Plainwell Preps For Mill Redevelopment

November 5, 2007
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PLAINWELL — The economic development staff in Plainwell is careful to emphasize that the Plainwell Paper Mill is not its top priority. First and foremost, the objective is to serve the businesses already striving and thriving in the city’s downtown and nearby industrial park. That said, the 36-acre riverfront property in the heart of a 93-percent occupied commuter downtown is arguably the most exciting redevelopment opportunity currently available in West Michigan.

“What I don’t want is for the mill to overshadow what is going on downtown,” said City Administrator Erik Wilson. “It’s easy to talk mill, mill, mill, but we already have a lot of great things happening.”

Bounded by the Kalamazoo River to the east and a tributary known as the Mill Race to the west, downtown Plainwell is literally an island. The city boundaries now stretch as far west as 12th Street on the opposite side of US-131, but it remains “The Island City,” a designation it owes to the mill. In pursuit of a hydroelectricity dam, mill workers hand-carved a natural watershed into the Mill Race more than a century ago.

As late as 1998, Plainwell Paper represented more than 18 percent of the city’s taxable value. It had been the community’s largest employer for five generations, employing more than 400 people at its peak — roughly a tenth of the city’s population. Bankruptcy shuttered the facility in 2000, and the city acquired it last summer for $412,000 and $270,000 in forgiven Allegan County tax penalties.

In the past year, city staff has been quietly working with consultants and developers on plans to redevelop the property.

“We are not going to let this project fail,” said Wilson. “Ten, 20, 30 years from now people will look back, and Plainwell, to a very large extent, will be defined by the decisions we make today with the mill. There is just no way you can neglect 36 acres in your downtown.”

The mill property is one block from the center of downtown across the Mill Race bridge and three blocks from US-131. It boasts 900-linear feet of Kalamazoo River frontage, not including the land on its eastern corner fronting the Mill Race. The historic brick buildings feature cathedral ceilings and detailed woodwork. Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency undertook an exhaustive effort to clean up the river, and has since removed 99 percent of the PCB sediment from the water. It became the subject of a high-profile debate earlier this year when various communities opposed the disposal of the material at local landfills.

“I think we have a hidden treasure here,” said Wilson. “People don’t realize how big it is. A developer told us that there are communities that would be begging for a project like this.”

There are some significant challenges for any would-be developer to undertake with the mill site. The city has been working to remove leftover debris from the site, and while there is currently none visible, the work is far from complete. A handful of buildings would need to be razed, including a former wastewater treatment pond on the outlying western portion of the facility.

More importantly, it is an EPA Superfund site, requiring any potential developer to partner with the EPA, city and paper conglomerate Weyerhauser, which owned the facility in the 1970s and is partially liable for the cleanup.

“The development community, their first instinct isn’t to invest in something like this,” Wilson said. “You can spend millions on this, or you can go develop vacant land, that’s really the question. That’s why the city has taken the lead role in the development — if we didn’t come in the doors would still be locked. We’re committed to this, and I want to make it clear to developers that they are not going to find a better partner than the city of Plainwell when it comes to this project.”

The vast majority of the environmental cleanup is complete, but additional work may be required, depending on the nature of the use. If the project opts for a parking lot atop the site of the former coal pile instead of occupied space, for instance, a large degree of clean-up can be avoided. When clean-up is necessary and practical, the new owner is not liable for the cost of the work.

The city is working with Ann Arbor architecture firm JJR Associates to create a feasibility study for the property. Three national developers of Superfund sites — one in Chicago and two in Detroit — have also lent their expertise, but will not likely be the city’s eventual development partner.

“We’ve been looking at conceptualized plans about what adaptability uses are most appropriate for the buildings,” said Emilie Schada, Plainwell economic and downtown development manager. “We envision it being a complement to our downtown. It’s a lot of square footage, and our downtown is only so big, so we don’t want it to be a redevelopment project that competes with what we now have downtown.”

The most popular suggestion among the city’s consultants has been the relocation of City Hall into the facility. Unless a developer has a reason not to include the city as a tenant, the city will most likely make the move.

“We’re sending the message that we’re not only serious about spending money to redevelop the site, we’re willing to physically move there,” Wilson said. “The mill means a lot to this community, and we want to be good stewards of the property and its buildings.”

He would like to see a combination of civic, commercial and residential uses at the site and particularly has hopes that an organization might see fit to launch a research center there.

Schada, who lives directly across the street from the mill, also envisions a mixed-use project.

“We hope it will be a destination-type business that will meet the needs of residents and be a draw for people to come here to Plainwell,” she said, citing hopes for an artistically driven, environmentally and family-friendly project.

A public meeting will introduce conceptual plans later this month. A specific date was not available at press time.

Despite the rapid growth on Allegan Street in Otsego Township west of US-131, downtown Plainwell has thrived. It has 73 businesses in its central business district. There are only two vacancies downtown — the mill and the former Lull’s Hardware store, which finally folded beneath competition from the township’s Home Depot and Meijer stores. Among other resources, the city offers a Small Business Resolving Loan Program to fund exterior improvements of downtown businesses.

“The highway businesses are a challenge, but we’ve overcome that by being unique and making ourselves distinctive against the competition,” Schada said. “We have residents that work in Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids, where you see cranes in the sky — a signal of economic development. I think what has happened in those markets can happen here as well.”

The city’s state-certified industrial park, located just east of downtown, is at 81 percent occupancy. CQX

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