By Mae Stier
M-22 north out of Empire is beginning to look quite a bit different than this time last year. New businesses and homes are popping up in the corridor that guides travelers out of the village, bringing new life to the quiet town after this pandemic year.
Perhaps most startling to returning residents and visitors will be the empty lot just north of Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate. Excavation began last week on the lot, which was previously the site of the Anchor Hardware Store. Jody and DC Hayden, owners of Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate next door, purchased the building in 2019, and last fall, the building was removed to make way for a public garden and picnic area, which will sit atop a much-needed drainage field.
The couple is working with Empire resident Laurel Voran to design a family-friendly public garden featuring native, pollinator-friendly plants. Jody Hayden says their “vision is to beautify our little corner of Leelanau by greenscaping the lot.” They plan to offer lots of seating and a playscape for children. “Indeed, the lot must also serve as our drain field and reserve field, but we are hopeful that in the coming years, we will find a community-wide wastewater solution for Empire that doesn’t financially burden our most vulnerable citizens.”
Like most other villages in Leelanau County, Empire does not have a municipal wastewater system, meaning that homes and businesses are responsible for maintaining individual systems. This has been a challenging hurdle for businesses to tackle as they attempt to operate on small lots with insufficient drain fields. New businesses are limited in what they can offer based on the required size for a drain field.
The Haydens, who also purchased the building on M-22 south of the current Grocer’s Daughter shop, needed to expand their septic field to expand their business, as they are adding a gelato shop and larger bakery to their enterprise this summer. The gelato shop and bakery will operate out of the building that previously housed Traci Apsey’s Lighthouse Insurance office. The Haydens are hoping to open the gelato shop later this summer. Renovation plans include building a new second floor with two studio apartments, each with balconies overlooking M-22. The apartments will initially be rented to help cover renovation costs, but eventually they hope to utilize the spaces to host visitors from the craft chocolate community, as well as family and friends.
Long-time resident and business owner Diane Aylsworth recently retired and closed her hair salon business on the opposite side of M-22. The building is currently for sale, and Aylsworth says it’s time for the next generation to take over. Of the expansion of Grocer’s Daughter, Aylsworth states, “they are doing a great job and are very conscientious of what they do with what they have,” celebrating their ingenuity to tackle the issue of expansion in the absence of a municipal sewage system. She says that any development within the village always comes back to the wastewater system. “We won’t get what the village really needs until we get a wastewater system.”
Among the changes along M-22, Aylsworth’s former colleague, Rochelle Sheffer, has opened a new salon, Salon Bellissima, in the Empire Commerce Centre, behind the State Savings Bank. Sheffer, who has lived in Empire since 2000, says that the new location is a great fit, enabling her to keep her business in Empire. Before beginning to work with Aylsworth five years ago, Sheffer commuted to a salon in Traverse City. Her clientele has only grown since moving into the new space, and she plans to continue operating in that location indefinitely.
The Commerce Centre is bustling with new activity this spring. Traci Apsey, local agent for Lighthouse Insurance, moved her office into the business complex in December of 2020 after the Haydens purchased the building she had rented for over a decade. The sale of the building was surprising to Apsey, as it had been on the market for years without any serious interest. But after the national park experienced a record year in 2020, Apsey says it makes sense that Grocer’s Daughter would take the opportunity to expand. “I’m excited for them,” Apsey said of the plans for the gelato shop.
With the new tenants who moved in this spring–Sheffer’s hair salon and Amy’s Therapeutic Massage–the business complex is nearly full. Apsey welcomes the traffic. She enjoys working in a more communal space and says that it is a better fit than her previous location. In addition to the new businesses that joined the Commerce Centre this year, the building hosts Empire Dental, Northern Touch Massage, and Figura Law, among others.
After a record year for tourism in Leelanau County during the pandemic, and despite operating under less-than-normal circumstances, many businesses in the region are gearing up for another busy year. Not only did the region host more visitors in 2020, but home sales and new residents seem to be on the rise. The Villages at M-22, located behind Empire Family Care and Pharmacy, introduced thirty new homes to the market in the last year, and many of the new owners are in the village year-round. Remote work opportunities and a desire to have easier access to the outdoors have spurred many to move to Leelanau from other parts of the country.
“The reality for our beautiful community of Empire,” Jody Hayden says, “is that we’re going to continue to see record-breaking visitation and growth because of our…abundant fresh water and wide-open spaces. ” The responsibility of living and working in such a unique place is not taken lightly by Hayden, who says they “feel it’s our duty to support smart growth for our region and to be proactive in solving the most pressing issues for our community. We are fully invested in creating a future for Empire and Leelanau that is welcoming to everyone and prioritizes the protection of our Great Lakes and fragile shoreline ecosystems.”
Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate is located at 11590 S Lacore St (M-22) in Empire. The Empire Commerce Centre is at 11470 S Leelanau Highway.