FSU, Rockford Companies may team up on GR project

December 14, 2009
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Ferris State University and Rockford Companies aren’t talking on the record, but there are signs that they are planning a public-private partnership for the $28 million renovation of the Old Federal Building for Kendall College of Art & Design.

Kendall and FSU have been ruminating about the project ever since the Grand Rapids Art Museum started work on its Gold LEED building on Monroe Center. GRAM vacated the 1911, city-owned, former post office and courthouse for its new digs in 2007.

Rockford founder John Wheeler is an FSU grad and has worked on several college-related projects in the past, including the 5 Lyon student housing site.

The state Legislature is doing some ruminating of its own regarding business tax credits that would be granted to FSU — which, of course, is not technically a state tax-paying business.

Spokespersons for both Rockford and FSU declined to comment last week.

“The university remains committed to exploring every possibility, and I think that speaks to the university’s interest and commitment both to Kendall and to the city of Grand Rapids, as well,” said Kendall President Oliver H. Evans (see Inside Track, page 8), prior to the state Senate’s approval of the tax credit last week.

Added state Sen. Bill Hardiman, R-Kentwood, who announced that he voted for the measure: “The Federal Building is in need of major repair work. We do not want the building to reach a level of permanent disrepair.”

Detroit’s historical but ruined Michigan Central Depot is a sad example of the fate that the Old Federal Building should avoid.

New retailers pursued

The Downtown Development Authority put the final touch last week on something it started in May. Back when the temps were warm and the sun actually shined, the board paid $8,000 as a down payment to recruit businesses to the district. That cash led to the creation of a brochure with an artsy look and a fact-filled presentation. It’s called “Downtown Grand Rapids: We Are Ready for You.”

The brochure was put together by DDA specialist Anne Marie Bessette and Plenty Creative, a local marketing firm. It’s designed to intrigue people who don’t know much about the district. But taking an eyeball tour through the brochure also might provide those who live and work downtown with some bare-essential nuggets that may surprise them.

For instance, did you know that 36,200 people work downtown? Or that 37,200 students attend college classes within a one-mile radius of the district? Probably not, unless you’re trying to get on U.S. 131 at the same time they are.

Here’s some more. There are 185 retail businesses in the district, and 81 are restaurants. Last year, 15 new businesses opened downtown. There are 3,400 housing units in the downtown district. That’s a whopping two-thirds more than in 1995.

Bessette said the brochure focuses on drawing new retailers. “We want this to scream that we’re ready for retail,” she said calmly.

So the DDA agreed to give Bessette up to $7,000 last week to get the brochures printed. It will be distributed to commercial real estate firms, developers and building owners who are trying to fill vacant downtown spaces. Bessette said it will also show up at economic development conferences and seminars.

“It’s very tricky to get the best of the best of Grand Rapids in this,” she said. No doubt. It’s only 12 pages long, and that includes both covers.

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Attending a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a homeowner at at 229 Embro are, from left, Kentwood Mayor Pro Tem Richard Clanton, Kent County Administrator Daryl Delabbio, Assistant Administrator Wayman Britt, Kent County Community Development Director Linda Likely, Ellen Chung, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development representative, and Darel Ross II, Lighthouse Communities Inc. president.

Homes for the holidays

Call it a draw. Both the city of Grand Rapids and Kent County announced last Wednesday they had completed rehabbing their first homes under the latest round of funding from the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program.

The city and Lighthouse Communities finished work on the house at 1727 Giddings Ave. SE, which was vacant for nearly two years until the nonprofit rebuilder bought it April. About $65,000 in Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds went into the rehab and the home is now on the market for $82,500. The city can offer qualified buyers up to 20 percent assistance on the down payment, help that is also part of the federal housing program administered by HUD.

The county’s completed NSP home is at 2291 Embro SE in Kentwood. Lighthouse Communities also directed that rehab project. Kentwood Mayor Pro Tem Richard Clanton said he remembers driving past the vacant house for months and wondered if it ever would be occupied.

