Village battles blight: safety, business top concerns

BEAR LAKE — Bear Lake’s downtown area is home to many old and historic buildings; two of them are blocked off with “caution” tape and orange fencing.

The Village Variety Store stands precariously at the corner of Lake and Lynn streets in the Village of Bear Lake. A former two-story brick building sits northeast of the variety store on the other side of Lake Street, also known as U.S. 31.The first-story front facade is the only thing left standing.

Both buildings are blocked off due to safety concerns.

At the Bear Lake Village Council meeting on Wednesday, council members decided to close Lynn Street from Lake Street to the Huntington Bank ATM so that people won’t walk or drive on that side of the variety store. The Bear Lake Days parade route will also be altered to avoid that street.

“It’s a conundrum now that we’re left with a crumbling building that is a safety hazard,” said Jeff Bair, Village of Bear Lake president. “They were visible before, but they were still able to be used as intended.”

The variety store, located at 7718 Lake St., was open for the summer in 2013.

The hardest part of taking care of the problem is that the village doesn’t own the buildings, said Jackie Johnson, village council member and chair of the blight committee.

During a rain event in May, chunks of the variety store began to fall to the street and sidewalk below. During a similar event, the brick building collapsed from the back.

The Bear Lake Village Council and its blight committee are working through the problems with public safety as the first priority.

To go into the building, or even walk next to it is a safety hazard, Bair and Johnson agreed.

There are chunks missing from the outer walls, and in same places are holes, which have led to water damage in the interior.

Plus, the floor is buckling, Johnson said.

Less than a year ago, a couple from Kalamazoo was interested in purchasing the store, renovating it and opening a taproom or microbrewery, Bair said. Plans fell through over the winter.

At this point, it would be cost-prohibitive to save the building, Johnson said.

Other options include letting it stand until falls — a safety concern — or ordering demolition.

However, an ordered demolition would put all financial responsibility on the village, and the cost would later be added to the owner’s property tax roll, Johnson said.

“Then you have to collect,” she said. “The village is not a wealthy community. We’re still looking for other options.”

If the building does fall on its own, engineers have told the village that it probably won’t collapse in on itself, but would fall toward Lake Street, Johnson said.

The owners of one of the businesses on the other side of the street, Serendipity, have come up with a plan to exit the shop if the variety store falls and blocks the front door.

“Hopefully no one is in here when that happens,” said Marilyn McCarthy, co-owner of Serendipity.

McCarthy previously parked her car on Lynn Street near the variety store while at work, but doesn’t dare to park that close anymore, she said.

“You could stand outside and almost watch the bricks fall down,” McCarthy said.

The eyesore and safety hazard impacts the business and whole village, she said.

“It’s brought up when customers come in,” McCarthy said. “One of the most common questions is, ‘When are they going to do something about that?’ And we don’t know. It’s such a shame because it could be a neat little downtown without these blight buildings.”

Blight detracts from potential customers stopping to stop, and discourages potential new businesses and property sales, Bair said.

“I believe that it’s easier to drive through because we don’t give people a reason to stop,” he said. “Look at the businesses that are downtown, they’re doing the best they can with what is available to them, but when the cornerstone of the village is that big crumbling building, you don’t tend to see the other businesses that are beyond it.”

The Village Variety Store building is owned by Karen Leckrone, according to Manistee County Equalization records.

However, Leckrone has been deceased since 2014, and her estate is being worked through probate court, according to village officials.

Leckrone also owned four properties on Lynn Street, and one each in Pleasanton and Bear Lake townships, according to county records.

Contact information for a representative of the estate was not readily available.

The collapsed brick building on Lake Street, which did not house a business, is less complicated, Johnson said.

The owners live in town, and the family is working to clean up the mess, she said.

Most of the second floor has already been removed.

“It’s an enormous project with a family crew,” Johnson said. “It may be a matter of the best intentions aren’t going to move this very rapidly, and we’re very concerned. It’s a worrisome situation, but not as dangerous. We have to have it blocked off in the front because who knows what’s supporting that front wall.”

Prior to the back of the building, located at 7726 Lake St., falling down, letters had been sent by both the blight committee and the regional building inspector warning that there could be a problem, Johnson said.

The property is owned by James Reed and Shelley Reed, according to county records. The Reeds also own the building next door to the northeast, one other property in the village and property in Bear Lake Township.

Contact information for the owners could not be obtained.

The village has had a blight ordinance since 2009. Violations can result in a civil misdemeanor and fines of up to $200 a day.

Until recently, the blight committee was concerned about tall grass and junk piles in front yards — things that made the village look messy, Johnson said.

“All of a sudden, we have major problems,” she said.

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Posted by Justine McGuire

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