It may be Miller time on the west side

May 13, 2012
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A decision made late last week by the Grand Rapids Brownfield Redevelopment Authority could ultimately ignite business development on the city’s near west side.

The panel agreed to give brownfield status to one of the former Miller Products buildings at 601 First St. NW. It’s a single-story structure Rockford Construction bought last fall and plans to turn into its new headquarters.

“This will be the future home of Rockford Construction Inc. The project is a combination of renovation and new construction,” said City Economic Development Director Kara Wood, also executive director of the brownfield authority.

The $4.7 million investment Rockford Construction proposes to make is contingent on the Grand Rapids city commission and the Michigan Economic Development Corp. also ratifying the brownfield authority’s decision.

“Rockford and its partners were catalysts in redeveloping downtown and helping to make it a vibrant place to live, work and play,” said Mike VanGessel, company chairman, co-founder and CEO, in a statement.

“Our ability to contemplate an investment of this magnitude hinges on successfully negotiating a deal with the city and state to help remove environmental hazards and other impediments to redevelopment that exist at this site. It is our desire to provide a first-class business environment for our employees, contractor partners and clients,” added VanGessel.

The downtown development VanGessel referred to includes a list of projects that range from the renovation of the former Peck Drug Store at the corner of Monroe Center and Division Avenue to the $100 million Cherry Street Landing, the granddaddy of the district’s developments. That effort, done in conjunction with the Secchia and DeVos families, redefined roughly 10 previously abandoned blocks south of Van Andel Arena.

Two city commissioners, Walt Gutowski and Dave Schaffer, and County Commissioner Michael Wawee have been working behind the scenes to reorganize the Stockbridge, West Leonard and West Fulton business districts into a unified group to promote development on the west side. All three represent the city on their respective boards. Gutowski and Wawee also own businesses in the Stockbridge district, where Rockford Construction wants to locate.

Having one of the industry’s highest-rated construction and development firms move into the area can only motivate the trio’s efforts and spark the interest of other businesses looking for a new location.

“There are some other brownfields in the area that could get developed after this,” said Brian Trent, a project engineer with SME Inc., which is handling the environmental engineering at the site.

“Projects like this were what the brownfield program was created to encourage. By partnering with companies like Rockford to clean up contaminated sites like this one, we can revitalize underutilized properties and bring high-quality jobs in our neighborhoods,” said Wood, who noted that Rockford would have about 100 employees at the site once work is completed.

Rockford Construction Executive Vice President Ken Bailey said the project will deliver 35,000 square feet of office space and the structure will have a green roof. It will also feature a site for its building trades group, an interior courtyard, some covered parking and will be done to LEED standards.

Trent said the fill beneath the site is contaminated from the platings and coatings done by Miller Products, which was located there for the better part of five decades before closing in 2008. He said significant industrial cleaning needs to be done to the building’s floor and walls, along with a lot of demolition work.

Gaining the brownfield designation would allow Rockford Construction to receive a tax reimbursement of up to $1.1 million to offset the cost to remove contaminants and make infrastructure improvements. The reimbursement will come from a portion of the higher property tax revenue the site will generate after upgrades are made. Wood said the tax-increment reimbursement would likely take up to 14 years to complete.

When finished, the project is projected to generate nearly $88,000 in new tax revenue each year. The city will get about $79,000 of that total, with most of it coming from income taxes.

Bailey said the company put its headquarters at 5540 Glenwood Hills Parkway SE in Cascade Township up for sale last fall. Lake Michigan Credit Union recently announced it will buy the property and locate a portion of its corporate office there. Rockford is using a site at 36th Street and Kalamazoo Avenue as its temporary headquarters.

Rockford bought the Miller Products property last fall from Comerica Bank for just under $900,000. Comerica foreclosed on the site about two years after the company went out of business.

Wood said the brownfield authority will review the project’s work plan and development agreement at the board’s next meeting June 7. City commissioners are expected to hold a public hearing on the development agreement and brownfield designation June 12.

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