It's early in terms of bar time, but Rodney Ott is getting ready for another busy night. For 16 years, his bar — The Loft at 526 S. Saginaw St. in downtown Flint — has owned the club scene. The music pumps; the DJ mixes; the crowd jumps, sways, and grinds.
Ott is fast moving, but talks with a slow sturdy pace.”This place is for the people, Flint people,” says Ott, who ended up here more by happenstance than by plan. A Flint native, he went to the University of Miami and earned a degree in finance. After graduation, he returned but planned to stay only briefly.
“Coming back here, you know, in my mind it was like, I’m only going to be here for a little while, like a four-year plan,” Ott says.
He tried working a day job as an account executive and wearing a suit everyday to please his mom. “I had always worked at a bar or nightclub and she said, ‘Why don’t you at least try having a real job?’ And I did… it was the worst year of my life,” his laugh bounces across the bar. “I would just sit around all day looking at a computer, bored out of my friggin’ mind.”
He quit, but began his search for a new job looking through newspaper classified ads. “That's how long I’ve been here — when you still looked in the paper for a job,” he says. “And there it was: There was this bar down here called Kelly’s Pub looking for a bartender.”
Ott pulled up to the bar off Buckham Alley, which was still unpaved at the time, and met the owner Ray Zook, sitting in a wheelchair all the way in the back of the bar smoking. “It was this dark and dingy place, only half the size of what it is now. I’m just thinking of my last job, thinking, ‘What am I getting myself into?’ but we talked and he said I could start immediately.”
Rodney Ott owns The Loft and can almost always be found serving up cocktails from behind the bar.
That was October 2002 and very quickly Ott was running day-to-day operations. By 2003, Zook decided to retire. He pulled up to Ott’s house the day after Christmas to ask if Ott would be interested in buying the bar. Ott asked for a few days to think it over. “Well, this is my 16th year and I’m still here, still in business.”
In the first seven years, Ott says it was a “crazy time” for the Loft. Downtown still was struggling and the investment — which would eventually bring the variety of other bars and events we see downtown today — was only just beginning. “By the end of each year, I would be looking at myself thinking this is my last year. Then, you have a good year and you stay on, and, just over time, the investment and the people started coming back down here.”
Even as downtown events, nightlife, food, and bar scenes have evolved, The Loft remains hip hop central and regularly sold out. These days, the Loft also features special wine tasting events and menus planned by Ott’s wife, Jesi Michelle, as well as a VIP area upstairs — but make no mistake about it: The party rages on at The Loft.
What makes The Loft truly special, though, is Ott himself. He passionately keeps it real, giving his opinion on just about everything Flint. He’ll openly praise other business owners and call out wrongdoing whenever and wherever he sees it.
His heart is unabashedly open.
He passionately loves his wife, University of Miami football, and his fur babies. He raises money for Special Olympics, collects winter coats for homeless people — and perhaps most noteworthy: Simply treats every human being with respect.
Ott opens his bar at Thanksgiving for all those who have nowhere else to be so that they can be together and be among friends. He hosts a Christmas dinner for the city’s homeless and can often be seen saying hello or offering a little something to eat to those in need. That’s when you realize that The Loft is different. It’s a nightclub. It’s also home.
They’re just small gestures, says Ott. “Flint will still have its problems but you try and do what you can for the people you can help,” he says.
Ott still lives on the city’s eastside in the College Cultural Neighborhood. He openly admits he’s thought about returning to South Florida from time to time, but he inevitably gets pulled back to Flint. “We all know Flint has its drawbacks, but what gets lost on the conversation a lot of the time is how hard Flint people work around here to make it. The quality of the people is what keeps me going and is what keeps this bar open.”
It’s the drive here, Ott says, not just downtown but throughout Flint. And, he wants to make sure he keeps the vibe real and real local.
“You’d be missing a lot of what this place is if you never make it off the bricks,” Ott says. “I tell this to everyone that comes in and starts talking about all the changes: Flint is Flint, man. The point is the outskirts still need a lot of help and there’s a lot of work to get those places outside of downtown turned around.
“But as long as I’m down here, there will be a place for everybody to go — especially those working hard in the trenches to come and blow off some steam, the non-privileged ones who have had to deal with the high bills and the water, and pipes getting torn out of their front yard like mine was.”
A few regulars start to roll in. Soon the night will be in full swing, a heady mix of lights, music, and movement. With his usual bluntness, Ott is a realist — a realist who loves Flint and is ready to go to work for his community. “I’ve seen a lot of people come through talking about, ‘We’re going to change it. It's going to be different,’ and I’ve seen a lot of those people leave, but I also got a lot of regulars that have survived and thrived and I’ve got to show up for them.”
Rodney Ott never planned to become a bar owner, but 16 years later — he's still at it at The Loft.