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Through my pal Rich Rezler at Rezler Communications, I was put in contact with some decision-makers at Thrillist.com. They needed someone to write a restaurant guide to Ann Arbor, in a best-of voice. There are so many glorious places to enjoy food and drink in this great Midwestern city. Read more here

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Communities worldwide struggle with ways to keep their neighbors nourished. Hunger — and the whipping it puts on a sufferer’s pride — and the idea of it, is typically reserved for images of fly-strewn children on African plains, or the well-meaning, who help fill trays of good during the holidays. Hunger is a heavy burden. And in one part of Northeast Ohio, organizations are doing the hefty lifting to help keep people full. This article was assigned to me from the fine people at Toledo City Paper. Read the rest of it here.

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A Troy, Michigan PR firm sought to create a compelling feature article on a client with a unique service. The Sacramento Picnic Company takes the legwork out of menu conception and prep. I spoke with owner James Williams in what again turned out to be a well-written article in the vision the client wanted. Read more here.

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As I continue to chronicle Major League Baseball’s ballparks, I made a smart decision to visit Great American Ballpark in Cincinnatti, the host venue to tonight’s All-Star Game. I wrote about it here:

The ‘Nati

Having visited a couple of different Major League Baseball parks years ago, I decided that I wanted to see them all, or at least as many as possible before I get too old to do it. Last year, it was PNC Park in Pittsburgh, to see the Pirates. The 4.5-hour drive was easy, so I’m using that distance as a benchmark for trips in the immediate future, at least for now.

Cincinnati seemed like an obvious choice. It, too, was roughly 4.5 hours from my suburban Detroit driveway. I knew very little of the Queen City. I booked an $80 room for a night through priceline, less than a mile walk from the park, spent a few weeks doing some critical research (locating quality dive bars and fleshing out the most realistic expectations for burrito specialists), got up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday and headed south.

It bears mentioning here that I am married to the most fabulous woman in the free world. And in non-free worlds, she would continue to shine. She encourages adventures like this, where I can get away from the house, the toddler, the dog and the same four walls I stare at daily, to traipse around all day and half of the night in a new-to-me city and explore its ballpark. Some guys don’t have it this good. Some guys, coincidentally, are also selfish and out of touch, and couldn’t be trusted with a night away from home. I continually bust ass to keep a tight house. Sometimes I need to step away from it.

In my research, I discovered a certain amount of history in Cincinnati and had outlined a handful of areas I wanted to discover. This included the old neighborhood of Over The Rhine, which is reportedly part ghetto/part history lesson. The historical Ninth Street neighborhood was also on my list, as was the city’s Music Hall and the Mount Adams neighborhood. The very moment I hit town, it started to rain. My check-in time at the Millennium Hotel was 4 p.m. so, naturally, I showed up at the front desk at 11 a.m. Luckily, my room was available. I checked in, unloaded my gear, charged my phone and headed out in the rain. The inclement weather made picture-taking impossible, as it turned from showers to a downpour. I drove through Mount Adams, which turned out to be this glorious, elevated neighborhood, with historic homes clustered together tightly, narrow streets, an array of smart-looking retailers and a seemingly unrivaled view of the city. But I was really in this charming neighborhood for one thing: Lunch at City View Tavern.

This bar is known not only as a choice neighborhood bar in Mount Adams and  its finer hamburger products, but for its deck with a nice view of the city.

I met the bartender and later, the owner, Silas. I asked to take photos inside. Silas said it would not be a concern for him. Finally, an owner who didn’t give a shit about some amateur hack snapping away in his bar. I watched part of the 2012 NFL Draft while making quick work of the Teddy Burger, and a couple of pints of Hop Bomber from the Rivertown Brewing Co. My day could’ve started and ended with just this moment and the trip would’ve felt very complete.

The rain continued, so I just chilled and had another beer before making my way back downtown. Music Hall, Over The Rhine and any sightseeing would be truncated not only by the weather, but by the 4:10 p.m. start time to the game. It was already 2:30 and that seemed like a good time to park the car for good. The hotel charged $25 for overnight valet. The parking structure kitty corner from the hotel charged $8 for overnight. I hit the room, changed clothes, beamed up, took a coupla pulls of Crown and walked to the home of the Cincinnati Reds, the Great American Ballpark.

I would do a couple of laps around the park before the game started, sitting nowhere near my $4 bleacher seat. The concourses were roomy, save for in the outfield, where a huge overhang made it feel like you were in a crowded room with a low ceiling. The stadium holds 42,271 and many of them were there for this cloudy, mild Saturday afternoon to see their beloved Reds take on the Houston Astros.

They were not disappointed. Regional icon and All-Star Joey Votto blasted a double, before scoring on a Brandon Phillips triple in the first inning. The place went absolutely bananas. The Reds would hang two more runs on Houston in the third inning and then again in the fifth, en route to a 6-0 shutout. Johnny Cueto, the rotation’s cornerstone, went seven innings, allowing only five hits and striking out three. Cueto improved his record to 3-0. And while I had never before heard of Reds’ right fielder Jay Bruce, I’ll be paying attention to him in the box scores this year. His fifth-inning homer was a huge blast and every time he came to the plate or touched the ball, the crowd grew louder.

