first blew in 1905, when Lee Paper Co. completed construction and started churning out fine writing paper from cotton rags that had been shredded, cooked and processed.

“It was rags that had come from New York and Chicago, from the clothing-making business,” Koney explains. “They (the workers) would sort rags, get rid of buttons or zippers and kind of prep all of the material to then go to the next stage, which would be a process of getting it wet, bleaching it, cutting it down into smaller and smaller pieces (and) getting it ready to go into the paper process.”

After World War II, the mill began making paper from wood pulp and merged with Simpson Timber Co. to form Simpson-Lee Paper Co. In 1996, Fox River Paper Co. purchased the mill; in 2001 it shut its doors. The mill fell silent until that day when Moore stepped out onto the roof. Now a sign posted on the fence outside the mill announces his intentions: “A Thriving Vicksburg for Generations to Come.”

“Every time we have a meeting Chris will say, ‘This is a 100- to 200-year plan, not a five-year or a 10-year plan,’” Koney says. “The mill was the key economic and cultural driver for this community for 100 years. He said, ‘I want it to be that again … long after I’m gone.’”

Big plans

Paper City Development’s master plan utilizes dynamic phrases to describe the mill’s transformational conclusion: a commercial engine, regional powerhouse and national destination.

Vicksburg officials have also embraced the plan.

“We believe that is exactly what will happen long term,” says Alex Lee, director of community outreach and communication for the Village of Vicksburg, “and the Village of Vicksburg is looking forward to being a part of the journey every step of the way.”

In July, the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and the Michigan Strategic Fund also demonstrated faith in this outcome, awarding Paper City Development a $30 million incentive package to move forward with the project. It is only the second development in the state to be granted the Transformational Brownfield Package (TBP).

The project’s total cost is estimated to be $80 million, Koney says, which includes approximately $60 million in construction costs.

To make the mill a robust economic engine, Moore navigates along a timeline of past, present and future. He plans to honor the past with a papermaking museum, an old stove museum and a brewery museum inside the mill while launching a new economic beginning for the village with three proven regional market winners — event and exhibit space, music, and beer, including his own Old Stove Brewing Co..

“He is a visionary,” Koney says. “There aren’t that many people out there that are so deeply connected to their hometown that they’re willing to put everything on the line for it.”

Much of the work done so far to the mill has been emergency stabilization, including replacing portions of the roof, adding security lighting and temporary interior lighting, and performing masonry work on two of the buildings. An entire corner of the East wing has been removed and will be replaced.

“It’s very visually compelling,” Koney says, indicating that these buildings will house Old Stove Brewing Co. and Old Stove Event Space, estimated to open in mid-2021.

Koney estimates the entire project will be completed by 2024. She anticipates there will be at least 220 non-construction jobs at the mill upon completion. “Obviously, the construction, indirect and induced jobs number is much higher,” she says.

The project’s economic impact on the Kalamazoo County economy during the three years of construction and first five years of operation will be $182 million in new wages and $357 million in new value added through gross regional domestic product, says Koney. The project will also provide an estimated increase in state tax revenues of $60.5 million through 2053, she says.

The village’s Lee says “the economic impact will be profound. Jobs, increased property values and visitor dollars in our local economy will have a positive effect on both the local and regional economies. But the environmental impact in our area, in terms of cleanup and reuse, instead of landfill disposal, will be equally impressive.”

‘Going in big’

In Moore’s acceptance speech for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year for the Pacific Northwest 2019 award, he confessed to doing something atypical when speaking with Ernst & Young’s panel: He followed the rules. Moore admits his M.O. is more about breaking rules.

The mill is no exception. Instead of using it for “regular old stuff” like warehousing, Moore and his team brainstormed completely different uses.

“The vision we have for it is a little bit out of this world,” he admits. “We’re going in big.”

What started with Moore’s rooftop inspiration has morphed into three primary commercial ventures: events, beer and music. “They’ll cross-pollinate really well,” Moore says.

