Area event venues face uncertainty

SOUTHWEST MICHIGAN — To business owners who built a model on gathering communities and loved ones together, the COVID-19 mandates have felt especially heavy.

Throughout Michigan’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order, owners and operators of event venues have been left without many options due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The very popular time during the wedding season for event venues begins in May and June. With shutdowns spanning through May, there was hope on Monday afternoon that more events may be hosted in June.

The owners, Melanie and Donny Kennedy, of Niles event venue The Grand LV located at 104 N. Third St., have felt the sting of the COVID-19 mandates, without access to most assistance programs.

As weddings, milestone birthdays and anniversary parties have had to be postponed or canceled altogether, the Kennedys have not seen the aid other businesses may have been eligible for during the mandates.

“We haven’t been able to take advantage of any of the programs that were offered,” Melanie said. “We were fortunate enough that with the local chamber of commerce was able to help us a little bit, but now we’ve been shut down for about three months now and the bills don’t go away. We’re kind of left behind.”

Some of the events that have been canceled have brought negative interactions from people upset with the business owners.

As the events are a nonrefundable cost, the Kennedys have been working to provide transferable vouchers for clients who have had to cancel or postpone plans due to the COVID-19 mandates.

Without employees to keep on payroll, the Kennedys have not been able to access programs like the PPP loans.

“We’re not a corporation,” Melanie said. “That’s what people don’t understand. We don’t want to just take your money. We want to stay in business for our future weddings that are this fall or next year.”

The Kennedys hope that their guests and the community will work with them to keep The Grand LV’s doors open.

With the primary function of The Grand LV venue to gather people together for special events, the owners have found it difficult to adapt to the orders.

Most recently, with indoor gatherings of up to 10 people allowed under the new orders in Michigan, the venue has been promoting elopement packages. The package includes a cake from neighboring business in the same building, Gabrizio Italian Bakery and Café, bouquet and boutonniere from Flowers by Anna in Buchanan, and a four-hour use of the facility.

Though the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order was relaxed on Monday by Whitmer, Melanie felt that it was not enough for The Grand LV.

“It’s not ideal, not what we wanted to hear,” Melanie said.

She hopes to move forward with upcoming events in the space.

“I will say at no point are we telling people that we are not accepting events and rentals,” Melanie said. “We just basically lease the space. We don’t say you can’t have an event. Our space is not public, it’s for private events. I feel like everyone who comes to an event with their friends and family, they’re doing so voluntarily.”

The support that The Grand LV had from the Niles community in opening its doors is something that Melanie and Donny hope to recapture through this difficult time.

“We’re a very new business,” Melanie said. “Niles has been great to us with this transformation of the building and opening here. I believe that people would not want to see us disappear, and it’s a real thing that could happen.”

Other area event venues have faced the same heavy COVID-19 mandates. The lifting of the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order does not necessarily mean that they go right back to “business as usual” either.

For Fernwood Botanical Gardens, 13988 Range Line Road, Niles, events were shuffled around as initial COVID-19 precautions were handed down prior to the mandates from the governor.

“We have obviously had to reschedule, and some weddings have been canceled,” said rental facilities and visitor services coordinator Heidi Tuthill. “We have had to work with a lot of our couples, with a lot of flexibility and community to figure out what could work. It’s been strange and stressful for the poor couples who have been planning this for years.”

The venue worked quickly to provide backup dates for events that were already scheduled.

Due to the Fernwood Botanical Gardens having an established staff, it was able to secure a small business loan to help push through the current situation, but has still faced uncertainty.

“It’s so hard to have a solid plan because it’s been so fluid,” Tuthill said.

Another business that was hoping to begin hosting events this May was Sister Lakes Brewing at 92500 County Road 690, Dowagiac.

“The timing wasn’t great,” said Joe Morin, one of four family owners of the company. “We are in the process of building out our events space that we are calling The Town Hall at Sister Lakes Brewing.”

The brewery has a running theme of community and togetherness and includes community style seating at long tables, to encourage engagement with one another. The original goal was to have the space up and running by May 1, according to Morin. When COVID-19 arrived, plans changed. The owners chose to furlough employees while under the heavy shutdowns, and pared back offerings to limited takeout.

“Having multiple people in the building, completing a construction project, we had to put that on pause,” Morin said. “In the meantime, the people who had booked reservations either postponed to the fall or canceled. They can’t have their events. They don’t need the space.”

In preparation for re-opening, the brewery owners are hoping to utilize the space to help bring in more business as people are spaced out.

The Michigan Liquor Control Commission is also working with breweries to help allow more outdoor events through October.

“They’re trying to help increase capacity for these restaurants, breweries and bars as well,” Morin said. “If we can open up our backyard, we have a couple acres of land. If we can fence that in the possibilities are huge.”

As mandates change, and restaurants and bars are allowed to reopen for operation on June 8, the business owners of Sister Lakes Brewing Company will be discussing plans moving forward this week.

“It’s a lot of unknowns, a lot of questions,” Morin said.

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