Warehouse District offers alternative for downtown visitors

TRAVERSE CITY – New York has Soho. Portland boasts the Pearl District. Chicago lays claim to Lincoln Park.

Traverse City, meanwhile, has its own emerging trendy neighborhood in…the Warehouse District?

Long dismissed as an abandoned industrial complex, the Warehouse District-located between Front Street and the Grandview Parkway on the block-long stretch of Garland Street-is quietly evolving into an edgy, offbeat counterpart to the well-heeled blocks of downtown Traverse City. Low rent, convenient locations and chic neighbors have attracted both mainstream developers and avant-garde professionals hoping to capitalize on the district's underutilized retail space.

Three years ago, transplanted New Yorker Mike Curths opened up the InsideOut Gallery in a neglected warehouse on Garland St. Now one of the district's flagship attractions, InsideOut hosts the Midwest's largest selection of urban and underground art, focusing on mixed-media pieces in the "outsider, lowbrow and pop surrealism genres."

"We tend not to have a lot of watercolors or pastels," explained Curths. "It's a grittier alternative to some of the more mainstream art. Truthfully, there's nothing else like it in our area."

The gallery also features a cavernous 2,500 square-foot film and music venue, regularly drawing acts like Lucy Kaplansky, Loudon Wainwright III and John Sinclair.

"We have a high caliber level of entertainment coming through," affirmed Curths. "Surprisingly, these types of acts are easy to bring up here. The trick is getting people to show up. I'll have people come in and be blown away by what they experience, and they'll say, 'I never even knew this place existed.' The lack of community awareness about what's going on down here can be a little frustrating."

Frustrating, perhaps, but not entirely unexpected. Many TC residents and developers still remember the district primarily for its sawmill- and lumberyard-lined origins. Until just recently, Garland Street consisted of a strip of cinderblock garages, empty converted hotels and hollowed-out warehouses. However, the district's close proximity to the bay-and to tourist-friendly Front Street-has created a unique business opportunity for entrepreneurs willing to roll up their sleeves and help redevelop the neighborhood.

Russ Springsteen, a licensed barber who made the unorthodox decision to combine his loves of hair styling and brewing, launched Salon Saloon in June 2006. The salon's unique set-up allows patrons to sip a glass of wine or order a beer while getting their hair cut. Springsteen's planned micro-brewery, Right Brain Brewery, is scheduled to open next door this month and will feature "craft-brewed ales, soda pops, and a full coffee bar."

"John Niedermaier joined us from Traverse Brewing Co. to help create our line of ales. We already have 10 beers on tap, with many more waiting in the wings-more than we can drink ourselves," laughed Springsteen. "Luckily, people are beginning to take notice of our little operation. I'm optimistic about this area. I like our chances."

Though it may be slow going, word about the district is indeed getting out, and business owners are taking a closer look at potential uses for remaining properties. Shayne Daley, who owns three local Cuppa Joe coffee shops with his wife Sandra, is opening 'the next evolution of the coffee house' in the district in February.

Cuppa Joe Warehouse Lounge will be located next door to InsideOut and will serve as a late-night alternative to the smoke-filled bar scene. The 2,100 square-foot lounge will feature international small plates and finger foods, comfortable furnishings, and a lineup of special weekly events, including a TV Dinner Night.

Daley hopes to purchase a Clover, a high-end, single-cup coffee brewer that offers an "unparalleled extraction." It would be one of only two machines of its kind in Michigan.

When asked why he chose the Warehouse District for his next location, Daley responded: "I love the underground feel of this neighborhood. It's a rough jewel. You have these old, run-down buildings, and yet it's right next to the river and the bay and downtown. It's pedestrian-friendly, and attracts great clientele. We love the idea of taking this old warehouse and turning it into a community gathering place."

In an effort to strengthen marketing campaigns in the Warehouse District, Curths, Daley and other district business owners have teamed up to create a joint branding initiative. The business association-which also includes companies as varied as an organic eatery, a stained-glass studio, a home-furnishings boutique and a spa-meets on a regular basis to discuss promotional ideas and coordinate special events in the area.

Ultimately, says Daley, he and his fellow district business owners hope to create a unique, culturally-relevant neighborhood that "complements and supports downtown's positive energy." BN