Public radio from Western Michigan University 102.1 NPR News | 89.9 Classical WMUK
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Second Friday of the month (third Friday in five-week months) at 6:45 am, 8:45 am and 5:44 pm. Why's That? explores the things in Southwest Michigan – people, places, names – that spark your curiosity. We want to know what makes you wonder when you're out and about.

Why's That: Is Hard Rock still coming to Kalamazoo?

two story factory with boarded windows behind chain link fence
Jessi Phillips
Hard Rock plans to put a 125-room music themed hotel in the largest Gibson factory building.

In 2021, Hard Rock Hotels announced plans to redevelop the former Gibson factory by Fall 2023. But there's no sign of construction at the site.

In 2021, Hard Rock, a brand best known for its chain of rock-and-roll-themed restaurants, announced plans to redevelop Gibson Guitars in Kalamazoo, turning the old factory on the North Side into a Hard Rock Hotel, restaurant, beer garden, museum, and music venue, to open this fall.

But so far there’s been no construction at 225 Parsons. WMUK listener Christopher Hodshire wrote in to ask: What happened to Hard Rock’s plans to come to Kalamazoo?

Gibson started as a mandolin company, moving into its location on 225 Parsons St. in 1917. If you grew up in Kalamazoo you probably remember the smokestack with white bricks spelling out the name “Gibson,” which was dismantled and stored a few years ago.

As guitars became more popular, the company shifted focus. It became known for making high quality acoustic and electric guitars, including the solid-body electric guitar it created with musician Les Paul in the 1950s.

Kalamazoo musician and retired host of WMUK’s Grassroots, Mark Sahlgren, worked at Gibson from 1965 to 1970. He said he remembers famous musicians strolling through the factory floors.

“Les Paul and BB King and all those guys would come through,” he said. “And they always were always on the march somewhere. They were always going somewhere. Les Paul was always that way. He was just like an overgrown kid, you know, just wanting to be somewhere else.”

Gibson opened a second plant in Nashville in the early 70s. Sales declined shortly after, and Gibson closed its Kalamazoo plant in 1984.

So – is Hard Rock still coming to Kalamazoo? The company told WMUK it had no information on the Gibson project. But local developer Plazacorp has been working with Hard Rock, and said the 225 Parsons project is still in the works.

“Development’s a very slow process,” said Trisha Kidd, project manager at Plazacorp. “And sometimes you don't realize how slow.”

Kidd said the pandemic slowed things down. So did adding the site to the National Register of Historic Places, which led to changes in Hard Rock’s site plans. Kidd said Plazacorp hopes to draw up new plans this year, and then start working on approval from the city. She said Hard Rock or Plazacorp does plan to restore the smokestack, and two businesses, Heritage Guitars and Forensic Fluids will stay on-site.

According to Kidd, "PlazaCorp continues working with the city on site logistics, so a target date has not been determined, yet."

Wood door with the word Gibson imprinted in wood with a picture of a guitar underneath
Jessi Phillips
Gibson manufactured instruments at 225 Parsons St. in Kalamazoo from 1917 to 1984, when it moved operations to Nashville.

Jamauri Bogan is a local developer currently building an apartment complex a block from the Gibson site. He said he thinks the project could bring jobs to the neighborhood, and expand Kalamazoo's entertainment options.

“Gibson guitars were built here, and we have an opportunity to go back and revisit that heritage, and craft the space and a unique venue operation that now capitalizes on the essence of Kalamazoo,” said Bogan.

Dan Kastner owns Factory Coffee, which has a café next to the Gibson site. Kastner said some of his neighbors worry that the project will drive up rent on the North Side. But he also said it would be hard to find a local business to take on such a large project.

“I've been staring out my window at it, and it's at a point where either it gets restored and used, or it becomes worse and worse and eventually gets torn down,” he said.

And he thinks visitors will go out of their way to visit a Hard Rock Hotel in the former Gibson factory.

“It'll be very successful,” he said. “It’s just so strange, all the people that I see, pulling up, people getting out of their cars taking pictures in front of a ruined old building.”

Updated: August 14, 2023 at 2:10 PM EDT
Story was updated to reflect additional comments from Plazacorp's Trisha Kidd and that Plazacorp may be the entity redeveloping the smokestack.