Editor’s note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s On the Ground Battle Creek series and was originally posted on their website.
Natasha Northcutt kept leaving and coming back to her hometown of Battle Creek. The last time she came back she decided to stay.
“My goal is to stay. I don’t see any reason to leave. There are a lot of positive things happening in the city,” Northcutt says. She’s not alone.
Jennifer Brown and Christopher McCleary, the owners of Handmap Brewing, say they always knew they wanted to end up back in the Battle Creek community where they were born and raised and their new business enterprise made that a reality.
While moving home is not a new phenomenon, the reasons for it are.
“The people I’ve been talking to who have moved back here are telling me that they like what they’re seeing going on in Battle Creek,” says John Hart, Development Director for the city’s Small Business Development Office.
BC Cargo and the murals on downtown buildings, in addition to groups like Ignite BC, and the Battle Creek Metropolitan Area Mustache Society, are among the examples of the activities and opportunities that returning residents and those new to the community are citing as reasons for sticking with Battle Creek, Hart says.
BC Cargo was started in 2018 by the city’s Small Business Development Office to give entrepreneurs an opportunity to start a business that would let them to test out the market without having to make a significant investment in overhead. The businesses, which currently include food and retail, such as apparel, operate out of shipping containers.
Ignite BC was formed in November of last year with a mission is to build a thriving community base in Battle Creek through engaging social gatherings, enriching professional events, and community impact activities.
“Battle Creek itself is changing and that’s a cool thing to be a part of it,” says Northcutt, a Special Education teacher at the Battle Creek Montessori Academy. “Two weeks ago, I went to Cruise the Gut and saw friends I hadn’t seen for a while and said ‘I don’t know when last time was so many people at an event.’
“It was a community event that was free and you could walk around and there was no drama or violence. It’s great to see so many positive things happening in the city. I know the city can be so much more than what is perceived. We are not our reputation.”
Hart says Northcutt, Brown, and McCleary represent a demographic that is seeing the city from a fresh perspective.
After attending Kellogg Community College and Western Michigan University, Brown moved to Chicago in 1992 where she established a career in finance and accounting.
“I can’t say that I always knew I would eventually move back here, but we never looked at any other spots to open a brewery. It was always going to be here,” Brown says.
The city’s close proximity to I-94 and the family they still had in Battle Creek made it a slam dunk in McCleary’s mind. He says he envisions people stopping at places such as Bell’s Brewing in Kalamazoo before traveling down the highway to his establishment that will be located on the first floor of the Record Box building, currently undergoing a major rehab, at 15 Carlyle Street. McCleary says they are hoping the brewery will be open in October, but haven’t set a hard date because of the ongoing construction.
He and Brown have poured their life savings and then some into the brewery and say they are confident that it will succeed based on the positive momentum being created downtown by the renovation of The Milton building into mixed-use retail and residential and the entry of New Holland Brewery into the downtown retail landscape.
“We wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t have 100 percent confidence that it’s going to be great,” Brown says. “If we didn’t think it was going to work, we wouldn’t be doing it. The support we’ve received from the community has been overwhelming.”
Development Director Hart says the assets of the community you grew up in are sometimes more clear once you move away. “By the time you come back, you can see your own community with fresh eyes,” he says. “It’s totally OK for young people to leave and come back.”
Oftentimes the new perspective that people bring with them when they come back includes a desire to be closer to family, especially if they are starting a family or raising a young family. Northcutt, who is 27, says while she and her husband were living in Toledo, they knew they wanted to be closer to home when it came time to grow a family.
In 2016 she gave birth to a son and she was back at the Montessori Academy in Battle Creek, this time as a teacher after having completed dual degrees in Special and Elementary education. She says it’s great to be in the same community as her mom, sister, and three brothers.
“Some of the folks I’ve spoken with are in their 30’s and they left Battle Creek and went to school and then headed off after that to find themselves and get their first jobs and as they get closer to having children they start talking to their parents and wanting to move closer to their parents,” Hart says. “But, I’m also seeing people who are retiring and selling their homes and saying they’re going to trail their kids.”
