Tillman Spurring Division Work

May 12, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Local developer Roosevelt Tillman is trying to infuse new life into the South Division Avenue corridor with the redevelopment of a long-neglected tract of land that forms the southern gateway into downtown.

Tillman, president of Construction Trade Subcontractors and Tillman Construction Co., broke ground late in April on a 16,000-square-foot commercial center on a two-acre site at 530 S. Division Ave. and a 24,000-square-foot light manufacturing plant on a three-acre property at 630 S. Division Ave., site of the former American Laundry.

Both projects are being undertaken simultaneously and will be completed this summer.

He hopes when people see the transformation of the two properties it will spur other revitalization efforts along the South Division Avenue corridor.

“Just like the renaissance in downtown Grand Rapids, it took someone to make the initial investment,” Tillman said. “I think much the same thing will happen here on Division. It just takes somebody to get the ball rolling.”

The two long-deserted properties are part of the city’s tax-free Renaissance Zone and form a large industrial tract running from Division east to Sheldon Avenue, and from Buckley Street south to Sycamore Street. Together, they have more than 800 feet of frontage on South Division.

The manufacturing facility will house Molding Technologies Inc., a plastic injection molding company that manufactures molds for the medical industry. It also serves the telecommunication, electrical and automotive industries.

Molding Technologies was established in 1995.

Tillman said he had long wanted to buy into a small manufacturing operation and had put out some feelers. After attending a life sciences convention last year, he decided to zero in on the bioscience sector. He purchased majority interest in Molding Technologies last summer.

About 24,000-square-feet of manufacturing space will be constructed initially. Another 12,000 square feet will be added in a future second phase.

Tillman will handle the sales end of the business while his partner Jeff Hunt — “the production guru” — will oversee plant operations, he said.

Tillman believes the bioscience/biotech business is poised to explode like the dotcoms did, and he wants to be in on it when it happens.

“I want to be a part of this new life sciences corridor. There are not many minority companies involved in that industry as far as manufacturing or any aspect of it, really.                             It’s a new frontier for us. It’s just wide open,” Tillman explained. “I thought it would be ideal for me to get involved in manufacturing, but in an area that has growth potential.”

Family Dollar signed on three months ago as anchor for the new commercial center. Among other retail businesses interested in possibly leasing at the location are restaurants, an apparel store, a national check cashing company and a Laundromat, he said.

“What I’m waiting on now is just getting the thing built and then see who comes in. I’ve got a lot of interest. I want to make sure there’s some synergy on the site.”

Tillman was persistent in his pursuit of the properties. He made an offer on 630 S. Division in December 2001, but it was rejected outright, he recalled. At the time, the city’s Economic Vitality Team determined his $160,000 offer wasn’t enough. The city reduced the asking price after a property reappraisal. 

“One thing that I’ve learned in life is that you just can’t give up. If you really believe in it, you’ll persevere, but you have to build that strength inside of you.” He said the support of city commissioners and city staff helped, as well. 

He already owns three nightclubs and an office building on South Division between Hall and Wealthy streets, so he has a vested interest in the area.

The second time Tillman came to the table, he offered $140,000 and $160,000 for 530 and 630 S. Division, respectively, and the city accepted.

It had taken the city six years and nearly $2 million to assemble and prepare the properties for sale. The city bought the land with a $750,000 loan from the Michigan Strategic Fund. Under terms of the loan, if enough new jobs are created on the sites, up to 90 percent of the loan amount, or $675,000, then becomes a grant. Each new job created writes down $20,000 of the loan.

So, Tillman’s end of the bargain includes generating new jobs. He expects each development will create 18 new jobs paying $7.30 per hour.

“This is something that’s going to be long lasting; it will create jobs and opportunity for others,” he added. I just believe that in this community we need the kind of leadership that’s not going to be self serving but serving of the people in the community.” 

Tillman founded Trade Construction Subcontractors 14 years ago, Tillman Construction Co. two years ago, and got involved in local real estate development in 1997.

His portfolio includes the 7,000-square-foot Tillman Retail Center at 1059 Wealthy St., completed in 2001.  

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