SOUTH BEND – With his hand, Mike Keen brushed the peeling paint off a column of pearly white ceramic “subway tiles”, saying, “This can’t rot.”
But, beneath his feet, the original oak flooring had already rotted and been removed, thanks to an approximately 6,000 square foot hole in the roof that had allowed rain and snow to pool inside. from this former vacant bakery at 906-910 Portage Ave. , just over half a mile from downtown.
Sprawling garbage piles have been removed this year. Keen could now see 56,000 square feet of often dark, damp and open floors. He lives beyond the puddles and moldy arcade games that litter the basement.
These tiled walls could be part of Portage’s new windows. Windows could once again appear in their walled spaces in the former Ward Baking Co.
âWe’re really trying to create life on the streets,â said Keen, managing partner of a group whose goal is to make it a nest for up to 60 companies, artists or organizations in three years.
At an estimated total cost of $ 3.75 million, the biggest development challenge right now, Keen said, is finding bank financing and the first possible tenants “when it’s best. he had never seen in a decade â.
âYou have to have the vision and the patience to see that at the start you will have almost no impact,â he said.
Banks, he said, like to be confident that such a project would attract tenants. It might be easier for buildings designed for just two or three tenants, but it wouldn’t fit the vision of what Keen and his project partners aim to do. They want to bring together a collection of businesses small and large that could feed off each other and bring to life a previously stagnant area that Keen calls Portage Midtown.
All over Portage, there are homes he has renovated and two 600-square-foot “little houses” that he and his partners have built this spring (with the hope of having more in adjacent lots), as well. than the weekly South Bend Bike Garage co-op which is full of volunteers every Wednesday evening. All within walking distance of the Near Northwest Neighborhood Center and its cafÃ©.
Keen, a retired professor from IU South Bend who lives nearby on Riverside Drive, has joined his Ward Project partners in an LLC they call The Bakery Group: local architect Greg Kil, owner of Borkholder Nappanee Buildings Dwayne Borkholder and Dallas real estate developer Monte Anderson.
They started cleaning and repairs to the roof in February. Keen hopes that if the storefront windows and doors can be installed early in the process, they will inspire banks and the public to see how attractive the structure could be.
The city discussed allocating additional tax funds to help with windows and doors as well as other ideas, such as an outdoor plaza here and improvements elsewhere in Portage Midtown, said Santiago Garces, executive director of the city’s community investment.
Garces said the city is looking at this and other hallways and how to âreactivateâ these neglected downtown spaces so that they draw people from their neighborhoods and even the region.
Keen said The Bakery Group’s goal is to repair the building enough so that in the first year it can get an occupancy permit and move in 10 to 15 tenants – or about 30% occupancy – then 70%. the second year and 100% in the third year.
They would build it one section at a time, structuring it around what the tenants want, he said.
Initially, Keen wanted to demolish the Ward building so that there would be eight vacant lots for developing or building houses, but Anderson convinced him otherwise and offered to become a partner in the project.
âMonte said it was too beautiful a building,â Keen recalls.
This reminded Anderson Tyler Station in Dallas, a former waxed paper factory, built in 1925 next to a train station, which he turned into a co-working space, now filled with a brewery, manufacturers, retail stores, artisans, lawyers, churches, filmmakers, martial arts, wellness instructors and others.
It is an example of progressive development. The idea is to create wealth in a neighborhood one piece at a time through small-scale projects. Anderson, who is a founding member of the nonprofit Incremental Development Alliance, has coached and mentored Keen and other budding developers in South Bend for the past few years, Garces said.
Likewise, Keen hopes for a mix of tenants in the Ward building, from small incubating businesses to others that are “full-fledged.” By working close to each other, he said, they could talk, share, advise and advise each other.
He said he’s been with a wide variety of potential tenants: restaurants, microbreweries, a spa, an individual who records podcasts, a upholstery renovator, etc. No pre-lease has yet been signed.
City officials are eager to see private investment now that $ 410,000 in unpaid property taxes has been accrued by the building’s previous owners since 2010. South Bend Joint Council voted June 14 8-0 to approve a tax allowance this would freeze the site’s property taxes for the first two years. After that, building taxes would be reduced by 100% the first year, then 90%, 80% and 70% the following three years.
“This is exactly what an economic development revitalization zone and tax breaks are designed for,” said Lori Hamann, member of the general council, noting how it restores brownstone buildings and “brings an area back to life. “.
Council member Sheila Niezgodski, D-6th, called it a “significant impact” and “perfect for the neighborhood”.
From the audience, Jordan Giger asked if small minority-owned businesses would be hired for the renovations.
“We are committed to being as inclusive as possible,” Keen replied, adding that he had previously spoken with entrepreneurship programs for women and minorities at Saint Mary’s College, the University of Notre Dame and elsewhere in the world. the community.
The Ward building was constructed in three parts: First, the original Busse bakery built by German immigrants in 1908 at the south end. Then a larger two-story space built in 1919 by the Ward Baking Co., which had acquired the Busse bakery. Then a last extension by Ward in 1945.
In 1976, as Ward went bankrupt, the local company Ford Distributing purchased the structure and used it to store and distribute cigarettes, coffee, candy, glassware and other goods until it closed and was released. left vacant more than ten years ago.
Roof replacement work is almost complete. Keen hopes to install 16 skylights and also drill holes in the lower level to create balconies above the now dark basement.
Keen found the original drawings of the building, which were useful for the current plans, hiding inside a cabinet among the trash that cost $ 50,000 to remove. A friend took a small Sunfish sailboat from it. An additional $ 137,000 has been spent to remove asbestos, including two giant boilers in the basement encrusted with carcinogens, where Keen dreams of installing a bar with the cleaned cylindrical beasts as a decorative element.
Upstairs, he sees “one of the coolest spaces in South Bend”.
Light passes through existing windows, which will expand as masonry windows are reopened.
The basement is a damp gallery of badly corroded and moldy early pinball and video game thugs and a stack of weathered cardboard restaurant glasses. Once it gets renovated, Keen said, he spoke with people about a possible salt cave here or mushroom cultivation.
The act for the building arrived in Keen’s mailbox on Christmas Eve, and he had joked, “It’s either the best Christmas present ever or the biggest lump of coal in my stocking. . ”
But, given the amount of garbage disposed of this year, Keen laughed and said, “It’s much better than before.”
Contact reporter Joseph Dits at [email protected] or 574-235-6158.