The county received $4 million in NSP funds, and Linda Likely, community development director, expects those dollars will fix up 21 more homes and eight rental units. Likely also applied for another $20 million from the program a few months ago and is waiting to hear from HUD.

The city recieved about $6.1 million in NSP money, which Congress approved last year. Connie Bohatch, chief services officer, said those dollars will rehab about 50 foreclosed homes in the city.

A neat thing about the program is that proceeds from the sale of houses in the program go back into the program to fund more rehabs.

Sort of like a gift that keeps on giving.

Another snow job?

Do you think she knew all along? WOOD TV8 meteorologist Terri DeBoer had signed on months ago to be the luncheon speaker at the Rotary Club of Grand Rapids meeting on Thursday. But the personable DeBoer cancelled her much anticipated talk on the state’s changing weather because, well, the weather changed and she had to do “blizzard” duty at the station. At least, that’s what she told Rotary officials.

The meeting went on without her at the Kent County Club. But a few who attended noticed a lone figure on the back nine and wondered whether it was DeBoer, who is an avid golfer. “It sure looked like her,” one of the attendees reportedly said. “I’m sure it was her,” said another. “I saw the word ‘Doppler’ on the golf bag.”

It’s more likely DeBoer and her pumped up Storm Team 8 comrades were busy sifting through the snide comments of dozens of followers on the station’s Web site concerning the over-hyped “dire” nature of the “Blizzard of the Century” warnings that kept school kids home Wednesday on a fairly mild winter day, much to their parents’ dismay.

Can you say “job security”?

Maybe not too grandiose

When Stu Kingma first heard about MEDC's new Project Ready Site Program, his first thought was that it was a bit "grandiose."

MEDC wants to help fast-track industrial development of available sites of at least 200 acres or more — but that's a very large parcel in the West Michigan world of commercial real estate.

"Grandiose isn't what we're seeing a lot of these days," said Kingma, a 15-year veteran of commercial/industrial real estate with The Wisinski Group, and the Commercial Alliance of Realtors' 2009 Realtor of the Year.

"And a week after that thought went through my head, I proved myself wrong again when they announced the 400-acre development that is proposed now for north of Muskegon, for a battery plant," said Kingma, wryly.

He said that caused him to "re-think" the MEDC idea to get large, shovel-ready sites into a database.

"Yeah, that's a good idea," he concluded.

When a site consultant does come knocking, hunting for a prime piece of property for a client, time is usually of the utmost concern.

Staff at The Right Place Inc. have told Kingma lately that often, when they field a request for information on any property available for a potential major project, the individual asking requires all the answers "by noon tomorrow," he said. Then The Right Place and the real estate brokers involved and the property owners have to scramble to put together the answers that will help sell or lease the property.

"Really, the only good way to do that is to have a lot of that work done in advance," said Kingma.

It "takes the four-alarm fire drill away, and allows the state to present opportunities to these (site) consultants that is in a good, professional, concise and complete fashion," he said.

Muskegon revving up

Kingma was referring to the news about fortu PowerCell GmbH of Karlsruhe, Germany, which is interested in building electric and hybrid vehicle batteries on the 400-acre Bayer Crop Science site in Muskegon Township. The project will create 300 jobs in its beginning phase and an additional 445 jobs in phase two, according to Sen. Gerald Van Woerkom, R-Norton Shores.

Van Woerkom has sponsored legislation that would provide a tax credit to fortu PowerCell. Senate Bill 857 would create an additional Michigan Business Tax credit by increasing the total number of available credits to electric car battery cell manufacturers from four to five. The state program allows an eligible business to claim 50 percent of its capital investment expenses to build a factory where the battery cells would be made.

The state has already awarded tax credits to Johnson Controls-Saft Advanced Power Solutions LLC in Holland; A123 Systems in Romulus and Brownstown Township; KD Advanced Battery Group in Midland; and Compact Power in Holland, Pontiac and St. Clair.