Events and concerts

Plenty of space exists within the mill for events, exhibitions and concerts: 154,000 square feet of flexible, indoor event spaces, 60,000 square feet for indoor concert/event venues and a planned capacity of 40,000 people for outdoor concert venues.

It won’t be standard, sterile event space, Moore says, describing the buildings will have restored century-old wood floors, wooden truss ceilings, massive windows and masonry walls. Outside there will be gardens and walking trails.

Those planning events at the mill will deal with one vendor for everything from booking to services and support. The technical infrastructure will provide for the network, communications and electrical and mechanical needs of every show, conference and exhibition.

In planning for events and concerts, Moore took time to research and learn from the best. He traveled to the 2019 Coachella Festival in California to meet with Jim Tobin, owner of Jim Tobin Productions, which manages festivals such as the Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival in Florida, Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Tennessee, and the Governors Ball Music Festival in New York City, and was providing services at Coachella.

“He was able to tour me around all the infrastructure,” Moore says. “I was very happy to be visiting the outdoor bathrooms, see where the water comes from, where the power comes from, how the shuttles are organized, looking at the video screens and where all the buses are, security and the parking people, traffic management.”

Moore has seen events where promoters quickly throw it together, make bold promises and then hope they can deliver.

“That’s the inverse of my style,” he says. “I want to take five years to figure it out and do it just right. (The) walk-before-you-run sort of thing.”

Beer and breweries

Breweries — including Moore’s award-winning Old Stove Brewing Co. — will also reside inside the mill. There will be production brewery spaces, laboratories, grain storage, canning/bottling/kegging, cold storage and shipping, distilleries, and taprooms. Moore’s plans are to replicate the success of Seattle’s Old Stove Brewing, providing a “high-caliber experience” in food, beer, service and aesthetics.

“We want to give people in our area a really Class A experience with Class A products and an incredible building to boot,” Moore says.

While Old Stove Brewing’s Seattle locale has a more modern design, the Vicksburg mill’s historic architecture will provide an interesting space that can accommodate 450 people. “The building itself is incredible, and then what we do inside of it will be super high-quality,” Moore says.

He thinks that the brewing facilities at the mill will also attract other brewers that need a cost-effective way to expand production at a lower cost or those that seek a Midwest presence.

“We’re going to find just the right people who we think fit well with our ideals,” he says.

Art and education too

With so much to be done and completion years away, Koney, Kern and Moore sought ways to make the project more immediate, to “start living what we want it to be, right now,” says Koney. The answer came in the form of art and education.

The Prairie Ronde Artist Residency program at The Mill at Vicksburg was created, housing an artist in the Village of Vicksburg and providing a $500 travel stipend and $2,000 for living expenses. The residency is four to seven weeks, during which the artist must do one community engagement project and leave one piece of art for the mill’s collection.

The program has attracted artists from Venezuela, Great Britain, and across the United States. By the end of this year, 13 artists will have gone through the program. Paper City Development wants the community to get to know these artists from outside Vicksburg and for the artists to start talking about Vicksburg when they return home.

“We’ve gotten texts and people are like, ‘Hey, we just saw this new person at the bar. Is this your artist?’” Koney says. “It’s a really fun thing. The community now knows they have an artist resident that is here all the time.”

At the same time, Paper City Development began involving local students in the mill project. In 2018, Kern reached out to local school contacts, including Noreen Heikes, an agri-science and veterinary science teacher at Vicksburg Community Schools. A week after an initial outreach meeting, Heikes “showed up at the follow-up meeting with six pages of notes of possible project ideas,” Kern says. “And this is exactly what I’d hoped for when we started these conversations — just a deep sense of ownership. And it’s happening.”

Heikes and Kern shared a similar idea for the mill: a pollinator project. They reactivated agricultural land adjacent to the mill that had never been used for anything mill-related. A local farmer cleared 16 acres and planted some oats and daikon radishes “to get the soil moving.”
“Then last year we planted eight acres of buckwheat, which is a nitrogen mixture (a nitrogen-fixing crop) that is very good for the soil,” Kern says. “And then we planted eight acres of sunflowers.”

