Teenager renovates duplex gets title to half
By GARRETT NEESE
LAURIUM — On her 18th birthday, Nytasha Bemis got a unique gift: Being added to the title for the building she’d spent more than two years helping restore to a livable space.
But that came only after she’d spent more than two years helping to return the formerly blighted duplex to a livable space.
The house at 166 Woodland Avenue in Laurium had entered the county land bank after foreclosure, then returned multiple times after various owners’ plans failed to come to fruition.
Then Paul Mihelcich approached the land bank with a plan — and a surprising choice for a business partner. The land bank deeded it over to him for $1.
Mihelcich knows Bemis’s mother. At the beginning of the COVID pandemic, it looked like her mother, a bartender, would need work. Mihelcich, who owns the Jam Lady in Mohawk, offered her some cooking work.
Her mother asked if her daughters could get some work as well.
On the first day, Bemis’s mother learned her pub sold enough food to stay open. Her daughters kept working with Mihelcich, raking the yard and doing other odd jobs.
Then she went up to my son and grandma’s house doing the same thing. He also owns a house on Pine Street where there was an electrical short.
They started tearing out the walls. Mihelcich said he’d need somebody on the other end of the board.
“Tasha right away says ‘I’ll do it, I like working with wood,'” she said.
Bemis has enjoyed fixing things since she was a child. Going through her father’s things, she found a hammer she’d made when she was 5 out of a rock, stick and duct tape.
“I needed a hammer, and I couldn’t find one,” she said. “What was I doing? I have no clue.”
As they worked, Bemis told Mihelcich about her mother’s house, which had burned down just before work on it was completed.
“I said, ‘Maybe there’s some way you’ll be able to get a house someday,'” he said. “She said, ‘No way.'”
Mihelcich told her about homes available for tax sales. She started finding candidates, but they were in too rough shape, Mihelcich said.
Mihelcich spotted the Woodland house driving down the road. He asked the village about the house, and found it had gone to the county land bank.
He talked with Mattila and Commissioner Tom Tikkanen, telling them he had a secret partneR on the project.
“I didn’t want to break it to them that it was a 15-year-old girl,” he said. “I don’t think they’d have given me an audience.”
Bemis came in with Mihelcich carrying a briefcase. They were surprised at first, Mihelchcih said.
“They asked her how old she was,” he said. “She said, ’15 and proud.'”
They asked her what she knew about wood and metal; she listed off several skills, starting with AutoCAD and ended with TIG (tungsten inert gas) welding.
“She had a five-minute speech,” he said. “There were no questions asked after that to her.”
The house has history to it. It had been the childhood home of Percy Wilcox, a childhood friend of George Gipp who was captain of Notre Dame’s hockey team at the same time Gipp was captain of the football team.
The house is a duplex, with three bedrooms, a bathroom and a kitchen. It was in rough shape when they took it on.
They spent close to three months just clearing the outside of the house, removing a virtual forest in back just to be able to bring things in.
“It was hard to foresee what we ended up with,” Mihelcich said. “I could see it because I’ve done it before, but for a young girl, it was a big deal. It was probably the hardest project we’ve taken. The foundation had to be rebuilt. The roof, everything was leaking. Walls were down. Windows were out. Doors were missing.”
Fortunately, the base of the house was mostly solid, with little rot, Mihelcich said.
Bemis pitched in everywhere, working the backhoe, putting up drywall, installing the ceramics in the kitchen, and sanding floors.
“It was pretty much 50-50 between me and her,” Mihelcich said.
She was the one small enough to crawl to the buffalo box six feet under the road, which has the valve controlling the water supply to the house.
When Mihelcich injured his shoulder lifting a cement block, Bemis took over lifting the 80-pound bags of concrete that were being used to support the foundation. p
“She looks at me and says, ‘I got this,'” he said. “She started whipping those bags. We ended up doing 285 bags of concrete, putting footing around everything. She carried them all… she’s a go-getter.”
Like any multi-year project, they had to contend with winter. The first year, they had snow coming through the roof. Mihelcich and Bemis climbed the roof and patched it.
“It was as crude as you could get, but it was in the right spot, right stuff, and we finally got it reroofed this year,” Mihelcich said.
Construction costs were between $30,000 and $35,000, Mihelcich said. In some spots, they were able to save funds by smart sourcing of supplies. In the kitchen, they used discontinued tiles from Dollar Bay Tiles, which were close in appearance. The total cost: $157.
Floors and hand sanders were the most challenging part, Bemis said. Mihelcich suggested concrete; that, Bemis didn’t mind. It was during 11th grade, when she was attending school virtually rather than in person.
“I wasn’t playing sports, so concrete kept me in shape,” she said.
They’ve rented out the bottom portion to rent, and the top portion has been newly filled. Bemis holds title to half the duplex.
It’s a big turnaround for a site that had been overrun by animals and drawing complaints from neighbors, said Houghton County Treasurer Lisa Mattila.
Mihelcich estimated they’d saved the county about $35,000 in demolition costs. Plus, he’d paid taxes for the past three years.
“It’s a definite plus-plus for everybody involved,” he said.
Eight properties are headed to demolition in the county, Mattila said. So it’s nice to have someone step up — especially a teeanger.
“It’s just wonderful to see a young person involved,” she said. “It just shows such an interest in what she’s learned and accomplished.”
After having renovated a house, Bemis sees them differently. Before, she’d walk into a house and just think, “it’s pretty.” Now she sees the things that are just a tad off.
“When I walk in a bathroom now I see the shower, how it’s put together,” she said. “I don’t just see water, I don’t just see a shower anymore. I see how things are built.”
She’s taken that spirit to her job at the AmericInn, where she started a year and a half ago fixing beds. She’s already been promoted to head of the cleaning crew and also does some maintenance work. The other day, she encountered a sink that had been leaking for a week.
“Finally, I was like, ‘I’m just going to fix it myself,'” she said. “I just grabbed the wrench and I fixed it.”