According to Ed Garner, head of Muskegon Area First, the credit is good for up to $25 million per year for four years. He said the Michigan Strategic Fund would ultimately have to designate the German company as the recipient of the tax credit, if the legislation to increase the number of such credits is approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor.

Garner said there is a chance the Bayer Crop Science industrial site will become "a European-style industrial park."

"When we say ‘European style,’ it means that companies that move in there have some kind of synergy" and have worked together before, "not just a hodgepodge of independent companies."

"They do have a relationship established already in Germany," said Garner, referring to Bayer and fortu PowerCell.

Varga on board

The International Council of Shopping Centers will convene the eighth annual West Michigan Alliance March 2 at DeVos Place in downtown Grand Rapids, and Peter Varga, CEO for The Rapid, will be the keynote speaker.

 His presentation will address the development possibilities of a Silver Line bus rapid transit system that would serve the Division Avenue Corridor in the Greater Grand Rapids area. This alliance event will feature several roundtable sessions and a panel discussion featuring some of “West Michigan’s brightest minds in real estate,” said event chairman Terry Schweitzer of the city of Kentwood.

“We are in the final stages of securing roundtable speakers to address the merits of public/private partnerships as it relates to real estate development. Given the potential of West Michigan, we feel that it is important to highlight what the area offers to the state and to the country.”

Cars and art

The remnants of ArtPrize 2009 continue to carry on in the community, including at several business venues. Betten Imports of 28th Street is hosting ArtPrize contestant Danae Mowry. His watercolor entry was featured at The BOB downtown during ArtPrize.

"I am excited to be on display as a part of the Betten Imports gallery," Mowry said. "Participating in ArtPrize introduced me to many great local artists, along with opening up further opportunities for me to display my art."

A graduate of Michigan State University's school of interior design, Mowry has committed to the watercolor medium, even though it is often regarded as one of the most difficult.

"I made the commitment to delve into the medium by studying and learning its unpredictable ways, exploring the beauty of its translucent layers, and refining my control of its often times mysterious behaviors," Mowry explained.

Hope salutes city reps

The Hope College Alumni Association honored former Holland Mayor Al McGeehan with a Meritorious Service Award on Saturday for his long-time leadership role in strengthening and celebrating the relationship between Hope and the Holland community.

Hope presented the award during the men’s basketball game held as part of the Holland Sentinel Community Tournament at the DeVos Fieldhouse. The award recognizes a person’s contributions to Hope and its alumni through notable personal service and long-time involvement with the college.

Hope also recognized the many years of service to the community by former Holland City Council member and the Business Journal’s own Craig Rich, who like McGeehan also retired from office in November.

McGeehan, who is a 1966 Hope graduate, recently concluded more than three decades of service in city government, including eight two-year terms as Holland’s mayor, the longest mayoral tenure in the city’s history. Prior to first being elected mayor in 1993, he had served four four-year terms on the Holland City Council, beginning in 1977.

Rich was appointed to the Holland City Council in 1982, was elected in 1983 and re-elected every four years from 1985 through 2005. He was also Mayor ProTem from 1987 to 2007. He and his father operated radio station WZND in Zeeland from 1971 through 1986, and he has since been with the Business Journal where he is currently an advertising sales consultant.


Designs on a drink

Hope College students are making news of another sort. The students in the “Design I” art class at the school are pursuing a bonus goal as they work on their final projects: an opportunity to see their work on the menu at Lemonjello’s Coffee in Holland.

As a start-to-finish project, each student in the course’s three sections has been challenged to develop a new drink for the downtown shop — located at 61 E. Ninth St. — along with a logo, promotional poster, recipe card and other support materials. One of the resulting 40 beverages will become a part of Lemonjello’s menu for the remainder of the school year.

The course’s instructor, Stephanie Milanowski, noted that the unusual assignment has a serious purpose. As design professionals, she said, the students might find themselves asked to take on a wide variety of projects, developing them from concept through presentation and implementation.

