Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Vineyard Renamed, Ron's Reconsidered, Upfront Re-Viewed, Nutty Goat Replaces and NMU Re-Invented


THE FORMER VINEYARD is soon to be Spirits.

That'll be the new name of the party store just off of Grove Street and US-41. The new owner, Ed Jakubiszyn, a former health care worker who's made a sharp left turn in his career path, hopes to have Spirits open before the new year.

The shelves are mostly empty now but they should be filled within the next few weeks.

The new store will, of course, feature liquor, wines and beer, as well as convenience foods. Craft beers will be a specialty, and if you have a particular wine you like, Jakubiszyn says he'll find it for you and order it.

You'll notice the interior has been totally re-done. It's fair to say, the Vineyard, for all its charm and familiarity, was seriously due for an updating.

NOT SO FAST on the re-locating of Ron's Taco Shop to downtown Washington Street.

It was scheduled to reopen earlier this month after a kitchen was installed, but the owner of the property reports a problem or two has arisen with the new tenant.

The deal's not dead, but it is uncertain at this point, according to the owner.

Ron's, meantime, has gone silent on its Facebook page. The last update, provided on November 9th, reported that "the reopening...will be coming soon!"

Stay tuned.

AND WHAT ABOUT the Upfront?

Realtor Dan Keller reports two serious potential buyers, one from the U.P., the other from downstate, both with a background in food service.

Their engineers and architects have toured the premises trying to determine what might be done to the property and at what price.

No offers yet. The price of the property remains at $3.9 million.

In the meantime, more than 40,000 square feet of space downtown remain vacant, including the city's best banquet facility. Marquette's tourism industry will suffer as long as that space remains unused.

THIS NATION'S BEST university-based invention program may well be the one just established at Northern Michigan University.

Invent @ NMU opened up a month ago at the corner of Presque Isle and Fair Streets. Founding Director Dave Ollila is the guy in the charge.

You may know Ollila as founder of Viosport. He popularized helmet-cams and invented back country skis. He started a video-sharing service five years before YouTube started up. He's got 12 patents. He knows a little something about making things.

And that's what Invent @ NMU is all about: making things. Widgets.
Hardware. You got an idea? Say, maybe a device to improve a golfer's putting stroke or a pan that never burns fried eggs? Then bring it in to Invent @ NMU.

The staff, consisting of Ollila and NMU students, will do the research and analysis and tell you whether your invention already exists, whether there's a market for it, and whether you'd be able to produce it at a cost-efficient price.

They'll charge you, but it'll be a helluva lot less than you'd pay otherwise, and they'll save you money--and anguish--on an invention that had no future.

Sixteen inventors have walked through the doors of Invent @ NMU so far. Ollila says if two of them actually brought their invention to market, that would be a good percentage.

All inventors, even Thomas Edison, have experienced many more failures than successes. But all you need is one.

FOR A TOWN that already has more restaurants per capita than most other Michigan municipalities, Marquette's cup continues to runneth over.

You ready for the Nutty Goat?

Yep, that's the name of the coffee house-diner replacing the old Huron Earth Deli on Third Street. Sometime next month is the anticipated opening date.

A young couple with limited restaurant experience is diving in headfirst with a restaurant that will offer breakfast (crepes, anyone?), lunches (sandwiches and such), and dinners (tapas, maybe), as well as coffees, teas and juices.

Good, healthful, wholesome foods. Farm-to-table. Who, besides McDonalds and Burger King, isn't promising farm-to-table these days?

The new owners will be working hard and long (they're the only employees so far) to make the place welcoming and comfortable. Stop by in a month or so to say hello and to sample their crepes, tapas and lattes.

QUICK! WHERE'S THE only barbeque restaurant in town?

Not the Union Grill. It closed down a few weeks ago.

No, it's Rollin' Smoke, a tiny drive-through on Wright Street that used to house Cruise n' Coffee. It's in a near-invisible location, now that most of the Wright Street traffic takes the little bypass to and from US-41.

The business plan, devised by owners Tom and Vanessa Curry, is a little different, as well. They close down between  July and September while they hit the road for festivals, fairs, parties and other events that have proven much more lucrative than their drive-through business on Wright Street.

They're now open five days a week. Before too long, they anticipate only three days a week. After that, who knows?

We need barbeque in town. Anybody got a spot with foot traffic or car traffic? How about just any spot that's easier to find than Waldo?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Wind Power, Toxic Chemicals, Tacos, Hot Dogs, Beacon House and Liquor on the Mountain

ONE OF MICHIGAN'S most forward-thinking businessmen is moving to Marquette this month from his longtime home in Grand Rapids.

His name is Richard VanderVeen. He's the guy who had those windmills erected in Mackinaw City--the first privately funded wind power project in the Great Lakes region. He also founded Michigan's largest wind farm in Gratiot County. Some have dubbed him the "Godfather of Wind Power".

He's also gotten involved in solar power. And in a sustainability project in Costa Rica. He's got a social conscience.

Better yet, he's not just a rah-rah advocate. He actually makes things work, and he makes them profitable.