This season people will be able to see the sunflowers in full bloom when driving along Boulevard Street, he says.

Vicksburg High School’s horticulture class also participated in a yearlong study to create an edible forest. They performed a site review for a proper location, tested soil samples and worked with a nursery on tree varieties. Currently, they are working on the second phase of the study.

“We’re hoping to be able to create something where we can be harvesting fruit from August into October,” Kern says. “And it’s all student-driven.”

Kern also works with Vicksburg High School’s engineering classes, which created a model of the mill using an educational version of the game Minecraft. This year, the school’s product design students will use a 3D printer to make a model of what the mill will look like in the future.

“This whole place is a classroom,” Koney says. “He (Kern) is turning this place into a place-based experiential facility, whether you’re 2 years old or 102.”

Revitalizing downtown

A “symbiotic” relationship — geographically, economically and culturally — existed between the mill and downtown Vicksburg historically and still does, say the developers. The mill owners want — and need — downtown Vicksburg to also thrive.

To that end, Paper City Development purchased several vacant buildings in downtown Vicksburg with plans to restore and renovate them. One of these, the former Hill’s Pharmacy building on Main Street, will soon undergo a facelift, receiving new arched brick facades, balconies and windows. “Half the pigeons in
Vicksburg lived in there,” Moore says about its deteriorated condition.

Originally this expansive space was built as three separate buildings. Paper City Development plans to return it to that historic state, Moore says.

Revitalization is already evident as one drives down East Prairie Street in downtown Vicksburg: Storefronts of the former Boer’s Dress Shop and Doris Lee Sweet Shop have been returned to their 1880s glory. Frederick Construction removed the existing storefronts and reconstructed them back to the original design, including oversized doors, period-correct hardware and mahogany trim. Eventually the interiors will reflect their vintage exteriors, Moore says.

Among their features will be a parlor stove. “Back in the old days in Vicksburg every business had a parlor stove, and that kept them warm during the winter,” he says.

Paper City Development is counting on this historic character and charm to draw mill visitors to downtown Vicksburg.

“You go to a conference and walk a few blocks and guess what? You’re enjoying downtown historic Vicksburg,” Moore says. “You get these people from big cities who aren’t used to seeing nicely fixed-up 1880 buildings.”

To create a thriving downtown, Koney says, placemaking — making a place where people want to be and linger — is key. A downtown area should have a variety of retail options, places to sit, flowers and trees. To learn what other communities are doing to revitalize their downtowns, Koney and Kern attend Main Street conferences, such as the Small Town and Rural Development Conference at Crystal Mountain near Traverse City, and have visited towns that have proven successful at downtown revitalization. One of those, Biddeford, Maine, also had a former mill site that suffered from blight and a downtown that succumbed to
stagnation but bounced back after a developer began repurposing the mill.

“People were fearful that it would take business away from the downtown,” Koney says. “However, the exact opposite happened. His (the developer’s) investment led to more investment by downtown business owners and new developers.”

That additional investment, along with best-practice placemaking initiatives, she says, has led to higher rents and lower vacancy rates for residential and commercial spaces.

“This is not unique to Vicksburg, what’s happened here,” Moore says of downtown. “But I think that the key thing is fighting back and doing so intelligently. And doing so by looking around the nation to what has been successful in other communities in their Main Street programs to save their downtowns.

“So that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

Lisa Mackinder

Lisa’s work has previously appeared in various Chicken Soup for the Soul books, Animal Wellness, Dog World, Michigan Meetings and Events Magazine, MiBiz, and other publications. Though having covered a wide-range of topics, Lisa most enjoys composing people-centric pieces, as well as those featuring nature and animals. She lives in Portage with her husband, and when not at her Mac, participates in outdoor activities, including fly fishing, gardening and hiking.

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