Big Rapids residents imagine future for railroad depot

Big Rapids area residents have been brainstorming many ideas for the future of the city’s old railroad depot since officials announced the possibility of purchasing the building and land from the state of Michigan. Among the ideas are a public community center, trail-focused business or recreation center or a privately owned business. (Pioneer file photo)

BIG RAPIDS — Big Rapids officials have asked area residents to brainstorm ideas for what could become of the old railroad depot on Maple Street, and many have eagerly stepped up to the challenge.

Since city officials announced the possibility of Big Rapids purchasing the depot and the land it sits on from the state of Michigan for $66,800 during a tour and public meeting on Thursday, Sept. 6, people from around the community have been offering up a wide range of creative ways to breathe new life into the property.

Among the many ideas for the depot, one that stands out is something related to the Fredrick Meijer White Pine Trail, which sits adjacent to the property.

“As the trail increases in use, that depot is going to be a sign post for the community. How you present that aspect to the world is important because it is another way to say, ‘Welcome to Big Rapids,'” said Mayor Tom Hogenson.

During the public meeting on Sept. 6, many people suggested a trail-focused use for the building, including offering bike or snowmobile repairs, ice cream or other food for people stopping in off the trail and restrooms.

Another public use for the depot residents have envisioned is a community center which can be rented out by individuals for events such as weddings, reunions or meetings.

Community member Beckie Bunker-Cass suggested the community center idea be taken a step further by creating something specifically catering to local Boy and Girl Scouts.

“I honestly think a good idea would be a scout house,” she said. “I think for our community it could be really nice because we have a lot of scouts in our area.”

Bunker-Cass explained this possibility would consist of a community center people could still rent out, but scouts could rent it at a discounted price and would in turn assist with the upkeep of the building and land.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who support the idea of a privately owned business, such as a family restaurant, brewpub or coffee shop; however, during the public meeting some attendees voiced concern this may take away from the historical aspect of the depot.

During a public meeting on Thursday, Sept. 6, Linda Proctor (left) and Beverly Baker discussed preserving the history of the old railroad depot on Maple Street and turning it into a community center for individuals to rent out. (Pioneer photo/Taylor Fussman)

Hogenson said one of the most important steps in deciding whether or not to buy the depot is determining the intended future concept for the property.

“It’s real easy to say no to something with no purpose,” Hogenson said.

One of the main questions facing the city is whether or not Big Rapids will maintain ownership and use the depot and land for public use or if selling to a private individual after purchasing it from the state will be more beneficial.

City Manager Mark Gifford said both options present unique advantages and potential drawbacks.

“The positive of public (ownership) would be a community asset that everyone could be proud of,” Gifford said. He added a publicly owned project may be more likely to receive grants or public funding to complete the project than something privately owned.

However, he said a private individual owning the depot could have its benefits as well, particularly not requiring the Big Rapids City Commission to discuss and approve what would be going into the space, as would be necessary if the property was publicly owned.

“A lot of times the private sector is more creative and quicker,” Gifford said. “If someone owns it on their own, they can make it happen.”

Regardless of who may eventually own the depot, zoning will be an issue to tackle.

According to Gifford, the property at the depot’s location currently is zoned industrial, which would not allow many types of customer-based businesses to be located on the property.

Gifford said it is likely the property would need to be rezoned to commercial should the city decide to purchase and renovate the depot.

As residents voice their ideas and opinions, city officials hope to continue the conversation of reinventing the depot with members of the public at a future Big Rapids City Commission meeting.