THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)
THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)
15th December, 2022 0
The Midland Street Business District made great strides in the past year to evolve beyond the reputation of rowdiness and pub crawl debauchery that has dogged the district for decades. After some minor drama, the District was welcomed into the City’s Feet on the Street campaign, which closes certain streets to cars from late spring to early fall to encourage foot traffic.
New ownership with an affinity for the neighborhood has attracted more of the same, whether they are reviving popular eateries or bringing a new variety of businesses to the area, making it a destination for shoppers and service seekers as well.
“There are 37 businesses [in Midland Street Business District],” points out Anna Bader, one of the new owners of rechristened River Rock Bar & Grill (formerly Cafe). Indeed, aside from its storied collection of bars and restaurants, the area has diversified with two salons (Ashley’s Nails and Studio D Hair Salon), an artsy coffeehouse (LoLoBee’s), boutique cookies (Heidi’s Darn Good Cookies), Midland Street Books, and Major Skate, an indoor skate park, to join blue-collar Cops and Doughnuts, two tattoo shops (Electric Chair and Hourglass Tattoo), and more.
As the newest member of the Midland Street Management Board, a 13-member group working with the City to encourage diverse business growth in the District, Bader is excited about the positive developments that forecast a continued revival for 2023. For one, Feet on the Street will be in effect for the same number of days on both sides of the river. In a boost to the area’s perceived image problem, a grant was approved for the Midland Street Lighting Project, a canopy of lights similar to that of Third Street between Saginaw and Water streets. Midland Street District will also have a Farmers Market in 2023, although the day/time is yet to be determined. And with H2O’s coming to the riverside Hooters location in the spring, optimism is in the air.
The area is courting an emerging demographic by welcoming new types of businesses led by people who appreciate the neighborhood’s history and have a vision for creating new avenues of community. Anthony (AJ) Malenfant was following the “typical corporate dream life” but wanted to come home. Oddly enough, the COVID lockdown would help make that possible. “I bought a skateboard before COVID,” he says, as a way of bonding with his kids. “Then I became like the skatepark dad. I like helping kids, and someone said, ‘Hey you should do this for a living.'” Malenfant was familiar with the process of starting a business. “My dad was an entrepreneur … growing up it was always location, location, location.” Malenfant sees the area as ripe for a new generation of consumers.
On a recent afternoon, I stopped into River Rock, chatting with veteran mixologist and GM Seann McClelland about the changes on Midland Street and the bridge conundrum that is highlighting the divide between the east and west sides of Bay City. At the time, the Vet’s Bridge was stuck in the open position and the Liberty Bridge was not scheduled to reopen until December 22, making for a challenging commute across the Saginaw River. Bridge drama will continue to play out in 2023. As both the Liberty and Independence bridges have been sold to private companies, it appears that certain decisions will take their “toll” on visitors to Bay City, beginning next year.
More bridge drama to come? “That’s a fact, Jack,” responds McClelland. “And you can quote me on that.”
A couple chairs down at the bar, Bay City resident Tiffany Van Dorn offers her reasons for frequenting Midland Street. “I love the history of the area, and there are new shops opening up that make it a destination for more than just food and drinks.”
To borrow a famous line from baseball legend Reggie Jackson, when it comes to adding fresh zest to the business district, Christopher C. LaRocque (aka Kriss LaRock) is the “straw that stirs the drink” on Midland Street. Since the 42-year-old entrepreneur bought Duso’s Bar in 2017, his vision has been to inform Midland Street with the essence of some of his favorite progressive cities, from Nashville to New Orleans and beyond. Earlier this year, when he bought VNO’s Restaurant and Wine Warehouse from Greg Kimbrue, that vision had a broader palette for his creative flair. LaRocque has been in the process of rebranding VNO’s as Coven Restaurant and has also converted the adjoining space to LaRock ’N Taco, a taco eatery with weekend hours that cater to night owls.
The waters have been choppy as he navigates the high seas of quality control, staffing challenges, and branding, but LaRocque’s deep roots in business help steady his resolve. The grandson of Art Dore, LaRocque is a natural promoter whose skills on the mic got him started hosting Spring Break parties for Jay Samborn’s DJ Fun Productions. But the biggest rush was becoming a ring announcer for Toughman Contests and touring the country every weekend for 5 years with his grandfather. The experience gave him a healthy dose of maturity at a very young age, alternating his weekdays working in Bay City and weekends spent in limos and sports venues in different towns, enjoying the hedonistic fruits of the sports entertainment industry.
Reflecting on his grandfather’s passing earlier this year, LaRocque says, “He based his self-worth on how much money he made …. And that’s not who I want to be.” Taking his rich history of restaurant experience – through his family’s ventures as well as stints at Applebee’s and Dave and Buster’s among others – LaRocque is intent on creating something that reflects his personality and his pride for the area.
Whether he’s making a flaming Bananas Foster dessert or tickling the ivories behind the baby grand, LaRocque knows how to create a vibe that adds to a memorable experience. And that could be the straw that stirs one of many drinks on Midland Street.
While Art Dore started his business empire with a sledgehammer, LaRocque aims to bring more precision to his approach to business. “He started [Dore & Associates Demolition] with just himself and a sledgehammer, and went and knocked down a house,” says LaRocque. Next, Dore hired a few workers, bought a pickup truck, and began under-bidding all the other demolition companies in the area. Even when the Toughman franchise took off, landing an FX TV series and holding more than 60 weekend events a year in different cities across the country during its heyday, demolition was always the big money earner. Toughman was, by comparison, “just a drop in the bucket.”
During his 5 years spent as ring announcer for Toughman Contests, LaRocque became further educated about the restaurant industry through his experiences in various towns. He’s been combining that insight with his knack for promotion and is planning to unveil an exotic menu in the coming weeks.
Art Dore’s influence continues to loom large on Midland Street. Daughter Wendy, who is also LaRocque’s mom, is one of the owners of the building across the street from the former VNO’s restaurant, and the family owns the old Cruiser’s / Pat’s Place building near the Sage Library. In addition, LaRock and his 18 cousins inherited The Stables after Dore passed away. The now-vacant building needs a new roof and major interior renovations before it can reopen. LaRoque would like to see the property go to a buyer that can take full advantage of the location and revive the business while fully utilizing the existing facilities and expansive floor plan.
As for LaRocque, he is pouring his energies into making Coven, LaRock ’N Taco, and Duso’s Bar go-to destinations to attract a younger demographic to Midland Street. Several weeks ago, however, he did enjoy the patronage of one elderly VIP guest - his grandfather.
“He came in and had his last meal here shortly after we opened,” says LaRocque. “He had a driver bring him here from the hospital, came in and sat down, got the perch, and ate all of it.” With a mixture of pride and melancholy, LaRocque recalls Dore shaking his hand and congratulating him on his new venture. A few days later, he passed away.
“I embody my grandfather’s spirit,” acknowledges LaRocque. As he salutes the history of Midland Street while promoting his vision for the future, LaRocque’s creative impulses are reshaping expectations and inspiring entrepreneurs to take a fresh look at the Midland Street Business District.
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THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)