The Grand Rapids School Board is guaranteed at least one new member after the November election with Jon O’Connor deciding not to seek reelection to pursue a new business venture on the city’s West Side.
Five of the board’s nine 4-year seats will be on the Nov. 4 ballot. Board president Wendy Falb, vice president Maureen Slade and Tony Baker plan to seek second terms. John Matias, who was appointed July 13, 2013 to replace now-City Commissioner Senita Lenear, will be seeking his first full term.
No one has filed yet with the city clerk’s office. The filing deadline is July 22 at 4 p.m.
This fall, O’Connor and business partner Kyle Van Strien will be educating the community about the spirits world with the planned launch of the city’s first craft distillery, Long Road Distillers, a cocktail bar and lounge under renovation at 537 Leonard St. NW.
“We feel like there is some momentum here on the West Side, and we think we can help make this neighborhood a destination place with what will be a world-class craft distillery,” said O’Connor, who owns West Michigan Appraisers and is completing his first term on the school board.
“We’ve been telling people for a long time the West Side is a cool place.”
Revitalizing the West Side neighborhood is a fitting goal for O’Connor and Van Strien, former president and vice president of the West Grand Neighborhood Association.
He said part of that revitalization effort was the reopening of Stocking Elementary this school year. O’Connor is candid about what motivated him to run for the school board – getting the neighborhood school reopened after its controversial 2010 closing and bringing on a new superintendent with the skill set to improve the district and change the culture.
“I feel like my two big ticket items are done,” said O’Connor, who said turning around a large district takes time but they’re on the right track. “Superintendent Neal’s Transformation Plan is a step in the right direction. The biggest challenge going forward is growing the enrollment.”
The challenge before him and Van Strien, project coordinator for Friends of Grand Rapids Parks and a city planning commissioner, is transforming their two-story, 8,000-square-foot space into that hip destination place. They plan to invest at least $750,000.
Van Strien said people will be able to view the craft spirits being produced by the micro-distillery. He said a lot of people don’t know the difference between a distillery that produces spirits such as vodka and whiskey and a brewery that produces beer.
Long Road Distillers will be able to produce both on site. Patrons can enjoy spirits as well as beer and wine. The cocktail bar won’t have a full restaurant, rather just appetizers and some small-plate offerings.
“To set us apart from some of the spirit brands that people know of such as Absolut and Smirnoff, we are a micro-distillery and our equipment is extremely flexible and will allow us to change the products we are distilling on almost a daily basis, if not hourly,” said Van Strien, who said they can do four runs in a day.
“From our vodka, we can make gin or an infused vodka with local blueberries or raspberries and experiment with apples, for example. Ultimately, we want to be in the business of recreating this neighborhood through investment in businesses like ours and helping others invest as well, so we can have a resurgence here.”
He said the area has largest traditional business district in the city.
The business, which will employ around 15 people initially, gets its name in part from Leonard being a long road, as well as their commitment to not taking short cuts with creating spirits.
O’Connor said he thinks their business complements the Mitten Brewing Company, the microbrewery located next door in the historic Grand Rapids firehouse.
He said he wants to see a high level of market synergy on the street, in which Individual businesses are working together to be more successful and to spur that revitalization.
Monica Scott, May 29, 2014