Focus, Economic Development, and Real Estate

Train delivers on Renaissance Zone promise

Robert Grooters had a vision for the south side of GR, which is now thriving.

October 30, 2015
| By Pat Evans |
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Union Station train
The antique train, complete with then-governor John Engler’s name on it, became a centerpiece for the Union Station development. Courtesy Grooters Development Co.

There aren’t many times Robert Grooters has had to tell his wife he purchased a train.

Really, there’s only been once, and he sort of mumbled it. The antique train became a centerpiece for Union Station, a $15 million, 500,000-square-foot industrial development along U.S. 131 south of downtown Grand Rapids.

Now, 16 years after Grooters and then-governor John Engler drove the first railroad spike in lieu of a ground-breaking ceremony, the development has proven to be an exemplary model of a Michigan Renaissance Zone.

Grooters, owner of Robert Grooters Development Co., now can look back on that period with pride, but at the time, he wasn’t sure what he was getting himself into.

The site was a heavily contaminated railroad yard that wouldn’t sell. The entire 30-acre site was a Renaissance Zone — designated real estate that was virtually tax free for developments for up to 15 years. While the program was phased out in 2011, Grooters said Union Station is proof that Renaissance Zones really worked.

Grooters liked the site’s potential, which he had strung together from three pieces of property from separate owners, but it wasn’t getting a lot of traction, so he wrote Gov. Engler asking for a letter of support. With that support, he closed on the site two days later, along with a commitment from two tenants at another property nearby on Hall Street.

“It was a bad part of the community — lots of dope,” Grooters said.

At the time, Grooters told the Business Journal: “It’s just a win-win project. It’s a win for the local community because of the new jobs, and it cleans up the area. It’s a win for the city because it helps the image of the city. And it’s a good example for the state because it’s a Renaissance Zone project that shows what does work.”

The cleanup of the site was expensive due to the pollution and relocation of the rail yard, but it was well worth it, Grooters said.

He said he could have charged full rental price and profited on the tax breaks, but instead he passed those savings on to the tenants.

The project had been largely opportunity-based: Finding 30 acres of land to develop that close to downtown doesn’t happen often. Grooters felt it could be a boon for the south side of town, much like his Bridgewater Place project helped add to the skyline of downtown Grand Rapids.

“I wanted something for the south side,” he said. “We have an obligation to improve the city.”

Before the project was finished in 2000, the developer had filled all but one of the spaces. The site is two 200,000-square-foot buildings and one 100,000-square-foot building, all constructed to look like a train depot.

Plastic molds company LDI, Savory Foods and Aspen Logistics all found a home at Union Station. The Grand Rapid Public Library made use of the site for a temporary home when its downtown building was being renovated.

Now, it’s rare to see one of the spaces become available.

The transformation from blighted rail yard to an iconic landmark that visitors and commuters can see as they drive into downtown from the south on U.S. 131 makes for a proud moment for Grooters.

“It’s one of my favorites we’ve done because of the impact it had,” Grooters said. “Now, it’s paying full taxes. It did its job.”

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