This Battle Creek couple is building affordable apartments in a historic downtown building
Sarah Versical’s eyes scanned an old deed to the building at 70 E Michigan Ave. in downtown Battle Creek.
She turned the pages delicately. The edges of the century old document were frayed, and the hand-written details had become a faded smear.
“Look at that,” she said as she pointed to a date: 1912. “How cool is that?”
The building has had many personas. It’s been a mattress store, a department store and an extension of a car dealership. Most recently, it was the Hair Shed. A barber shop that closed in May.
Soon, the downtown building’s upper floors, which have been vacant for years, will house three apartments. The ground level will hold a newly renovated retail space.
Jeff and Sarah Versical purchased the building in May with an eye toward giving it new life.
“We want to keep its rich history going,” Jeff said.
What brought them to this point?
Jeff and Sarah came to Battle Creek in 2016 from metro Detroit when Jeff got a job in finance at Kellogg Company.
Jeff spent his first couple of months looking for apartments in downtown Battle Creek. He couldn’t find any.
But the couple was set on living in Battle Creek. They took pride in supporting the city that employed them. They rented an apartment off Beckley Road.
But as Jeff met more people at Kellogg, he picked up on a common theme: He and Sarah weren’t the only ones who wanted to live downtown.
“The supply was so low, and the demand was through the roof,” he said.
The couple saw potential in downtown Battle Creek and in some of its empty spaces.
“These buildings are just beautiful,” Sarah said. “There’s a structure in place downtown to be something special.”
And they’ve come to see Battle Creek as a place to settle down and start a family. They both grew up in Detroit suburbs, but Sarah said the west side of the state is more “homey.”
“Every person we have encountered here has just been amazing,” she said. “It’s a better place to settle down.”
They contacted John Hart, director of downtown development, to discuss their interest in a project. Hart said he was impressed with their ambition for downtown.
“When you’re someone who has worked in development for over 30 years, it’s invigorating,” he said. “Not to take anything away from our locals, but it’s great to see a couple come here from out of town and immediately take an interest in making it a better place.”
Hart introduced the couple to 70 E. Michigan Ave. They bought it in May with a plan to renovate the building into affordable housing.
Jeff and Sarah have different skills that make them a good team. Jeff’s background in finance has helped maintain a budget throughout the project. Sarah, who was a manager at Hampton Inn, has taken on management of the project. Since they purchased the building, she has made the renovation her full-time job.
“You only have one life,” Sarah said. “You may as well do something crazy with it.”
70 E. Michigan Ave.
Jeff and Sarah have slowly unraveled the history of the building since they bought it.
Ken Bennett, the former owner of the building, told them some of the history. They’ve discovered more of it from searching the building since they purchased it. For example, they’ve found receipts from the 1940’s when it was an extension of Tucker’s car dealership.
“You can feel the character when you’re in here,” Sarah said.
Some of the building’s past lives include Boyd Cleaner’s in 1930, Battle Creek Office Equipment Co. in 1952 and Merle Norman Cosmetic Studio in 1965.
As much as the couple loves the history, it has also made the process more difficult. The building is a historic landmark, so they need to take precautions to preserve its history. Before they can start construction, they must bring in a representative from the Historical Society of Battle Creek to instruct them on how it can be designed.
“It’s great that we have such a historic building. That’s part of the reason we got it,” Jeff said. “But it definitely adds another wrinkle to the process.”
Hart said the building has a lot of qualities that make it attractive for a project like this. For example, it is tall but not particularly wide, so there isn’t as much roof to repair, which can be one of the most difficult parts of a renovation project.
And the previous owner did a good job maintaining it, so it was in good shape when they made the purchase.
“It’s truly a diamond in the rough,” he said.
Most of that process is complete. The building has cleared its environmental phases and finished its fire suppression system and they have a bank to back the project.
“Most of the tough part is done,” Sarah said. “We’re inching closer to construction.”
Construction is expected to begin in November, and they are looking to be done in March.
What will the apartments be like?
The three-floor building will house three apartments: two 700-square-foot single-bedroom apartments the second floor, a 1,500 square foot, two-bedroom apartment on the third.
They are on their last stages of receiving the affordable housing grant from the city, which would give them $40,000 in grant money per unit
In return, their tenants’ salaries would have to fall below $35,000 a year. The one-bedroom apartments will cost a little over $500 per month, and the two-bedroom will cost a little above $2,000.
The affordable housing program was part of the reason Jeff and Sarah wanted to create the apartments. They liked the idea of giving people an cheap opportunity to live downtown.
“Affordable housing was a huge deal for us,” Sarah said. “It really gives us another reason to go through with this.”
The couple is looking to find a business to use the first-floor as retail space. They’d like it to be a local business.
“We just want it to be something that can add to the downtown experience,” Sarah said.
‘It’s going to be amazing’
Since they began this process, Jeff has gotten a new job at Kellogg Co., the couple had a son, Charlie, and they’ve bought and moved into a home.
Life has been hectic, Jeff said, but with the apartments approaching construction, it seems bittersweet.
“We’re so busy, and we have practically no free time on our hands, but when we’re done, I’m not going to know what to do with ourselves,” he said. “It’ll be satisfying to be done, but I’ll be sad because we’ve really enjoyed this process.”
“I just keep thinking of the day when we can stand outside of this place and watch our first tenants move in,” he said. “It’s going to be amazing.”
Contact Brooks Hepp at (269) 223-0114 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BrooksHepp
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