DDA Milner Must Come Down

May 16, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Checkout time may have finally arrived for the Milner Hotel.

Rockford Companies CEO John Wheeler and COO Kurt Hassberger went before the Downtown Development Authority last week to ask the panel for its support to raze the century-old building on the corner of Oakes and Ionia SW — and they got it.

Board members agreed last week to send a letter to the city’s Historic Preservation Commission backing the demolition of the vacant and decaying Milner. Wheeler and Hassberger have a date with the HPC on Wednesday.

“The Milner Hotel, in the shape it is in, is an impediment to growth,” said DDA member and Kent County commissioner Paul Mayhue.

Rockford recently partnered with the DeVos family to continue development of the $40 million Cherry Street Landing project, a massive multi-use effort that still includes restoring five more buildings and putting up a new one on the Milner site.

Since last summer, Rockford has said the Milner has stunted progress of the four-year-old project. Hassberger told the DDA that tenants won’t sign on with the development because of the Milner’s current condition. The former hotel has gone unused for the past 22 years.

Hassberger also said that members of the HPC, who must ratify the razing for the Milner to come down, toured the hotel and came away with a sense that the building was beyond saving. Rockford has maintained that the Milner is too costly to renovate.

The partners plan to build a new three- or four-story structure on the 100-by-125-foot parcel the hotel is on; a building they said would match the integrity of the neighborhood.

Last August, the DDA agreed to help defray the cost of demolishing the hotel, estimated at $300,000, by giving Rockford a matching grant for that work. Back then, the board said it would contribute $1 for every $2 that Rockford put into it. But that deal never materialized because Rockford felt the asking price for the Milner, figured to be $700,000, was too high.

Owen-Ames-Kimball Co., a leading general contractor, got title to the Milner after a local developer couldn’t revive it as a hotel. But Hassberger told the Business Journal that Rockford wasn’t able to reach a compromise with O-A-K on the selling price.

“Not really. We’re under some constraints as to how much I can say about that. But basically they had a debt that they needed to be repaid that was placed on the building. They never worked on the building, but there wasn’t a lot of flexibility there,” said Hassberger.

“We just really felt we needed to acquire the building for the overall good of the project and the downtown area.”

Hassberger said his firm hadn’t decided whether it would ask the DDA for any further help with the building, such as the financial assistance the board offered last summer. The company has an option with the DDA to pick up the Area 3 parking lot located on Ionia across from the Milner, and he said Rockford first needed to figure out what it could do with that property before the firm goes back to the DDA.

“But, clearly, we’re going to be looking to them to work with us on some concepts,” he said. “We’ve got some really neat things that we’ll be able to put together here in the pretty near future.”

One plan is to put three two-story buildings on the site with retail and restaurants on the ground floors and housing on the upper levels. The block-long lot is the key parcel to create an entertainment district along Ionia, which would be anchored by the Van Andel Arena. Rockford holds a five-year option on the property from a land swap the company did with the city in late 1999.

“We don’t really think we can realistically market that block without the Milner gone, so we’re trying to do this in a more logical order,” said Hassberger. “If we can get the Milner out of there, then we think we can go to the marketplace with a much clearer message. That’s the order that we’re trying to take things.”           

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