Springtime Feel For Muskegon Mall Site

August 28, 2007
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MUSKEGON — Capping nearly $200 million of investment in the downtown Muskegon area since the district hit rock-bottom with the closing of the Muskegon Mall in 2002, development plans are now under way for roughly half of the 23-acre former mall site.

Leading these efforts is the Downtown Muskegon Development Corp., a joint venture of the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce, the Community Foundation of Muskegon County and the Paul C. Johnson Foundation, the family foundation of the SPX Corp. founding family. The group purchased the property shortly after the mall closed and has marketed its efforts through the area's economic development agency, Muskegon Area First, as part of its Muskegon Main Street program.

The area's first new tenant in years moved in last month and its first new construction broke ground a week later. All of the preexisting structures now have development partners attached, with 10 vacant lots still available. A new street grid is currently under construction, extending Jefferson, First and Second streets through the mall site, which stretches the four blocks between Third and Terrace streets and approximates the two blocks between Clay and Morris avenues.

Depending on how it is measured, there are 10 separate projects in some stage of development and one completed project. The two that have currently broken ground represent a combined investment of $4 million.

"It takes time, but things are moving in the right direction and people are getting excited," said Dan Rinsema-Sybenga, manager of the Main Street program for Muskegon Area First. "We're definitely getting toward the end of this."

Among other positive signs, the city of Muskegon adopted a policy for Renaissance Zone extension, potentially allowing developments within the mall Ren Zone to extend the nearly tax-free benefits well beyond its 2014 expiration.

Muskegon Chamber
Lays Foundation

The Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce has taken the lead in its efforts to redevelop the 23-acre Muskegon Mall site with the construction of the 21,000-square-foot Hines Building. Named for donor Larry Hines of the Hines Corp., the $2.5 million development at the corner of Third Street and Western Avenue is the first new construction on the mall site. 

"This is the heart of downtown Muskegon," said Cindy Larsen, chamber president. "We've been promoting the importance of investing in downtown, and the board made a decision that we needed to put our money where our mouth is. This was definitely intended as a catalyst for the larger mall development."

Developed in partnership with Capstone Real Estate LLC of Grand Haven and constructed by Clifford Buck Construction Co. of Muskegon, current plans call for a two-story building that will house the chamber, Muskegon Area First, Muskegon Area Labor Management Committee, SCORE, the Small Business Technology & Development Center and The Employers' Association of West Michigan in a 7,000-square-foot condominium space on the second floor. The first floor will feature a multi-cultural welcome center for chamber members, new residents, visitors and investors.

Northwestern Mutual Financial Network will locate its insurance offices on the first floor, with the balance of the building to be leased as retail and office space. There is an outside possibility that a third floor will be added to plans in the coming weeks.

The chamber's programs have reached the capacity of its current site, located one block west at 900 Third St. The new facility will provide a boost in technology and a needed upgrade in training facilities and meeting rooms.

"This will give us a lot more flexibility to have a more active training schedule and for our committees involved in chamber projects," said Larsen. "Right now we're limited, because we just don't have a lot of places for people to meet. We're fighting over conference rooms."

While combining so many of Muskegon's business assistance assets under one roof will have significant operational advantages, it will also allow the chamber to share the financial burden of the new facility. The condo arrangement allows the chamber and its partners to build a larger development in the urban core.

"You want more substantial buildings on Main Street downtown," said Larsen. "What we could have built on our own wouldn't have been appropriate for downtown."

The chamber is nearing its fundraising goal of $425,000 for the project, which should cost the chamber $900,000 overall. The remaining $500,000 will be secured through a 15-year mortgage that will be paid with funds currently budgeted for office lease payments.

The building was designed by local architect Alan Majeski of Hooker DeJong Architects & Engineers.

Sidock Group Finds New Home

Across Western Avenue from the Hines Building, architecture and engineering firm Sidock Group Inc. is developing a 16,000-square-foot, two-story building similar in design and use to the Hines Building. Like its slightly larger neighbor, the Sidock building will feature restaurants and retail on the ground floor, with the primary tenant on the upper level.

Sidock Group is currently located at 888 Terrace St., just outside the Muskegon Mall Ren Zone. Its headquarters are in Novi. The project is expected to break ground this fall and should be completed by summer 2008.

Baker Cooking Downtown

Baker College of Muskegon has plans to purchase the half-acre parcel at the south corner of Third Street and Clay Avenue for its Muskegon College for Culinary Arts. Preliminary plans for the two-story, 15,000-square-foot facility include a fine dining restaurant/lab, a bakery and retail outlet, and other state-of-the-art labs and classrooms for specialty pastries, confection designs and instruction.

Clifford Buck Construction Co. is the general contractor for the project, which will get under way this fall or early next year.

Hegg's Tip Of The Spear

From the second floor of Hegg's Gallery of Fine Furniture at 356 Western Ave., Stacie Hegg can see the four-block stretch where most of the mall's new construction will occur in the coming year. On the day the Business Journal toured the furniture store — the first new business in the mall — the view was a mix of apocalyptic commercial vacancies and road crews carving an extension of Second Street through the former mall property.

"Look at this construction all around us. I'm going to lose my view," joked Hegg, the store's owner and manager. "We're right in the midst of it all. Most of the property around us is sold, and there are going to be groundbreakings all over the place."

The degree to which Hegg' Gallery stands out among its surroundings is nothing short of comical. At a cost of $1.3 million, Hegg and developer Western Avenue Properties painstakingly restored the 118-year-old Century Club building. Heating ducts and other elements were stripped away to reveal the original rotunda ceilings. Chandeliers were hung and original fixtures, stairs and floors were restored. Woodwork removed for salvage value was found, acquired and returned.

The three-level Romanesque-style building is sandwiched between the Muskegon Savings Bank and the Daniels building, each in a state of disrepair. Aside from the former National City Bank building on the opposite side of Western Avenue a block away, the three buildings sit alone in seven blocks of vacant land.

"We did look at other options," said Hegg. "We looked at Sternberg, in the Lakes Mall even, but it didn't feel right. We didn't want to change who we were. When I walked into this building, we knew immediately this was who we are: another old building in another downtown on another lake."

In an attempt to limit the impact of seasonality at the original Hegg's Gallery in Hart, Hegg sought a location in the Muskegon area, where 36 percent of the store's customers reside. Originally believing the Century Club to be spoken for, Hegg had approached Gary Post of Western Avenue Properties about the Daniels building. "When I found out that nobody had signed on the dotted line, I talked him into showing us the building," said Hegg. "I was going to do everything in my power to get us in this building."

At 15,000 square feet, the Muskegon location is much smaller than the 40,000-square-foot Hegg's Gallery in Hart. Even though the two stores do not have a great deal of merchandise in common, Hegg sees the Muskegon store as a satellite location. The Muskegon store will use catalogs and its design center to make up for the lack of showroom space.     

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