Grand Rapids joins WMEP

March 30, 2012
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Friday, April 13, could turn out to be a lucky day for the region’s newest economic development partnership. That is the date the recently proposed West Michigan Economic Partnership has targeted to have all eight of its governmental units under its two-county umbrella and begin to get its formal application off to Lansing for state approval.

So far, the city of Grand Rapids is in, as is Muskegon County. The cities of Kentwood, Muskegon and Wyoming, along with Cascade and Muskegon townships, are expected to vote on joining WMEP this week. Kent County has a vote scheduled for April 12.

“This is about an effort to expand our economic-development tool bag,” said Rick Chapla, a vice president with The Right Place Inc., which is promoting the partnership with Muskegon Area First, another economic development organization.

Grand Rapids Economic Development Director Kara Wood, who has played an instrumental role in WMEP’s creation, said the partnership would help advance the marketing of properties in the region that are served by at least two modes of transportation. In Grand Rapids, she said the former Steelcase site on the city’s southeast side, which is now being redeveloped by Ashley Capital, qualifies because it is served by road and rail.

“We will work on projects that will hopefully draw businesses to the sites,” said Wood.

Properties near the Gerald R. Ford International Airport, the former General Motors Stamping Plant on 36th Street in Wyoming and sites that surround the Port of Muskegon are also expected to be marketed.

“What is certainly unique about this is the inclusion of the port in Muskegon for short-sea shipping,” said Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell. “I can’t think of another incentive we’ve had with the city of Muskegon in my time as mayor.”

The idea behind WMEP is to lure companies here that are in need of at least two transportation modes to move freight.

“The type of businesses we’re looking for are logistically sensitive,” said Chapla. The incentives that will be offered to bring businesses here include nearly tax-free Renaissance Zones, tax-increment financing and industrial tax abatements. “This is the only way a Renaissance Zone can be used outside of ag ren zones. This is the only Renaissance Zone,” said Chapla.

The state’s original Renaissance Zone, which exempted most state and local taxes for a dozen years and abated portions of those levies for three years, ended Dec. 31. Governments with jurisdiction over a specific property would have to approve all financial incentives that are offered to a business.

If approved by the state, WMEP would get its authority from Public Act 275 of 2010, which created the Next Michigan Economic Development Corp. The law emerged after the Aeropolis legislation was passed a few years ago, which gave economic incentives to properties that surround large airports. The problem with that legislation was it really only applied to airport sites in Metro Detroit, so lawmakers responded with a state statute that could be used in other regions.

Heartwell gave much of the credit for WMEP’s creation to Wood, while acknowledging the effort The Right Place and Muskegon Area First have contributed to it. “As a result, we have something that works for us,” he said.

Should the other governments join by Friday the 13th, Chapla felt WMEP could be approved by the state within 30 days and then the units would each appoint one individual to the organization’s board. “The state law is pretty silent on how you make appointments,” he told city commissioners.

WMEP will be responsible for raising its own revenue, although each member government could allocate funds to it. “This is going way beyond the status quo and is pushing the envelope. Thank you,” said City Commissioner Ruth Kelly to Wood and Chapla.

In addition to approving the city’s membership in WMEP, commissioners also set April 10 as the public hearing date for requests from N-K Manufacturing Technologies LLC and One Beer At A Time LLC for eight-year industrial tax exemptions.

N-K Manufacturing plans to invest $860,000 in new machinery and material-handling equipment to expand its injection molding capacity.

“They are a value-added provider of plastic solutions. They specialize in custom molding of plastic engineering,” said Wood. The company, at 1134 Freeman Ave. SW, plans to add 25 new full-time jobs to its work force from the investment.

“That’s a good number of new jobs,” said City Commissioner Walt Gutowski.

One Beer At A Time owns Brewery Vivant at 925 Cherry St. SE and plans to invest $190,000 into new equipment to increase its distribution. It’s the second time the firm has made an abatement request with the city.

“They were supposed to invest $1 million in equipment,” said Wood of the company’s first application, “and they actually invested more than $1 million.”

N-K Manufacturing and One Beer At A Time would see their personal-property taxes associated with the investments cut in half for eight years if commissioners approve their applications. N-K would save $5,435 a year, while One Beer would cut its tax tab by $1,200 annually.

Commissioners also gave Parking Services the green light last week to allocate $400,000 to help build parking spaces at two market sites. The department will send $200,000 to the revived Fulton Street Farmers Market and $200,000 to the Urban Market, which the Downtown Development Authority and the Grand Action Committee are developing on Ionia Avenue near Wealthy Street.

Commissioners also approved the city’s share of the reconstruction of Oakes Street last week, which comes to $162,000. The DDA is paying for the bulk of the work, as it recently allocated $1.68 million to the project. The street will get a complete makeover between Market and Ottawa avenues and Consumers Energy will bury its power lines.

“Oakes is one of the few streets downtown that has poles,” said Rick DeVries, a city engineer. “The project itself is going to be done this summer; then (Consumers) can come in and do their work. I’m not sure of the timetable.”

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