Ground Breaking: Commongrounds construction on Eighth St. slated for late summer

With the construction industry among those slowly reopening, the principals at Commongrounds are optimistic its mixed-use building will indeed become a reality sooner rather than later.

“We are still on track to break ground,” said Kate Redman, project director. “We’d hoped for early summer, now it’s (looking like) late summer.”

The cooperative building project raised funds from 132 investors totaling $1,370,000. The amounts ranged from $50 owner share purchases to investments up to $100,000. The majority of investors are from the Traverse City region, though some are from farther north or downstate, as well as six other states.

Commongrounds is the next step for – and from – Commonplace, the cooperative work space located at the northwest corner of Boardman Avenue and Eighth Street in The Box. Commongrounds will be located across the street at 416 E. Eighth St. The four-story building will include not only a co-working facility, but a café, housing, an event space and more.

“We’ve confirmed the food and café,” Redman said, referring to partners Iron Fish Distillery and Higher Grounds coffee. “We’ll have a food hall with four or five smaller vendors sharing an incubator space. We’re hoping for food and art partnerships, like theatre or film with specialty food.”

The hall will be overseen by chef Tony Vu from the downtown Traverse City restaurant Good Bowl, who also operates a food stall in Flint and is starting the Flint Social Club, a food hall with a similar mission of incubating entreprenurs and food. Vu was recently named one of most important entrepreneurs of the past decade by for his work in Flint.

Commongrounds initially was the brain trust of local developer Joe Sarafa and Higher Grounds owner Chris Treter. Their idea was to create a community building of some sort on the vacant lot for which Treter had a purchase agreement. He asked his friend and mentor Sarafa to collaborate with him.

Treter then brought in Redman, who was transitioning from her career as an attorney to a workspace organizer.

“It’s a different career path from law,” she said. “It’s been a lot of fun to work with different people.”

Redman found her niche as an attorney working with a number of small businesses and non-profits. That led her to the idea of creating a workspace for herself and other small companies or sole proprietors. Since creating Commonplace and now Commongrounds, her work as an attorney has gotten shunted aside, perhaps permanently.

“It’s unlikely I’ll go back to practicing law,” she said, though she said she sees some potential in creating resources for companies in need. “I’m interested in digital short courses for organizations that can’t hire a lawyer.”

Her work as an attorney actually benefited the development of Commongrounds as a community cooperative. Redman said she has relied on advice from professionals as she transitioned from law to heading up Commonplace and Commongrounds. She has worked with the Sustainable Economies Law Center, which provides legal tools and advice for clients and communities to develop cooperatives in the areas of food, housing, energy and jobs.

“I’ve learned a lot,” she said.

There are few co-op models locally. Perhaps the only one known to most people is Oryana Community Co-op, where people can become members and realize savings on their grocery purchases. But it’s not the only one. Treter said the original vision for Commongrounds was born out of his coffee business. Higher Grounds is a cooperative with farms that supply the company’s coffee beans.

“It’s an ecosystem of like-minded businesses, individuals and communities,” said Treter.

That translates into the plan for Commongrounds.

“It’s an effort to do something we can plug into to address community issues,” Treter continued. In addition to the co-working space, event center and café space, the building will include a child-care center on the ground floor and workforce housing apartments on the third and fourth floors.

With the fact the economy has been decimated by the pandemic and the new rules regarding social distancing, Redman is pleased that the timeline for construction has not been completely disrupted. The fact Sarafa is planning for construction next door means the two projects may be able to share resources.

“We’re using the same contractor,” said Sarafa.

He said his mixed-use building is on roughly the same timeline as Commongrounds, with approximately 15 months from start to finish. He said sharing subcontractors will potentially save some money.

“Sharing won’t be hard, assuming we can go along at a similar (pace),” he said.

Commongrounds was conceived as an additional location for Commonplace, but Redman said it will become the only location. Once it is completed, tenants at The Box, which is for sale, will relocate.

“Two spaces is not as good,” Redman said, noting that the concept of organically collaborating with others is lost when they are not all in the same physical location.

In addition to the co-working space, event center and café, the building will include a child-care center on the ground floor and workforce housing apartments on the third and fourth floors.

Half the second floor will house the working areas, i.e. Commonplace. Among the organizations that will be on site are Norte, SEEDS, United Way, Taste the Local Difference, Boardman Review, Traverse City Track Club, Building Bridges with Music, and others. The other half of the floor will be an event space, suitable for holding meetings or musical events, on which Redman and Treter collaborated with Crosshatch Centier for Art and Ecology and local musician May Erlewine.

It is an area of particular interest to Treter, who sees it as something which could benefit local musicians and those with businesses in the building and nearby.

“We could record the event, have an ongoing music series like Austin City Limits, attract more people to Traverse City and to the venue, build cultural well-being and economic security,” he said.

Though he’s now not officially connected with Commongrounds, Sarafa remains a fan.

“A cooperative is not my expertise,” he said. “Kate’s good at it.”

Treter is adamant that the concept is a solid one, not just, as he puts it “a hippie feel-good idea.”

“This is the future,” he said. “It’s what I do every day – effective strategies that lead me to collaborations.”

He said that such an approach is particularly important in a post-pandemic world.

“What can the … co-op do to survive and thrive post-COVID 19?” he said. “That’s something I’m doing every day in the coffee business.”