By Thomas Benn
Empire’s century-old schoolhouse is in the process of being acquired by a realtor from Plymouth, Michigan, who plans to make it into “a memorabilia mall like you’ve never seen before.”
The prospective new owner, Joe Van Esley, is a highly successful real estate broker who has been collecting Americana for most of his 47 years. He wants to restore the old structure as a series of theme rooms and retail shops: A newspaper announcing President Washington’s establishment of the first U.S. postal service … Not just baseball cards but letters from the legendary baseball great Ty Cobb… Seats from Briggs Stadium, the old Tiger ballpark … An entire room devoted to the inventor Thomas Edison … These and other reminders of the past offered for sale on the premises where, prior to 1968, generations of youngsters were studying their history lessons.
Van Esley’s nickname among his friends in Plymouth is “Ease.” But this venture — if it transpires — will be far from easy. He took a 12-month option on the purchase of the property in August. A short time later, he says he made a substantial down payment of the selling price of almost $400,000. The previous owners, Nick and Ruth Hoffbauer, who operate a hot air balloon business in Carmel, Indiana, have been trying for several years to sell the deteriorating building before it falls apart.
They said in a letter to the Empire Village Council last month that the sale to Van Esley was pending. But Mrs. Hoffbauer emphasized in a telephone interview that the transaction is still legally in the option stage.
In the meantime the prospective new owner spent a weekend in Empire recently overseeing the re-roofing of the entire 10,000 square foot structure as well as the small nearby house once used as a kindergarten annex. “The building was saved just in time,” he told me later.
His goal is to “make that corner come alive” — that corner being the flashing light intersection of highways M-22, 72, and downtown Front Street, and downtown Front Street, sometimes known as Taghons’ Corner.
Expressing his confidence in the soundness of the original construction, Van Esley rejects the notion prevalent in some village circles that the building is beyond repair. He indicated emphatically that he was prepared to spend whatever was necessary to “make up for 30 years of neglect.”
The school was built in 1901 and left vacant after the consolidation of several area school districts in the Glen Lake public school system. A succession of speculative buyers, including the Hoffbauers in 1978, purchased the property expecting to exploit its location and its historic significance for local alumni. One of the earlier owners, for example, wanted to obtain a liquor license and turn it into a “poker palace.”
The immediate reaction to the feasibility of Van Esley’s plans among most village officials with whom I spoke was one of reserved skepticism. Edwin Simpson, an influential member of both the Village Planning Commission and the Village Council, estimated that bringing the property into conformity with various health and safety codes could cost in excess of a million dollars. Besides structural asbestos, lead paint, and coal dust contamination, the septic system was severely poisoned by mercury and other toxic chemicals dumped down the sink by years of chemistry lab students. Van Esley said he has retained environmental consultants who assure him that meeting state Department of Environmental Quality standards is attainable, though admittedly at substantial expense.
He said that although his present plans do not call for a food service facility in the building, the new septic system would be sufficient to accommodate such a business.
One of the impediments to more than a year of negotiations by another prospective buyer — this one a local antique dealer — was uncertainty about whether partial public financing could be obtained for the environmental clean-up. Paul Skinner, an owner of The Misers’ Hoard Antiques, which is located a block away from the school on Front Street, had proposed converting the interior of the building into eight condominium living units.
Skinner’s plans also hinged on the future relocation of Taghon’s auto repair garage. The repair shop is located across from the schoolhouse on the east side of M-22. Garage owner Dennis Taghon’s facility includes a parking lot adjacent to the rear of the school tract.
Skinner said he was notified by the Hoffbauers in August that the property was no longer on the market. He had anticipated that the cost of renovating the structure with moderately upscale condos, while retaining the distinctive architectural integrity of the exterior design, would have been around $1.8 million.
Van Esley declined to predict what the overall price tag for his planned renovation would be. He said the initial phase of repair and rehabilitation would take at least a year. He made it clear that he was acting on his own and not in behalf of other investors.
The lots on which the buildings are located are zoned both commercial and residential. So Michael Vanderberg, chairperson of the Village Planning Commission, said at the October meeting of the commission the project would not come before that body until “he (the new owner) wants to do something to change the structure.” Vanderberg told me last summer that the extensive environmental degradation made it appear that the only practical avenue to preservation would be if a philanthropist with deep pockets appeared unexpectedly. All along, many of those most active in village affairs wished that the building could somehow be made available as a community activity center.
No philanthropist, Van Esley hopes to be able to turn a profit on the collectibles craze and nostalgia for the past. Like so many others who visit Leelanau County, he and his family returned time and time again. He said he managed to run up and down the Dune Climb (in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore) two years ago, then lost weight and did it again last summer in less time.
His plan is to add to his store of memorabilia, topically organized in different rooms — a sports room in the old gym, a presidential history room, an inventors’ room, a room for old newspapers matted and framed, an old-style general store, and so forth.
The financial viability of his venture would appear to depend on the ideas he comes up with to generate income from various businesses operated in conjunction with the exhibits. He said the undertaking would be a family enterprise involving his wife, Elizabeth, and daughters Christy, Ashley and Brooke. The daughters, for example, would sell sun tan lotion and other beach sundries in the small kindergarten house, he said.
In the initial phase at least, Van Esley apparently did not attempt to acquire the lot which Dennis Taghon uses to park disabled vehicles next to the school building. Eventually, however, Van Esley said he would like to purchase other unspecified property in the village.
The corner was considerably more lively in the old days when there was a busy saloon across from the school on Front Street. Now, besides the garage, there is a motel and a gas station (previously owned for many years by Dennis’s uncle Dave Taghon).
While Skinner was preparing his condo development plans, the months of negotiations revolved around a possible future site for Taghon’s garage. Though aesthetically less pleasing than the schoolhouse, the car repair shop is a treasured local institution too. Residents for miles around tell stories of the exceptionally accommodating service provided by the garage workers in this era of de-personalized, in-and-out commerce.
Dennis Taghon told me not long ago that he was considering “getting off the corner” by moving to one of several possible sites for a larger operation. One of the possibilities under consideration is a lot owned by contractor and developer Fred Salisbury at the end of Fisher Street. Cherry Republic now leases a packaging warehouse on this land. Foremost among Salisbury’s many land holdings along M-22 in Empire is his family home located uncomfortably close by Taghon’s garage. It is only logical therefore that Salisbury would like to acquire the present garage site. However, the Fisher Street site would have to be re-zoned from residential to commercial. Taghon stressed that he was looking at other options as well.
Meanwhile, the possibility remains that if Van Esley meets a hostile reaction to his grandiose vision of a lively corner he could back out of the purchase before the final papers are signed. The Village Council voted last month to exclude the block containing the schoolhouse from the Front Street green space plans. Both the Hoffbauers and Van Esley had endorsed green space reaching all the way to M-22.