For those who are deciding to move back to be closer to in-laws or immediate family, Hart says the idea of “place” is not as important as it might once have been. But for those like Brown and McCleary who are coming back for business opportunities, in addition to family, place does matter.
The coming back home to stay phenomenon is not entirely happening all on its own. Hart is working to integrate some young people into the community who are members of the Seventh Day Adventist religion which was founded in Battle Creek.
“They decided to move here and then seek jobs. They’re making this leap of faith,” Hart says.
Northcutt, Brown, and McCleary took different leaps of faith by believing in themselves and their ability to make lives and careers or themselves in the city that has always been home to them.
After accepting a job in 2012 that would take her to Traverse City, Grand Rapids and Toledo, Ohio, with her then-husband, Northcutt found herself back in Battle Creek two years later when her husband accepted a position with Wyndtree Apartments. Not long after, she took a teacher assistant position with the Montessori Academy.
Within six months, he received a job offer to manage an apartment complex in Lansing and Northcutt had to make the decision to follow him or stay in Battle Creek. She eventually followed her husband to Lansing.
However, the need to be closer to family was driven home in 2015 when she became pregnant and her father was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. One year later her father passed away and she and her son moved back to Battle Creek to be closer to her mother, sister, and three brothers.
“I started back at BCMA one week after we buried my dad and I have been here ever since then,” Northcutt says. “We left for multiple reasons, be it the job or money, and every time we came back we’ve got closer to our family.”
“Even when I left and we’d come home to visit, it was super-exciting for me,” Northcutt says. “My goal is to stay. I don’t see any reason to leave. There are a lot of positive things happening in the city”
Handmap’s McCleary left Battle Creek in 2016 when he decided to pursue his passion for brewing and applied for a job with Goose Island Brewing in Chicago. He hired in as a brewer and took care of special needs that they had, including sanitary welding. Prior to this move, he spent 25 years working in Battle Creek, most of that time at Southern Graphic Systems, where he amassed extensive experience in manufacturing. When the company shut down its Battle Creek location, he focused more on brewing, which had started out as a hobby.
“After I left my job (with Southern Graphic Systems), I decided to pursue a more professional brewing career. I just knew I wanted at that point to open a brewery and I wanted to feel better about it by furthering my education,” he says. “For me, it was a huge opportunity to work with a well-known brewery. Some of the best brewers in the world come from Goose Island. I knew if I came from there and I was able to work through my own program it would help me.”
Two years after joining Goose Island, McCleary made the decision to leave and open a brewery in Battle Creek. But it would be another year until the identity of the owner and the name of the establishment would be publicly announced.
The name Handmap came about by accident during a conversation in the Goose Island taproom when someone asked where he was from and he held up his hand to point out the general location of Battle Creek.
“We tried out a lot of different names and that one just really fit us,” McCleary says.
He says he isn’t worried about competition from establishments such as BeIl’s and One Well Brewing, both in Kalamazoo, or New Holland which is in the process of building out a space in downtown Battle Creek.
“I don’t feel like ‘too many’ is too many as long as it’s not too many of the same thing. If you go to Bell’s or One Well, they’re always busy and I think it’s because they each have a little different business model. One might offer a more kid-friendly atmosphere where one might be a little more old school with a band,” McCleary says.
“The true key is making good beer. The public is becoming more educated about what’s good quality out there.”
Those who patronize Handmap are likely to find some beers that they may never have heard of or sampled, including the Nance, a hibiscus lager named for McCleary’s late mother who used to drink spritzers, and Rye of Sunshine, a Midwest IPA. There will be a tap wall with 24 taps, enabling Brown and McCleary to offer eight standards plus seasonal and specialty beers.
When asked how he comes up with the beers he’ll brew, McCleary says, “I just have a creative thought and I sit around and think about the beer I want to make. I know how it will taste before I make it.”
He and Brown are banking on the success of this creative process to bring people into Handmap — the realization of a dream they share.
“I always felt like this is home and I never really felt like any other place was calling my name,” McCleary says. “I felt like it would be nice if I could do something to contribute back on some level.”