So why are he and his wife moving to Marquette? Three reasons, he says: 1) They have family here--a daughter, son-in-law, and grandchild, 2) He adores flyfishing (He was a friend of John Voelker) and 3) He wants to get involved in community-building, and he sees Marquette and the U.P. perfectly positioned for growth.

Which has the Smartzone advocates thrilled. They're anticipating an upsurge in the number of small but ambitious tech firms locating here in the next few years, and VanderVeen, who's an attorney by trade, wants to help them with legal issues, governmental regulations, market planning, and cash raising. Oh, and he'd also like to invest in some of them.

Yeah, he kind of sounds like a guy who'd be an asset to the community.

TUESDAY'S SNOWFALL DIDN'T help but the removal of toxic materials from the former Marquette gasification plant near the Shiras Steam Plant continues on schedule.

So far, they've removed 57,000 gallons of contaminated water containing volatile organic chemicals and something called poly nuclear aromatic hydrocarbons. Bad stuff.

They've also transported 12,000 tons of soil with a thick residue of tar to the Marquette County landfill.

The water and the soil, according to the DEQ, were pre-tested to make sure they weren't too toxic.

The DEQ says it's satisfied with the removal and disposal process so far, especially pleased because Indiana Michigan Power is doing it of its own volition. Total price likely exceeds one million dollars.

The huge hole there will be filled up with clean soil. The future of the site, once remediated, is uncertain. It could be green space, or even development.

A final note: the site's groundwater, which is moving slowly toward Lake Superior, is still contaminated, and likely will be for decades to come. Test wells will monitor it continuously.

Our coastline may be pretty but it's certainly not pristine.

GREAT NEWS FOR Marquette Mountain and just in time.

The ski hill has acquired a liquor license and is now in the process of getting full approval from the state. Their expectation? To start serving liquor when they open up for skiing which, judging by the white stuff outside our windows, might be pretty soon.

Normal opening date is Thanksgiving weekend.

Marquette Mountain lost its liquor license earlier this year when former manager Vern Barber left to take a job at Mount Bohemia. The license was in his name.

But now, after a few anxious months, everything seems to be back on track.
In fact, Marquette Mountain is now advertising for a bar manager and bartenders.

One of the perks? If you work there at least 15 hours a week, you get a free ski pass.

ELEVEN MONTHS AFTER settling in on Third Street, Ron's Taco Shop has vacated and is moving to a new location on Washington Street--the former location of Farmer Q's.

No word yet on when it'll reopen because a kitchen has to be installed. The original reopening date was November 11th. They've got a ways to go yet.

They're also looking for some financial help. They've joined up with a website, asking fans and supporters to donate $30,000. At last glance, they had commitments for $195.

Ron's, which had been a late night student favorite on Third Street, will be joining a crowded and increasingly competitive dining scene downtown. There are now at least a dozen restaurants within an easy, five minute walk of the new Ron's location.

Good luck to all the restaurateurs. Good eating to the rest of us.

AS FOR THE old Ron's site on Third Street, landlord Don Potvin confirms that Johnny Dogs, a highly regarded little restaurant in Munising, has expressed  interest in moving in.

Not a done deal yet, Potvin says, and the empty site has to be cleaned before a new occupant can move in. Attempts by WOTS to contact Johnny Dogs haven't succeeded yet.

Johnny's had nothing but rave reviews in Munising. It's creative and tasty, and more than just gourmet hot dogs. It's also burgers, sandwiches, whitefish and also something called "Piggy Fries"--housecut French fries topped with cheddar cheese, smoked pulled pork, ranch dressing, and orange pop BQ sauce.

No sprouts, no kale, no coconut water.

If a deal is worked out, here's a guess: Johnny Dogs will be a huge success on Third Street.

THE BEACON HOUSE will be moving from its Third Street address once the hospital moves to its new location just off of US 41.

In fact, the Beacon House expects to actually construct a new building on the hospital campus, itself. Supporters will soon be announcing a capital campaign to fund the building.

You'd be hard-pressed to come up with a better cause. For the last 12 years, the Beacon House has been providing friendly, comfortable and convenient housing for hospital patients and their families. 175,000 guest nights, all told.

Now, if plans work out, the patients and their families will be living even closer to their hospital services. Win-win. The city of Marquette wins, too: a brand new hospital with brand new, convenient lodging for visiting patients and their families who will likely want to sample the remarkable attractions of the city.

The Beacon House is also hoping to open up a gift and coffee shop in the hospital lobby, with proceeds supporting the Beacon House.

Eventually, the current Beacon House will be sold (with an empty MGH, that'll be a lot of vacant real estate in that neighborhood), but it'll remain open and operating until the new campus site is ready to welcome patients.

If you've got news, email me at

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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Black Sludge, Expensive Energy, Cliffs' Layoffs, TV News, and Hematites' Glory

DRIVE BY THE Shiras Steam Plant and you'll notice a big hole in the ground just northwest of the plant. It's huge actually.