I spent much of the game walking around the park, through the back side of the venue, behind the outfield, where the higher-end concessions were located; through the upper level where the double-decked bleachers live in left field; back through the main concourses, where I would settle down in the outfield, near the left-field wall that sits 328 feet from home plate (it’s 404 to center and 325 to left).

The game wound down and so did I. As I headed out, I again passed these statues at the main entrance of Great American Ballpark.

The pitcher is Joe Nuxhall – the legendary Reds broadcaster who called games for nearly 40 years, following an MLB career where he was not only an All-Star but set the league record for youngest player to ever start a game, doing so at age 15. The batter is Hall of Fame legend Frank Robinson and the catcher statue is that of his Cooperstown-enshrined teammate, Ernie Lombardi. The pitcher’s mound is built to MLB dimensions of that time and the terrace is sloped at the same incline as Crosley Field’s, where the Reds played their home games from 1912 to 1970.  I found it to be a compelling touch.

The game ended at 7 p.m. and I sought out O’Malley’s, one of the only real dive bars anywhere near my hotel. After walking for another mile or two with no luck, I drank in some of the downtown’s retailers on Main Street, many of whom looked like they’ve been around for a while.

Also, not the type of shop you see a lot of around town.

And this hotel is glorious in its old-girl style, but I definitely do not like the way the math adds up.

I cabbed it back to the room, where I would finally get horizontal for a few minutes – I had walked a better part of the day and my legs were like rubber –before taking a long shower, blasting some Crown and then heading back out into the rain.

I would eventually find O’Malley’s and it was quite perfect – a little bar hidden in an alley, full of regulars and blue-collared drinkers. I knew I would feel right at home. Well, that didn’t last long. Every seat at the bar was taken and the sound system was blasting Poison. I left. I stopped at Local 127 for a couple of pints, but it was painfully upscale. When I quietly apologized to the bartender for being woefully underdressed in my hoodie and cap, he looked both ways before saying to me, “Don’t sweat it. I wish we had more people like you in here.” By now it was 10 p.m. and I was shot. I walked slowly back to the hotel, through a sea of high school prom goers (when Jason texted me and advised that I “hang your nuts out of your zipper and walk around, bro”), stopping at the hotel bar for a series of bourbons before retiring for the night. I was up early the next day and on the road by 8 a.m.

I liked Cincinnati. The downtown is fresh and clean, and perfectly condensed. It’s like a small, quaint town suffering from gigantism. It’s just the right size to navigate in a day and have a rich, cultural, urban experience without being overwhelmed. Great American Ballpark is a great place to see a game. It had a smooth layout with perfect views, but by the time the game ended, I was growing bored and restless.  I don’t follow the Reds, so it was hard for me to get truly excited about the action on the field. My only regret was that I didn’t get to some of the areas of town I had hoped, and it’s doubtful I’ll be going back any time soon, if ever. No knock on the city, but I have more ballparks to see. Next up? U.S. Cellular Field on Chicago’s South Side. I called this shot years ago and have yet to follow up. Tony B., I plan to make good.

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A rager on the road

Found myself a few months ago the subject of a road rage incident. It played out this way. Click here:

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Top Drawer

Jay Fosgitt knew at a young age that when he put pen to paper, he could create something special with his illustration skills. As he grew older, and better, he creating something especially significant with his ability; he crafted a career.

The mid-Michigan native lives in Plymouth now, continuing to build on an impressive body of work and earning serious cred in the industry. Read more here

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A city’s struggles do not paint the picture of its identity. And yet, in towns like Saginaw it oftentimes seems like the discussion of the city’s blemishes are heard louder than the tales of its beauty. Saginaw, however, is trying on a new look, as major projects rooted in revitalizing historic properties are spearheading a makeover expected to yield grand results.

At the core of these efforts are the renovations and resurrections of a couple of historic, iconic buildings in Saginaw. One, in Old Town, is driven by former Saginaw resident and current West Coast transplant, David Strouse. The CBS executive is transforming three Old Town properties into renovated, usable structures. And he’s hardly stopping there.

The other is in downtown, where entrepreneurs James Bricault and Alicia Zarazua are resuscitating an architectural icon in Saginaw, the Bearinger Fireproof Building. Both parties are taking historically rich, but crumbling and mothballed buildings, and restoring them not only back to their physical glory, but making them key assets to the city again.

Projects like these got a major shot in the arm in 2012, when Old Town received Main Street designation, which helps guide redevelopment in historic downtowns. In Old Town, Strouse has purchased three buildings: 312 S. Hamilton (a former candy shop built in 1881), 318 S. Hamilton (a two-story retail structure that was a carriage shop) and a larger endeavor, 118 S. Hamilton, home to the Hamilton Apartments, a project that has become the signature to Strouse’s preservation efforts.

