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Merge looks to give old bldg. new life

Karey Collins, owner of Merge Studio & Gallery in downtown Oxford, is looking into purchasing the old grain elevator, located at 33 Pleasant St., renovating it and moving her business there in order to expand operations. She’s holding a rendering of what the place would look like when she’s done. Photo by C.J. Carnacchio. (click for larger version)
June 12, 2013 - An Oxford Village building that's been vacant for many years could find new life as a local business seeks space to expand its operations and move in new directions.

Last week, Karey Collins, owner of Merge Studio & Gallery (18 N. Washington St.), announced to the village council and planning commission, that she and her husband are looking to purchase the old grain elevator, located at 33 Pleasant St., and move their business there.

"This space will enable us to have more classrooms and have more birthday parties and classes going (on) at the same time," she said.

Open since November 2011, Merge offers a variety of art classes for both children and adults as well as a venue for birthday parties, painting parties, workshops and art shows.

While she wants her business to remain relatively close to the downtown area, Collins told this reporter she realized Merge doesn't require a presence on M-24 because retail sales of the gallery's consignment artwork amount to "less than 2 percent of our business."

"We don't really need to be right on main street," she said. "In the new building, we would focus more on our parties, classes and services."

Moving into the old grain elevator would provide Merge with 5,000 square feet of space as opposed to the 2,400 square feet available at its current location.

Collins explained the old grain elevator is really two buildings connected by a 4-foot walkway. One of the buildings has a second story, the other does not. There's also a basement area.

In addition to moving the studio and gallery operations into the old grain elevator, Collins is considering opening a coffee shop there and creating a large multipurpose room for yoga and various exercise classes.

"Some of my artists come for the day to paint and have lunch, so adding the coffee shop will (enhance) the social environment," Collins said. She noted that users of the Polly Ann Trail, which borders the old grain elevator's south side, would probably welcome having a coffee shop to visit on their rides, walks and runs.

Part of the building could be rented out to another business.

"The embroidery shop (Autumn Days Bags & Accessories) is interested in possibly moving over there," Collins told council.

She later told this reporter, "I would really like (a business) that is kind of creative, that would fit with the art gallery. If there's somebody else who would like to join us, I would be more than happy to talk to them, too."

Another part of the building would be transformed into a studio apartment that would be used to establish an internship program. This way Merge could offer a work-study program for local art students attending institutions such as Oakland University, the College for Creative Studies in Detroit and Wayne State University.

"They would live on site and work (at Merge) to cover their rent," Collins said.

If Merge is successful in relocating to the old grain elevator, Collins said it would provide amenities such as a public restroom and parking for Polly Ann Trail users.

"We spend a lot of time (running and bicycling) on the Polly Ann Trail and that's how I saw (the old grain elevator) one day," she told this reporter.

Collins is working on a plan with village Manager Joe Young to turn a nearby 0.431-acre grass-covered parcel into a parking lot that would serve both trail users and Merge customers.

Owned by the village, the parcel is located on the west side of Pleasant St., across from Davison St. It's adjacent to the Polly Ann Trail and situated between Dayton and Lafayette streets. The land contained the village's DPW facilities until they were demolished in 2003. Village voters gave permission to sell the property in September 2011.

"(Collins') proposal is that the village would retain ownership (of the property), but (Merge) would do the improvements (necessary to turn it into a parking lot) and be responsible for maintenance," Young said.

Collins is hoping to at least move her existing business operations into the old grain elevator and have things up and running there later this year.

"My current lease for Merge is up Nov. 1," she said. "I would really like to only be paying for one spot, not two."

Moving Merge into the old grain elevator would require the property to be rezoned, according to Young.

A public hearing regarding the potential rezoning of the property from industrial (I-1) to a planned unit development (PUD) is scheduled for the Tuesday, July 16 village planning commission meeting. It starts at 7 p.m. and will take place at 22 W. Burdick St.

Councilwoman Sue Bossardet noted that Collins' plan "was well-received by the planning commission."

"Everybody was really excited about it," said Bossardet, who also serves on the planning commission.

"I was also at the meeting and Sue's a little presumptuous (by) saying it was well-received by the entire planning commission," said Maureen Helmuth, a member of council and the planning commission.

"No one was beating her up over it, but there were some concerns . . . about lot lines and setbacks. Not really normal concerns, but there's going to be some things that are going to have to be addressed," Helmuth explained.

Given the old grain elevator is located in a residential neighborhood, Collins wants her potential neighbors to know they would have nothing to worry about if Merge moved in because "it's a quiet, low-key business" that would have minimal impact on the area.

Most of Merge's classes are small in size.

"I'm sure some people over there have more cars in their driveways than we have for some of our classes," she said.

For birthday parties, Collins said most parents drop kids off and pick them up, so parking won't be a huge issue.

On Friday, June 14 from 7-9 p.m., Merge will host an art show entitled, "All Beasts Big and Small." A portion of the proceeds will be donated to the Michigan Humane Society.

Folks who attend the show will be given an opportunity to view Merge's plans for the old grain elevator. Comments and questions about the project are welcome.

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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