Crews have been excavating it for the last month and have removed about 12,000 tons of contaminated soil. They also recently came across two massive concrete vaults filled with what looked like black sludge--water and "heavy bottoms" was the terminology used. It's all apparently the byproduct of natural gas production that took place here decades ago.

The Marquette city gasification plant, which was first licensed back in 1867, was located here. Nobody's quite sure when the plant stopped operating but it was long ago, which means the two chambers full of sludge have just been sitting there, hopefully undisturbed, since then.

We shouldn't be surprised by this, of course. Marquette's coastline was an industrial slum, rife with contamination, just a few decades ago.

The sludge is being deposited at the Marquette County landfill site.

Indiana Michigan Power Company owns the property and has undertaken the environmental remediation voluntarily. The company applied for a permit to dig up the site to replace two culverts that had degraded over the years. The job is turning out to be little bigger than they expected.

Lotta questions here. What exactly is in the soil? What exactly was in the vaults? Had they been breached? Any need for concern since the site is nearly adjacent to Lake Superior? The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is overseeing the process. Answers forthcoming.

GET PREPARED TO pay higher electric rates in the U.P. starting December 1st, unless we get a last minute reprieve from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Rates will likely soar in the eastern U.P, and rise more moderately in Marquette.

The reason behind the increases is complicated but basically it's because We Energies wants to close down its old, inefficient, coal-fired Presque Isle Power Plant but we, the customers, need to keep it open, even though it's a dinosaur. And we'll have to pay for it.

The rate increases will anger homeowners and possibly discourage business development.

Ah, but here's the bright side! It'll force us to confront reality. We need to build new, modern power plants in the U.P. to help us break our dependence on Wisconsin.

The new plants (plural) will likely be powered by natural gas. Maybe by wind, even solar. Energy companies are out there, ready to build.

But it'll be a Michigan solution giving the U.P. the opportunity to seize control of its destiny.

That's what U.P. legislators and the governor's office, together, are working on now. In the meantime, unfortunately, we'll have to pay more--maybe a lot more--to turn on our lights.

THE SHAKEUP CONTINUES at Cliffs Natural Resources.

Casablanca Capital staged a coup a couple of months ago when it assumed control of the board of directors, ousted the CEO, and promised cuts.

The cuts in personnel are taking place all across Cliffs' North American operations, and they've now hit home. Jennifer Huetter, the district director for public affairs, was recently let go.

You'd know Huetter from the Cliffs' TV commercials she's done over the last couple of years. She also appeared recently on the U.P.'s Dancing with the Stars.

She's smart and well-regarded. She'll land on her feet.

As for Cliffs, which has endured turmoil and a drastic plunge in its stock price, the jury is still out.

MARQUETTE IS LOSING one of its "cool" stores.

Switchback, which specializes in used outdoor and athletic equipment--kayaks, skis, camping gear--is closing up shop this month and relocating to Grand Rapids. That's where the owner is from.

But don't despair. A non-profit store known as Revolutions is taking its place. It's already up and running at the Masonic Square Mall on Washington Street.

And Revolutions offers something different: not only sales of used equipment but also programs to help youngsters learn how to repair their bicycles and skis.

Come to think of it, that might be "cooler" than Switchback.

GENERALLY YOU DON'T advertise that you're looking for a job unless you're actually looking for a job.

WJMN anchor Gabe Caggiano begs to differ.

His resume and resume tape are listed on Medialine, a website for broadcasters seeking employment in the TV industry.

Caggiano expressed surprise when asked about the listing and said, regardless, it didn't mean anything. He insisted he was very happy at WJMN and had no plans on leaving.

Caggiano is a talented but well-traveled journalist who's also done some TV acting and has cut a music album.

SPEAKING OF HOLLYWOOD, you may have noticed a vaguely familiar face on a recent episode of The League, a comedy on FX about a group of fantasy football players in Chicago.

She wasn't on the screen very long--just a few seconds--and she didn't say a word, but it sure looked like Regena Robinson, whose stormy tenure as news director at WLUC ended several months ago.

We'd heard she had left the U.P. for Los Angeles. It's apparently true.

Robinson touted herself not only as a journalist but also as a poet, a pageant queen, a motivational speaker and an inspirational blogger.

Now she can add "actress" to her resume.

YOU GOTTA HAND it to head coach Jeff Olson and the Ishpeming Hematites. They've now won 30 straight football games--a U.P. record--and are aiming toward their third straight state championship.

Olson's built a dynasty, and it hasn't been because he's got the biggest and fastest athletes around. Not even close.

No, he's got only six players who tip the scales at more than 200 pounds, and he's got plenty in the 130-160 range. His Defensive Player of the Year is an inside linebacker who barely stretches to 5'9" and weighs in at maybe 175 after a hearty spaghetti dinner.

None of the Hematites is blazing fast. They're just quick and smart and tough. They block and tackle better than their opponents. No showboating. They're Yoopers, through and through. You'll find kids like them all over the U.P. every Friday night in the fall.

But high school football is all about coaching. A great coach like Olson can transform modestly talented and undersized athletes into a great team.

That's what they have in Ishpeming these days: a great team that's rewriting football history in the U.P.

You got news? Email me at

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