By Kathy Oswalt-Forsythe
Many readers and community members have inquired about the recent progress of the Mill project. I have heard all kinds of rumors and speculation, natural when the site has looked quiet from the street for several months. To bring us all up to date, I sat down over dinner at Jaspare’s Pizza with Jackie Koney, chief operating officer of Paper City Development and John Kern, director of the Prairie Ronde Artist Residency. During our evening together, they provided a summary of progress and several projections for the next phase of the projects. This information is organized by topic.
Tours of the Mill
Tours have been popular and well-attended and will continue indefinitely. Interested people can schedule a tour by registering at vicksburgmill.com (click on the Events tab). The hour-long tours are led by Mill staff and usually are held three times a month. Attendees see portions of the interior of the property, improvements that have been made and future plans. Mill staff also answer questions and provide history of various parts of the property.
Mackenzies and the adjacent Prairie Ronde Artist Gallery
A point of pride for Koney and Kern is the April 15, 2022 opening of Mackenzies Bakery at 103 East Prairie Street and the Prairie Ronde Artist Gallery space next door. This was a major undertaking in the Mackenzies’ space which included lead abatement, major utility work, and careful design to honor the past. Koney and Kern are pleased with the spaces and their use by the community. Mackenzies has been well-received by the South County area, and the bakers continue to bake traditional favorites, while offering a different specialty bread each day. Mackenzies also offers some after-school specials for students, who are encouraged to gather at the tables in the bakery and gallery. The gallery space is open to the public when Mackenzies is open and features rotating exhibits by Prairie Ronde artists.
For specifics about Mackenzies, visit its website: mackenziesbakery.com.
Prairie Ronde Artist Residency continues
The residency which now has hosted nearly 100 artists is continuing to gather momentum. Kern indicates that feedback from artists has been positive and that many of the participants immerse themselves in the community, which supports the local economy. The program continues to grow and holds more and more gallery events. Kern has also created several “pop-up” music events, which currently are limited to special invite. Eventually, when 107 S Main has been renovated, this will change, and the events will be open to the public. Looking forward, Kern envisions a second residency program which focuses on musicians. Kern shares that the residency program is highly competitive—with a 5% acceptance rate among applicants–and is recognized internationally.
Outdoor and educational projects
Several ongoing programs involve area schools and students.
Vicksburg High School agriscience teacher, Dr. Noreen Heikes, led her horticulture classes in the development of a commercial bee-keeping operation, housed on Mill property. This project began two years ago and involved a grant and student study of sustainability and pollinators. This fall, 30 pounds of honey were harvested. Also, an edible forest has been created with several of Dr. Heikes’ classes over the span of the last six years.
As has been the case for the past seven years, hydrogeology students from WMU conducted field studies at the Mill through their Hydrogeology Field Program this past summer. As a part of the variety of activities undertaken while on site, students hand drilled a test well to study water clarity.
Koney and Kern are proud that the Mill supports experiential learning for students of all ages.
Cone Top Brewery Museum and Mill Visitor Center open
Cone Top Brewery Museum is located at 108 South Main Street. The museum hosts rotating exhibits and is open several times a year during community events. Eventually the museum will be housed at the Mill.
Phase 1 of the new Mill Visitor Center is at 106 South Main Street. During the holidays it held a pop-up store featuring Mill items for sale, various historical displays, and future plans. The Visitor Center will be open to the public on Tuesdays from 3-6 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. through January. Additional exhibits will be added in February, in time for the IceBurg Festival on February 11.
Mill Family Reunion and Food Truck Rallies
In early October, the Mill held its fourth family reunion for mill employees and their families. Approximately 200 people attended the popular gathering. This will be an annual event. Historical artifacts and materials for self-guided tours have been incorporated.
Paper City has also worked with the village and Kalamazoo Experiential Learning Center to support the area food truck rallies by not only hosting a number of events on site, but by also supplying bands for the entertainment.
The Mill and parts of Vicksburg are now historic districts
Cheri Szcodronski of Firefly Preservation Consulting, LLC, conducted research, wrote a formal nomination, and conducted presentations of her findings regarding the creation of the Vicksburg Historic District. Paper City Development provided the funding for this lengthy process. Both the Mill and Vicksburg Historical District are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. One advantage of being listed is the funding that is available for rehabilitation at the state and national levels. At this time, the funding for homeowners is limited to a state tax credit program through the MEDC. But for businesses involved in historical repurposing, there are federal tax credits available to help with the projects. A listing is also a point of pride for communities.
The Mill property status
The building is now stable. In 2019 the first masons began work on the exterior bricks and as of October 2022, the brick repair and restoration is substantially complete on the exterior of the 420,000-square-foot building. Roof replacement (17 acres of it!) is 90% complete and all 650 windows have new frames. The lead abatement is complete, and some site cleanup has been done. “Mt. Vicksburg,” the pile of contaminated soil at the south side of the building, was removed in July. This was costly and exhaustive work, but essential and important, not only for the project but for the health of the community.
Now the team is conducting research to make decisions that will lead this project to sustainability and a position to begin generating revenue. This is a careful process that will determine the best use of the former paper mill. Koney describes 2023 as “a big decision-making year.” Koney’s hope is that the project will be nearing completion at the end of 2026.