 

Hamilton_Feature_1

“It was going to be a tear-down,” Strouse said of the nine-unit building, with commercial storefronts on the main floor. “The inspector said that if something was not done with this building, it would come down in five years. It had roof issues, a collapsing staircase and was missing 40-plus windows.”

Work began, using as many local vendors as possible. Through the U.S. Department of Interior, he was able to earn historic rehabilitation tax credit assistance for the renovation. The building was also placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Monies from the Saginaw Economic Development Corporation for the first $100,000 kickstarted efforts, and additional financing from Chemical Bank helped defray the costs of massive HVAC work and structural repair.

Now, since an October 2012 ribbon-cutting, the building thrives with nine apartments that are consistently rented, ushering in a new, refreshing type of resident in this part of town. And more importantly and critical to urban renewal, there are vibrant residents living in a building in a part of town that didn’t have a lot of residents. That’s nine more apartments–and sharp ones at that; with Martha Stewart-inspired accents and strong, rich design tones–housing people who support Old Town’s business community, which could’ve easily slipped into irrelevance.

“It’s a spectacular success,” said a Strouse, a 1974 Arthur Hill grad who, despite making a thriving career in Los Angeles, still kept a room in his parents’ Saginaw home. “We have a unit rented before the old tenant even moves out.”

So, what exactly, is the impetus behind spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a massive renovation that will take a decade or more to yield profits? Why throw everything you have–money, soul, effort–into an old building that’s about to collapse?

“Somebody has to step up to the plate and do it,” Strouse said. “To show myself that I could do it and to show others that it can be done. That building is part of a community. It has been an asset for more than 100 years. It was important for me to respect that.”

In the city’s central business district, Bricault and Zarazua bought the Bearinger Fireproof Building on Craigslist.org, with designs to revamp the 60,000-square-foot, 141-year-old architectural stunner into a hub of glowing community activity.

The glorious red brick, Chicago School-inspired, six-story building–replete with atrium, marble work, and brass fixtures and oak trim–has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1982. And speaking of the ’80s, that’s right around the time the building began its descent where it would ultimately flatline.

According to Tom Trombley, deputy director of the Castle Museum with the Historical Society of Saginaw County, the Bearinger Building, for decades, was a thriving epicenter of business and commerce in downtown Saginaw. A popular department store occupied the main level, while the upper five floors were used for office space. This was in the ’30s and continued well into the ’70s, when occupancy was still full.

Trombley said the building began to change hands into the ’80s and ’90s, and although it still had tenants, that period is when the Bearinger began to see its decline.

“Toward the end, the occupancy rate was falling,” Trombley said. “By the ’80s, it was starting to get sparse, which was unfortunate because it was such a classic 19th century office building. It really is a handsome building.”

From the ’90s on, the Bearinger had been home to a thriving creative community, with artists and musicians working out of a handful of upper-floor studios. The last tenants, including a main floor coffee house, were shown the door in 2008. It remained inactive until Bricault and Zarazua purchased it later that year.

The two have a magnificent vision for the building, with a slew of businesses scheduled to open along the main floor in 2013. New tenants include everything from a deli and jewelry store, to boutiques. Future developments include a wine and martini bar, sixth-floor restaurant with sweeping city views, a tattoo shop, fitness center and daycare facility, among many others.

Like Strouse, Bricault and Zarazua worked in concert with SEDC, who provided crucial loans to get the renovations started. Bricault and Zarazua also worked with the Michigan Small Business and Technology Development Center, which shepherded the two through business planning and strategies. The renovations have been extensive and with a 2013 grand opening as the goal, Bricault said recently that developments have slowed.

“Not much has changed in the last few months,” he said. “We are just waiting on some roof work completion and then we can move forward.”

Developments in these areas aren’t the only ones moving forward. Strouse is currently working on a five-building rehab of some historical structures at Genesee and Washington in Saginaw’s downtown. There, he is meeting with Saginaw’s Downtown Development Authority as well as the Department for Housing and Urban Development, to save five buildings, including the Bancroft Building, the Eddy Building and the Mason Building, among others.

Paul Barrera, owner of Jake’s Old City Grill, also has plans, according to Strouse, to renovate the upper floors of the historic building that houses his restaurant on Hamilton Street.

Also in development is a 20-unit condo installation in a historical building stretch along Court Street, between Niagara and Hamilton in Old Town.

As pieces of the puzzle that can be the revitalization of a neighborhood come together, it’s clear Saginaw is home to a lot of bright minds, willing hands and motivated, community-minded business people who are stepping up to do the work that has to be done to move the city forward. It’s appropriate that they’re using Saginaw’s roots and bones to do so.

John Horn has been a journalist for nearly 20 years, including 12 as a freelance writer. He has covered city government, crime, real estate and sports for both community newspapers and large, metro dailies. He has written extensively about dining and drinking in and around Detroit for numerous clients, locally, nationally and internationally. He loves the city. He loves up north. He loves his wife Kerry, their toddler daughter Maeve, their 80-pound Labradoodle, Lamont, and the Detroit Tigers. In that order.

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