While only one drink will make the final cut, Milanowski has enjoyed the variety that she’s seen as the students have done their work. Lemonjello’s owner Matt Scott, she noted, set only two limitations before the students began brainstorming: no alcohol and no blow torches involved in the preparation.

From the 40 hopefuls, a panel of five judges is choosing nine finalists, three from each class section, to make presentations to Scott on Friday.

Credit where it’s due

Michigan’s 335 credit unions continue to show growth in loans, deposits and membership, adding a record 59,000 members in 2009 — the most in more than five years. Eleven new branches were opened in the third quarter of 2009, bringing the total number of Michigan credit union branches to 1,043 with 59 shared branches.

According to the Michigan Credit Union League, Michigan’s 4.4 million credit union members saw new auto loans grow 5.8 percent over the 12 months preceding September. In total, Michigan credit unions now hold $2.33 billion in new auto loans. The “Invest in America” program, which has facilitated 215,000 vehicle sales, helped drive the growth in new auto loans with discounts through GM and Chrysler. Used vehicle loans grew 5.1 percent over the same period, equating to $3.9 billion. Deposits showed strong growth with an 11.8 percent annualized rate, leading to an 11.7 percent increase in credit union assets to $37.4 billion.

“As other financial institutions have made it more difficult for consumers to get loans or added new fees on checking and savings accounts, credit unions have continued to offer consumer-friendly alternatives,” said MCUL President/CEO David Adams in a written statement. “Our growth demonstrates that credit unions are the financial institution of choice during tough economic times. Consumers are seeing the benefits of belonging to a credit union.”

According to testimony from a House Financial Services Subcommittee field hearing Nov. 30, FDIC-insured institutions’ loan balances have declined for five consecutive quarters. Credit unions have seen growth in all loan types, with 5.6 percent annualized increase in lending. This equates to $23.3 billion in all loan types. Credit unions report small business lending increased by 3.9 percent to $777 million during the third quarter of 2009 and up 19.3 percent during the last 12 months. 

Time to (UN)BAG it

In a marketing take-off on the eco-friendly bag craze, Hanon McKendry’s “humanity-friendly” (UN)BAG Christmas greeting calls on recipients to “(UN)BAG something bigger this Christmas.”

Mailed to 500 of the advertising and branding agency’s clients, vendors and friends nationwide, the reusable nylon bag encourage people to use the bag to donate items to those in need this Christmas and throughout the year.

“With so many people facing job loss and financial hardship, we wanted our card to do more than wish people ‘Merry Christmas.’ We wanted it to help preserve the spirit of Christmas year round,” explained Bill McKendry, founder and chief creative officer at Hanon McKendry. “We support the eco-friendly bag trend — but at the end of the day, all those bags are about bringing more stuff into our homes. In the true spirit of Christmas, we hope people will use THE (UN)BAG to take things out and into the lives of people in need.”

McKendry said the inspiration for THE (UN)BAG included public relations work Hanon McKendry did for the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center in Grand Rapids last Christmas.

“We got an urgent call from the head of the rehab center shortly before Christmas last year. He asked for our help in getting word out to the media that the shelves at their thrift stores were almost bare,” said McKendry.

“Apparently, more and more families were turning to the Salvation Army for clothing and household items; but, because of the rough economy, far fewer people were donating goods. Since then, we learned that many local shelters and food banks have experienced similar problems. Some have seen donations drop by 30 percent or more, while demand is up 30 percent.”

A degree of honor

Peter Secchia has a new fellow alum with whom to break Spartan bread. Michigan State University presented an honorary doctorate of humanities to Rich DeVos at its commencement ceremony.

DeVos was nominated by the MSU College of Human Medicine, for which he has been a key supporter, especially of its expansion into Grand Rapids’ Medical Mile.

"Mr. DeVos' support of the MSU College of Human Medicine, and to health sciences in general, will allow MSU to share in his goal of improving lives throughout the world," said MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon. "Dr. Levin's mentorship of our faculty is indicative not only of his dedication to science but also to MSU's commitment to addressing global problems, such as environmental sustainability. We are privileged to honor these leaders."

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