Monroe North receives developments and attention

August 24, 2009
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When developer Jack Buchanan closed on his purchase of the former Riverfront Fitness Center in November 2004, the CEO of Blue Bridge Ventures LLC said that he planned to develop a new club that was in harmony with downtown and the North Monroe Business District.

“Not knowing who exactly the operator will be, we don’t know exactly what all the plans are. But our plan is to have a very nice club that is consistent with downtown and the North Monroe area,” he said in late 2004. “We think there is a need for a club here,” he added.

Today, Buchanan is probably closer to achieving his goal than he has been since he bought the two-story building at 975 Ottawa Ave. NW. The fitness center closed in 2003 when the Cascade Management Group folded. Buchanan sold the building earlier this year to Sanital LLC, a Florida investor. He then put together a long-term lease for the building with a partnership group he formed.

“That enabled me to pull my equity out of the real estate, and then I’m investing a large part of that back into this wellness and fitness center,” he said.

Buchanan now is part of Core Fitness Holdings LLC, which is planning to invest at least $2.7 million into redeveloping the 40,000 square feet that used to be the fitness center into the URBA Wellness Center.

“We’ll offer a whole range of services that we feel will completely complement what is going on the Hill,” said Sherry Buchanan, Jack’s wife, of the various medical developments on Michigan Street.

Sherry Buchanan said parts of the former fitness center, which was started by the Autodie Corp., will remain, and the components that make up wellness — such as health classes, health risk assessments, nutrition education, massage therapy and spa services — will be added into the mix.

“We’re trying to bring all of those things together,” she said.

City commissioners are holding a public hearing this week on the partners’ brownfield request. City Economic Development Director Kara Wood said a site assessment revealed the soil contains arsenic and the groundwater is contaminated.

But Core Fitness Holdings isn’t asking for tax-increment financing from the brownfield, as that revenue goes to the Monroe North TIFA and SmartZone. The partners are, however, seeking a Michigan Business Tax credit of $343,750. The project is expected to create about 34 jobs paying from $14 to $17 an hour.

“The project will significantly improve the site and surrounding area with the presence of a renovated building, along with increasing property taxes, and provide the opportunity for additional job creation,” said Wood.

Bob Dysktra, who helped get the Michigan Athletic Club started, is a consultant to the partners and will manage the facility. He said the wellness center would sell memberships that small and medium-sized businesses could afford and also would be open to the general public.

“We will offer our programs to employers as an incentive. It really is a good (business) model,” he said.

When asked whether the group’s financing was completely in place, Dysktra said, “It’s not all there yet. We do have most of it. We’ve done some demolition at this point.”

Core Fitness Holdings hopes to have the wellness center open by the end of this year.

“The money is in escrow. We’re anxious to get going. So we’re waiting until all the tax credits get approved before we go all out. Right now, I think it’s probably going to be November or maybe December. It all depends on the timing of the tax credits and the other incentives we’re seeking,” said Buchanan.

“Luckily, what we’ve got is a lot of cosmetic renovation and some HVAC that needs to be swapped out and changed. For the most part, it isn’t a long timeframe to get it done.”

Serve Source is the architect. Think Design is the interior designer. Red Tree is managing the interior renovation work.

Buchanan is working on another project not far from the wellness center. He is part of Irish Twins Group III, which is renovating and expanding the former Imperial Metals factory at 801 Ionia Ave. NW into offices, a space for a restaurant, and an interior open courtyard. Pioneer Construction Co. is managing and financing the first phase of the project, which is being designed by Lott3Metz Architecture.

“I think it’s a very interesting design that fits the neighborhood nicely,” said Mayor George Heartwell.

The city’s Parking Services Department is buying a northeast portion of the site and building an 81-space lot on it at a total cost of $1.8 million. Parking Services Director Pam Ritsema said she plans to close on the sale by the end of the month. Construction bids for the parking lot are due this week.

“All the spaces will be public,” said Eric Pratt, a city planner.

Ritsema said parking, brownfield and tax-increment revenues will pay for the parcel and lot, and angled street parking for 40 vehicles will be added along Ionia Avenue.

City commissioners recently held a public hearing on the project’s brownfield request and moved the plan along to its next stage. Irish Twins Group III is making a capital investment of at least $10 million into the project, which is expected to create up to 110 jobs once it is finished and add about $30,000 a year to the city’s income-tax roll.

Both of Buchanan’s projects are in the Monroe North Business District. A recently completed master plan for the area is set to be added to the city’s master plan. Work on the plan, which will guide future development in the area, began two years ago.

The effort still has a couple more public hearings to go through. But City Planning Director Suzanne Schulz told commissioners that the amendment to add the Monroe North plan to the city’s master plan would be before them in November.

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