County asked to join new partnership

March 25, 2012
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Although Kent County Commissioner Dick Bulkowski supported a resolution at the Finance Committee meeting last week that would let the county participate in the recently formed West Michigan Economic Partnership, he said he wasn’t certain he would do the same when the issue comes before the county commission April 12.

Bulkowski made it clear that he wasn’t opposed to having Kent pursue yet another incentive that could draw companies and jobs to the county. But he said that much of what the WMEP proposes to do can be done through existing economic legislation and incentives, and questioned whether another entity was actually needed.

Bulkowski also felt that the new initiative could conflict with the county’s economic development policy, which includes Kent’s Land Bank Authority. The authority is offering incentives in an attempt to sell the former Sparta Foundry site to an unidentified company that would bring jobs to the county. “I’ll support it here, but I’m not promising to support it at the commission level,” he said.

The Finance Committee unanimously approved the resolution and recommended that the full board take the same action.

The WMEP is being promoted by The Right Place Inc. and Muskegon Area First, both nonprofit economic development organizations. The partnership wants to include Kent and Muskegon counties, certain municipalities in those counties such as Grand Rapids, Wyoming, Kentwood and Muskegon, and townships like Cascade and Muskegon under its umbrella.

In short, it’s an intergovernmental economic agreement that will offer incentives to companies that locate on properties being served by at least two modes of transportation. The WMEP is authorized by Public Act 275 of 2010, known as the Next Michigan Development Act; the Michigan Economic Development Corp. approved the partnership last June. Only five of these partnerships are allowed statewide.

The county is being asked to join because it owns the Gerald R. Ford International Airport, a property that handles business freight and is served by two modes of transportation — trucks and planes. Rick Chapla, vice president of development for The Right Place, told committee members last week there are businesses that need to move freight and are looking for properties that would improve their logistics to do that, like the area near the airport. The partnership would market qualified parcels.

The WMEP could also acquire, construct, manage, maintain or operate buildings, sell or lease real or personal property, and dispose of, divide or distribute any property. It could also make loans and incur debt, sue and be sued, and charge fees for services.

Chapla also said the county could appoint an airport official as its representative to the partnership’s governing board, and the WMEP would get its funding from member units, grants, fees paid by property owners and by companies looking for properties. The partnership can’t levy a property tax, but it can accept that type of revenue from its member communities.

A company that locates on an approved property could receive industrial tax abatements, a nearly tax-free status like the Renaissance Zone offered, and tax-increment financing from improvements made to a site. But Chapla added that incentives could only be handed out if the county and the local government in which a property is located agreed to the awards.

However, a few of the legislative priorities the county’s Legislative Committee revealed in February attempt to limit the loss of Kent’s property-tax revenue to other taxing jurisdictions. The committee wants the state to cap the amount of revenue that tax-capturing entities can collect from the county’s property tax and exempt its dedicated millages from any capture, to name two priorities.

Besides the airport area, Chapla said another key property the WMEP wants to market is the former General Motors stamping plant location on 36th Street SW in Wyoming because it’s served by truck and rail. He also said there is an agricultural business that is interested in the area near the Muskegon port. Chapla said the firm deals with various types of grain commodities and wants to ship products south via the waterway. Right now, the company trucks its products to grain elevators in Chicago.

“The properties can’t be used for retail,” said Chapla. “This can’t be used for warehousing.”

As a matter of fact, Chapla said the partnership is looking for industries that offer higher-paying jobs than retail. “This gives us a broad range of companies that we can work with,” he said.

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