After attending the Washington-Hillsdale Internship Program, Brant Cohen ’18 came back to Hillsdale with an idea help preserve the city’s history.
As the city of Hillsdale works to restore its historic downtown district, Cohen is helping to turn the Keefer House, which was built in 1885 and closed in 1965, into a boutique hotel.
He first got the idea the summer before his senior year, when he was interning in his home state of Illinois, working alongside state senators, and they asked him what he wanted to do after graduation.
“I told them, ‘Well, politics seemed to be a pretty good route and it’s what I’m interested in,” he said. “‘But during my four years I kept looking at the Keefer House, and it’s beautiful.’”
Cohen said one of the senators told him, “I’ve got this very affluent couple in my district. They own a bunch of businesses and right now they’re trying to rebuild old properties across Illinois. Why don’t you reach out to them about the project?”
After procrastinating for a few weeks, Cohen finally reached out to them.
“I spent more time on that email than my papers,” he said.
That email must have been well-received. Cohen received an invitation to visit the office of C.L. Real Estate in Peru, Illinois, owned by husband and wife Inga Carus and Peter Limberger, who are also donors to the college.
Pretty soon he was on the road with his dad to meet the people who would become his future employers.
“We sat down and talked and I didn’t realize it was my job interview,” he said. “He just asked me a lot of questions and at the end he just smiled and stopped talking to me. I kept waiting for the ‘but,’ but he said, ‘Okay, tell the city we want to move forward with the project.’”
By October, Cohen was offered a job to work for C.L. Real Estate as the Michigan development associate. He said his job is still being defined, as this is the company’s first time expanding into the state.
“It kind of is what I’ve always wanted to do and I didn’t even know it,” Cohen said.
Cohen said they’re currently working on about ten projects in Illinois and looking at many more. They are now starting to expand into Michigan, beginning with the Keefer House.
During his time as a student, Cohen was the president of College Republicans, participated in pep band as a saxophone player, was a member of Phi Mu Alpha, was a part of Little Big Band and even played some intramural basketball. On top of all of this, he worked two jobs, both of which he said influenced his love for the city and his eye for its potential. The work also played a role in allowing him to have his current job.
“I was a student ambassador, and I loved welcoming people to the college,” he said. “It helped me learn about and love Hillsdale. I began to look around and think, ‘what does this community have to offer?’”
He also worked in the maintenance department as an office assistant.
“The women there connected me with the community because they grew up in the city,” he said. “They were over the moon excited because I’m restoring a key property in their community. They remember going there as kids.”
The women in the maintenance office had nothing but good things to say about Cohen.
“It’s wonderful,” Jill Draper, staff assistant said. “We’re very proud of him and the Keefer will do great things for Hillsdale.”
Cohen said they would encourage him to see the best in the community and look at different properties. This job helped shape his eye for architecture and potential as he got to see the exciting new building plans and blueprints.
Cohen’s boss, Leah Martin, aid to the facilities department, said they would always play pranks on him. She recalled one time recruiting Dean Petersen to tell him he was fired.
“He has a great sense of humor,” Martin said. “He took it in stride.”
A picture of Cohen still hangs in superintendent of custodial services Kelly Blaker’s office. It depicts him holding the strawberry rhubarb crisp he made using his grandma’s recipe.
Martin says they love food in their office, and one summer Cohen even came back to judge a pasta-making contest.
His busy schedule didn’t stop him from having fun on campus, however. One of his favorite memories occurred during the fall of his junior year, when he gathered with fellow Chicago Cubs fans in the Kappa House to watch the Cubs win the World Series for the first time in nearly 100 years.
“After the game we ran up the hill from Kappa blasting ‘go Cubs, go!’ and stopping everyone we saw,” he recalled. “We paraded in a line, dancing and jumping around the union. Then everyone naturally started gathering at the Thomas Jefferson statue in front of Central Hall. All the Cubs fans from all over campus just happened to come.”
Cohen’s time as a student allowed for the right opportunities and connections. He said it taught him to appreciate the power of the community.
“I still love politics, but I don’t want to do D.C. politics,” he said. “You can somewhat influence policy, but you’re not really making that much difference.”
Now Cohen said he gets to improve the city he has grown to love and really make a difference.
“I hope to be in this line of work for a long time,” he said. “I have a lot to learn. It’s fun to see this project from start to finish. I get to get a vision for these old hotels and see that happen. This is going to create more jobs… and positively impact more people quickly.”