HOWARD CITY — Frank Zamarippa opened Latitudes Roadhouse and Steelhead Tavern in 2003 with the goal of bringing well-crafted regional and seasonal food to a unique dining experience in downtown Howard City.
Eleven years later, the gastro pub is going strong, with more than 20 employees working in the historic building which formerly housed the Howard City Hotel more than a century ago.
Now Zamarippa has another dream for the upstairs of his business — high-end apartments, funded in part by a rental rehabilitation grant from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA).
There’s just one hitch — the Howard City Village Council.
In June, the council heard from Marilyn Smith, a MSDHA housing consultant, about the grant requirements and apartment proposal. In July, the council held a public hearing and then voted 6-1 against the initiative.
Council members Jodi Cummings, Max Gondre, Tom Harris, Eleanor Marek, Ken Thomas and Janice Williams all voted “no,” with Village President S. Michael Scott casting the lone vote in favor of the proposal.
The issue was revisited at Monday night’s village council meeting, which Zamarippa attended to further explain his proposal.
“I think we’ve made some drastic improvements to the building,” he said of Latitudes/Steelhead. “We established a business that wasn’t there before. I’m pretty proud of what we’ve built.
According to MSHDA, the rental rehab program “provides quality, safe and affordable rental housing in vibrant places by granting financial resources to our local and statewide partners.” MSHDA conditions require $40,000 must go into each new unit and a 25 percent leverage on the grant is required by Zamarippa.
Zamarippa said the new units are required to be rented to low-income people for the first five years of the grant, but after those five years are up — or after a low-income renter moves out of one of the units — he can rent to whomever he chooses.
“We get to interview, we get to do background checks,” he said. “If they have a poor background, we’re not going to rent to them.”
In the future, Zamarippa is hoping to rent out the apartments to fishing guides who come north to work on the Muskegon River, or any tourists passing through the Panhandle area.
“It really will be a gorgeous building when we’re done,” he said. “I was kind of stumped as to why you guys wouldn’t approve it and I’m still confused.”
Gondre said he voted against the proposal last month because Zamarippa wasn’t present at the meeting.
“The low income (requirement) still bothers me for the next five years,” Gondre added.
Scott noted that at least two full-time village of Howard City employees would currently qualify for low-income housing.
Louise Culver, an audience member, was outspoken in her disapproval of the idea.
“I’m totally against it,” she said. “This free gratis thing (the MSHDA grant) really irritates me because we’re (taxpayer money) paying for his apartments. It’s just wrong.”
Montcalm County Commissioner Ron Baker of Howard City had the opposite opinion, and he thinks many local residents do as well.
“A number of my constituents were not happy with your decision (last month),” he told the council. “Tonight you have the opportunity to rectify that situation. Many communities have taken advantage of this money and made progress, such as Greenville and Lake Odessa. Businesses will grow. This money will help the village grow.”
Harris wasn’t impressed with Baker’s argument.
“I don’t care whether any other town does it,” he said. “Joe Blow can jump off a bridge too.”
Council members discussed having a MSHDA representative attend the next council meeting a month from now and answer more of their questions. Zamarippa was visibly upset by the delay.
“We have a window of opportunity and now we’re going to have another meeting,” he said. “Quite honestly, I’m a little frustrated with you guys. Now it’s going to be three months and that money could be gone. We were going to start swinging hammers in October. That’s not going to happen now.”
Council members compromised by tentatively scheduling a special meeting for 7 p.m. next Wednesday, Aug. 27, if a MSHDA representative can attend to answer more of their questions.