A city’s struggles do not paint the picture of its identity. And yet, in towns like Saginaw it oftentimes seems like the discussion of the city’s blemishes are heard louder than the tales of its beauty. Saginaw, however, is trying on a new look, as major projects rooted in revitalizing historic properties are spearheading a makeover expected to yield grand results.
At the core of these efforts are the renovations and resurrections of a couple of historic, iconic buildings in Saginaw. One, in Old Town, is driven by former Saginaw resident and current West Coast transplant, David Strouse. The CBS executive is transforming three Old Town properties into renovated, usable structures. And he’s hardly stopping there.
The other is in downtown, where entrepreneurs James Bricault and Alicia Zarazua are resuscitating an architectural icon in Saginaw, the Bearinger Fireproof Building. Both parties are taking historically rich, but crumbling and mothballed buildings, and restoring them not only back to their physical glory, but making them key assets to the city again.
Projects like these got a major shot in the arm in 2012, when Old Town received Main Street designation, which helps guide redevelopment in historic downtowns. In Old Town, Strouse has purchased three buildings: 312 S. Hamilton (a former candy shop built in 1881), 318 S. Hamilton (a two-story retail structure that was a carriage shop) and a larger endeavor, 118 S. Hamilton, home to the Hamilton Apartments, a project that has become the signature to Strouse’s preservation efforts.
“It was going to be a tear-down,” Strouse said of the nine-unit building, with commercial storefronts on the main floor. “The inspector said that if something was not done with this building, it would come down in five years. It had roof issues, a collapsing staircase and was missing 40-plus windows.”
Work began, using as many local vendors as possible. Through the U.S. Department of Interior, he was able to earn historic rehabilitation tax credit assistance for the renovation. The building was also placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Monies from the Saginaw Economic Development Corporation for the first $100,000 kickstarted efforts, and additional financing from Chemical Bank helped defray the costs of massive HVAC work and structural repair.
Now, since an October 2012 ribbon-cutting, the building thrives with nine apartments that are consistently rented, ushering in a new, refreshing type of resident in this part of town. And more importantly and critical to urban renewal, there are vibrant residents living in a building in a part of town that didn’t have a lot of residents. That’s nine more apartments–and sharp ones at that; with Martha Stewart-inspired accents and strong, rich design tones–housing people who support Old Town’s business community, which could’ve easily slipped into irrelevance.
“It’s a spectacular success,” said a Strouse, a 1974 Arthur Hill grad who, despite making a thriving career in Los Angeles, still kept a room in his parents’ Saginaw home. “We have a unit rented before the old tenant even moves out.”
So, what exactly, is the impetus behind spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a massive renovation that will take a decade or more to yield profits? Why throw everything you have–money, soul, effort–into an old building that’s about to collapse?
“Somebody has to step up to the plate and do it,” Strouse said. “To show myself that I could do it and to show others that it can be done. That building is part of a community. It has been an asset for more than 100 years. It was important for me to respect that.”
In the city’s central business district, Bricault and Zarazua bought the Bearinger Fireproof Building on Craigslist.org, with designs to revamp the 60,000-square-foot, 141-year-old architectural stunner into a hub of glowing community activity.
The glorious red brick, Chicago School-inspired, six-story building–replete with atrium, marble work, and brass fixtures and oak trim–has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1982. And speaking of the ’80s, that’s right around the time the building began its descent where it would ultimately flatline.
According to Tom Trombley, deputy director of the Castle Museum with the Historical Society of Saginaw County, the Bearinger Building, for decades, was a thriving epicenter of business and commerce in downtown Saginaw. A popular department store occupied the main level, while the upper five floors were used for office space. This was in the ’30s and continued well into the ’70s, when occupancy was still full.
Trombley said the building began to change hands into the ’80s and ’90s, and although it still had tenants, that period is when the Bearinger began to see its decline.
“Toward the end, the occupancy rate was falling,” Trombley said. “By the ’80s, it was starting to get sparse, which was unfortunate because it was such a classic 19th century office building. It really is a handsome building.”
From the ’90s on, the Bearinger had been home to a thriving creative community, with artists and musicians working out of a handful of upper-floor studios. The last tenants, including a main floor coffee house, were shown the door in 2008. It remained inactive until Bricault and Zarazua purchased it later that year.
The two have a magnificent vision for the building, with a slew of businesses scheduled to open along the main floor in 2013. New tenants include everything from a deli and jewelry store, to boutiques. Future developments include a wine and martini bar, sixth-floor restaurant with sweeping city views, a tattoo shop, fitness center and daycare facility, among many others.
Like Strouse, Bricault and Zarazua worked in concert with SEDC, who provided crucial loans to get the renovations started. Bricault and Zarazua also worked with the Michigan Small Business and Technology Development Center, which shepherded the two through business planning and strategies. The renovations have been extensive and with a 2013 grand opening as the goal, Bricault said recently that developments have slowed.
“Not much has changed in the last few months,” he said. “We are just waiting on some roof work completion and then we can move forward.”
Developments in these areas aren’t the only ones moving forward. Strouse is currently working on a five-building rehab of some historical structures at Genesee and Washington in Saginaw’s downtown. There, he is meeting with Saginaw’s Downtown Development Authority as well as the Department for Housing and Urban Development, to save five buildings, including the Bancroft Building, the Eddy Building and the Mason Building, among others.
Paul Barrera, owner of Jake’s Old City Grill, also has plans, according to Strouse, to renovate the upper floors of the historic building that houses his restaurant on Hamilton Street.
Also in development is a 20-unit condo installation in a historical building stretch along Court Street, between Niagara and Hamilton in Old Town.
As pieces of the puzzle that can be the revitalization of a neighborhood come together, it’s clear Saginaw is home to a lot of bright minds, willing hands and motivated, community-minded business people who are stepping up to do the work that has to be done to move the city forward. It’s appropriate that they’re using Saginaw’s roots and bones to do so.
John Horn has been a journalist for nearly 20 years, including 12 as a freelance writer. He has covered city government, crime, real estate and sports for both community newspapers and large, metro dailies. He has written extensively about dining and drinking in and around Detroit for numerous clients, locally, nationally and internationally. He loves the city. He loves up north. He loves his wife Kerry, their toddler daughter Maeve, their 80-pound Labradoodle, Lamont, and the Detroit Tigers. In that order.