Starting a business had its difficulties for Melanie and Donny Kennedy. Starting a business on top of a complete building overhaul renovation was a serious challenge. Starting a business with an overhaul renovation and another business to look after was like signing a “no rest or relaxation” agreement.
Doing all of that as a married couple with two young children might as well have been sanity suicide. But two years after putting in an offer on the former Elks temple in downtown Niles, the Kennedys have completed a staggering amount of work to open The Grand LV, Fifty5 event venue. Weddings, church services, birthdays and more have all been hosted in a building many would have deemed hopeless, all because the Kennedys had a simple idea for Niles.
It all started with beer, as many of Donny and Melanie’s big ideas do when they brainstorm over conversation and drinks. The beer was in the idea, however, not the in liquid inspiration. In their travels and vacations, Donny and Melanie enjoy visiting breweries and taprooms, so the couple wanted a similar place to call their own in Niles. Donny got excited about a vacancy next door to Melanie’s salon, Luminous Hair Spa, when he was directed to another vacant building in downtown Niles.
On 3rd Street sits an old Elks temple, built in 1928 as the meeting place for the Niles chapter of the American fraternity. Donny took a tour of the empty, rundown temple, which had been out of use since 2012. Complete with crumbling wallpaper, sections of rotting ceiling, and piles of junk and dust, it was the third floor — a wide open space with high ceilings, a stage, and enough room for up to 1,000 people — that captivated Donny. Thoughts of a concert venue, local music, and a center for Niles social life whirled in Donny’s mind.
“I had never really looked at this property in the entire time I’ve lived here,” Donny said. “The moment I walked upstairs and saw that big room up there with the stage, I was really sold.”
The Kennedys put in their offer on the building in December 2016, and closed on the building by April 2017. What the building would become was far more than either Melanie or Donny originally envisioned, but the work necessary was also far more than they anticipated.
Renovating the dilapidated temple was a bottom to top project for the Kennedys. The basement, formerly a bowling alley, was the first and easiest section of the building to tackle. The bowling alley floors are still visible, and a section of the lanes were repurposed to use as the basement bar top. Work in the basement started in April 2017 and its first event was the following June.
Donny and Melanie focused on the second story next, dramatically turning around the space by moving walls, painting the ballroom, and adding men’s and women’s dressing rooms for weddings. The second floor was host to its first wedding in summer of 2018. The space was made ready, once again, by the skin of the Kennedys’ teeth and a couple sleepless nights.
The top floor of Grand LV sits dormant until the Kennedys are ready for their heftiest project yet. Significant work will have to be done throughout the entire space, especially to repair sections of decaying ceiling, and make the floor handicap accessible.
Also to be completed is a blocked off corner on the second floor, which will be inhabited by Niles Brewing Company, a project of Niles local Brandon Townsley. Fortunately for Donny and Melanie, they don’t have to do any of the construction and renovation for that venture, but will soon have the origin of their idea alongside their own business.
From a modest taproom to a multi-level event venue and brewery, Donny and Melanie have taken the ideas, renovations and challenges in stride. What started as a simple bar idea for their hometown turned into a premier downtown attraction, one that still incorporated the original idea, in a roundabout way. The couple accomplished a lot in two years, but their accomplishments were not without a unified vision, lots of help and a desire to give back to the Niles community.
Melanie and Donny wouldn’t say they found a work to family life balance. Indeed, they said it was practically impossible to find given their situation.
“For any entrepreneur the work life balance gets out of balance,” Donny said.
“During construction there was no life balance, it was only work,” Melanie said. “You have to remind yourself this is a season. It’s only for a time.”
Both recalled the times when Donny would start his day at 6 a.m., and wouldn’t lay his head down on his pillow until 2 a.m. the following morning.
Melanie recalled the times she would get off work at the salon and head straight to Grand LV to help Donny with projects. Determination, passion and commitment, not only to the project, but to each other, kept the Kennedys focused on the end goal. For Donny and Melanie, passion and commitment sometimes meant ordering pizza more than once a week. Sometimes it means going to Fifty5 to set up tables on date night. Often it means what’s going on with the business dominates most conversations.
“This has been a strain on our relationship for sure, and it’s also allowed us to grow together in ways we weren’t before,” Donny said. “If anybody is looking to start something as a husband and life team, they need to know it’s going to have an impact, and it’s going to impact your whole life. You can’t really compartmentalize the work as much.”
Working as a husband and wife team has been a combination of balance, perspective, communication and enjoyment of each other. Where Donny heads most of the construction work and literal heavy lifting, Melanie handles much of the business end of Grand LV with scheduling events, managing marketing, and keeping Donny’s big ideas concrete and realistic.
What one of them lacks, the other brings to the table. Knowing what is most beneficial at a given time and keeping each other informed and encouraged has made the literal and figurative nuts and bolts come together. But ultimately, anything they have accomplished so far has come back to their love and enjoyment of each other.
“The reward has been that I get to spend time with my wife, and I can do something very challenging with my best friend.”
“We actually really like each other’s company. We don’t get sick of each other,” Melanie said. “There were moments when we were finishing up and I would get this overwhelming sense of pride and realize, ‘We actually did this.’”
Grand LV, Fifty5 is located at 104 N. 3rd Street in Niles. More information about the venue can be found on fifty5nilesmi.com, on the Fifty5 Facebook page, or by following Fifty5 @ The Grand LV on Instagram.