Ask Greg Canfield what he loves most about Lowell, and, like many people, he mentions the city’s historic district, the river that bisects it and the general charm of small town life here in West Michigan. He also notes other local communities haven’t been as fortunate when it comes to keeping their character.
“Look at Belding that lost their historic buildings,” Canfield says. The neighboring city razed approximately 60 buildings as part of an urban renewal effort in the early 1970s. Those historic properties were replaced with parking space and the Covered Bridge Mall which now sits vacant.
Lost historic buildings and an empty downtown are not what Canfield wants for the City of Lowell. In recent years, he has been the driving force behind some of the city’s most exciting downtown projects. Now, the lifelong resident is on the November ballot for a city council spot in the hopes that he can do even more to improve the Lowell landscape.
LIFELONG RESIDENT AND BUSINESS OWNER
At age 59, Canfield has lived almost his entire life in Lowell. As a two-year old, he moved to the community with his family and grew up in the Fallasburg area. Later, as an established adult, he moved inside the city limits where he has been a resident for the past 27 years. Along with his wife Deb, Canfield raised five children in the city, and the couple currently has three grandchildren.
For many people, the blue Canfield Plumbing & Heating trucks are almost as intertwined with the identity of Lowell as Keiser’s Kitchen and King Milling. The company was formed in 1994 and since that time, it has grown to be one of the city’s stable employers.
“We provide employment for 18 people who have health insurance and good benefits,” Canfield says. In fact, despite all the work he has done in recent years in the realm of historic preservation, the plumbing and heating business continues to be one of the things that makes Canfield most proud.
“When the community flooded a few years ago, we went around and pumped out basements and donated a lot of that work,” he says. The business also works with Flat River Outreach Mission in their neighbor-to-neighbor program. Meanwhile, regular customers of Canfield Plumbing & Heating know they can rely upon the business to provide prompt service and be available even after-hours in emergency situations.
BUILDINGS SAVED FROM CONDEMNATION
As seems to be the case with many entrepreneurs, Canfield is not one to rest on his laurels. Fast forward more than a decade and by this time, he was a member of the Downtown Historic District Commission and had already renovated one historic downtown building to house Canfield Plumbing & Heating. However, he was soon to play an even bigger role in shaping the downtown landscape in Lowell.
“There were three little shops [on the west side of the Flat River] and it had been in the Ledger that the owners needed to fix the foundations or they would be condemned,” Canfield remembers. The Michigan Department of Transportation was getting ready to begin a bridge project on the M-21 bridge in the city, and there was a concern vibrations from the roadwork would destabilize the buildings to the point of collapse.
Canfield drove by one day and noticed the owners pulling materials out of the buildings to salvage. He stopped by and learned they planned to donate the buildings to the city that evening in exchange for a tax write-off. Rather than see the buildings go off the tax rolls, Canfield made them an offer on the spot and bought the buildings.
“The city had no intention of saving them,” he explains. “They were going to spend $100,000 to tear them down.” Instead, Canfield spent an estimated $400,000 – along with a $30,000 grant from the city – to stabilize and restore the property. Today, those three little shops have been transformed into the Main Street Inn, the only place in town where visitors can rent a room for a night.
WORKING TO MAKE LOWELL A DESTINATION COMMUNITY
The Main Street Inn opened in 2010 and has, by all accounts, been a welcome and successful addition to the community. Out front, the “No Vacancy” sign is a common sight, and the inn averages five stars in reviews on travel websites like Trip Advisor and Booking.com.
There was also a common theme in much of the feedback Canfield received: the inn made Lowell a destination. Rather than eating at a restaurant out of town and filling up their gas tank on 28th Street, out-of-town visitors were driving into Lowell, filling up at the Shell station and having breakfast at Keiser’s the next morning. This shift, of course, was good for the Main Street Inn, but it was good for other businesses as well.
The wheels began turning for Canfield as he considered how to build on this success. “I think one of the things we need is to make Lowell a destination,” he says. “The antique mall used to do that.”
While the antique mall has long since been shuttered, Canfield focused on what else would bring people to town. One concern he heard about Lowell came from the Flat River Grill. Although the restaurant was poised to be a destination spot for fine diners, it discovered some people were unwilling to make a trip to Lowell since there were no comparable dining spots in town should there be a long wait at the grill.
So after Canfield purchased the old Moose building more than two years ago, he began working to find a tenant who could provide a dining experience that would complement the one offered by the Flat River Grill. Last year, his work paid off, and the Main Street BBQ opened up in the former Moose property.
“That has changed downtown Lowell,” Canfield says. “It brings people from outside the community.” And once here, those people browse in the local shops, fill up at a gas station or, if the season is right, stop by Ball’s for ice cream after dinner.
“SOMEBODY NEEDS TO DO IT”
After two decades spent in the business world, Canfield is ready to try on a new cap and is running for City Council.
It’s not a role he naturally gravitates toward as he is quick to point out he doesn’t relish the spotlight or public speaking. When asked why he’s running then, he says it’s a sense of civic duty to keep Lowell moving forward: “Somebody needs to do it.”
“I feel that our community doesn’t really make it easy for businesses to locate here, and I’d like to change that,” Canfield says. “We have empty buildings here that could be filled.”
He points to a vote made by now mayor Jeff Altoft and former councilmember Matt Mayer to deny a liquor license to the Main Street BBQ as example of how some in city leadership seem to want to stifle business growth. According to Canfield, that vote seemed to be made more on personal feelings than on economics or what was right for the city.
When Mayor Jeff Altoft was recalled earlier this year, Canfield thought the time was right to get more involved in city government. Although he has been a member of the Lowell Light & Power board for ten years – “I didn’t even want to be on the board, but [former mayor] Chuck Myers asked me because he felt like they needed a businessman,” he notes – and a member of other boards and commission, if elected, this would be Canfield’s first time on the council.
For Canfield, it’s a natural extension of the work he’s been doing for the past two decades. “It’s not that I have deep pockets,” he says of his downtown revitalization projects. “I just have an ambition to fix things and a vision of how things could be.”
If elected, his vision of how Lowell could be includes full buildings, bustling streets and a steady stream of visitors who are eager to experience firsthand why this historic city is the next place to be.