MUSKEGON — A deal to redevelop the former Ameribank building is making headway, but the project remains contingent on incentives from the city and the Michigan Economic Development Corp.
Muskegon developer John Essex, managing partner and president of Core Development LLC, submitted a formal purchase agreement to the city prior to the Jan. 30 deadline. If the project goes ahead, it would transform a partially demolished building into a new use in the core of the city’s downtown.
“There are some incentives we are waiting to receive confirmation on, but if they are approved by the city and the MEDC, we will move forward,” he said.
The city of Muskegon extended for 60 days Core Development’s option to purchase the property for $425,000, after the option was set to expire in November. Essex expects the city will review the proposal in the next month.
The deal hinges on incentives from the MEDC and Muskegon’s DDA or Brownfield Redevelopment Authority, but both Essex and City Manager Frank Peterson say they remain optimistic. Peterson said the city commission already approved the purchase offer, so it’s really a waiting game with the MEDC.
“I would be surprised if it didn’t go through,” Peterson said. “We are far enough in the process now. Nothing is going to be surprising to the city commission or the DDA.”
The requested MEDC incentives include $1.2 million, or typically up to 20 percent of the project’s total, in low-interest financing and grants, similar to what other downtown Muskegon projects have received.
Essex estimates the total project will cost between $7 million and $8 million.
Core Development plans to redevelop the property at 880 First St. into 40 market-rate apartments with underground parking and possible retail on the first floor, if the MEDC or the city requires it. If everything goes to plan, construction could start around May with a projected completion date in summer of 2020.
Essex, a Muskegon native, is also a partner in Core Realty Partners LLC and CEO of Port City Group Holdings Inc., and has several other downtown projects in the works.
The city purchased the Ameribank property for $150,000 in 2015 and started the demolition work to get the building ready for construction. The five-story building is essentially a skeleton and needs interior and exterior walls, windows, plumbing, electricals and to be totally finished on the inside.
Erected as Peoples State Bank in 1923, it became the Liberty Bank Building and later Ameribank. A 1970s remodel did away with the building’s historic façade and covered most of its ground-floor windows with stucco.
The Ameribank building is next to Highpoint Flats, another historic bank building Parkland Properties of West Michigan LLC redeveloped into commercial space and apartments. It sits across the street from Port City Construction & Development Services LLC’s Heritage Square residential and commercial development.
Jon Rooks, principal of Parkland Properties, said he is glad to see some momentum with the building in the heart of downtown.
“It’s obviously going to be a very positive impact for that whole neighborhood,” Rooks said. “I think he’s the right guy for the job, and he’s got the experience and the funding. It should be a great neighbor for us.”
Beyond the Ameribank building, Essex’s Corepark Investments LLC spent the last few years gutting and renovating the old Al Perri building into the NorthTown 794 mixed-use development. The building dates to the 1920s. The restoration involved salvaging tin ceilings covered with drop ceilings, exposing and sandblasting the original brick, and getting the space to a “white box” and ready for tenants.
“Muskegon knocked down a lot of beautiful historic buildings,” Essex said. “We knew what it was underneath so we started tearing all the siding and stucco off. … It’s really turned out quite beautiful.”
Restoring the historic building at 794 Pine St. has been a “labor of love” and several businesses are set to open by the summer. Those include Rake Beer Project LLC, Aldea Coffee, Redmon’s Kitchen & Bar, and Capone’s Speakeasy and Pizzeria. The project has been positioned as a miniature version of The B.O.B. in Grand Rapids.
“We still have the top floor with really nice lake views,” Essex said. “Right now, the concept is to use it for professional offices.”
Essex also owns the parking lot across from the LC Walker Arena on Western Avenue, and preliminary plans call for building a parking garage with retail on the first floor.
“We’re still looking at options, but the need for parking is going to be very high,” he said. “Our target is to get that thing up as a parking garage.”
Working with other community partners, Core Development also is buying the former Muskegon Farmers Market on Yuba Street and plans to build a food processing incubator and manufacturing facility.
The Food Forward FARM incubator facility is part of the West Michigan Shoreline Food Processing Initiative and includes three phases, serving fast-growing startups to well-established companies in the food industry. It will house food-grade industrial space plus training and meeting rooms and a Michigan State University Extension office, Essex said.
Muskegon received a $2 million state grant to support the construction of phase one of the facility and provide space and support to small food processors. It’s designed to help companies who are just starting out or may want to do short runs and prototype work with affordable rental rates, Essex said.
On the opposite end of Western Avenue, Core Development owns two other historic buildings at 1208 Eighth St. and 600 Clay Ave. Essex was driving around and saw they were eyesores. He has plans to gut and renovate those structures into retail and commercial spaces, with the restoration work expected to begin this spring.
Essex, an industrial executive whose Port City Group manufactures aluminum die castings, mechanical assemblies and injected molded plastics, has joined other developers such as Gary Post at Port City Construction and Parkland’s Rooks in helping to revive the downtown area.
“He’s definitely a good one for us to have in the mix,” Peterson said of Essex. “He hasn’t shied away from the projects that were more difficult to do, especially the Al Perri building. We all kind of assumed it was going to sit there until someone tore it down. He went in there and saved it and has it pretty much filled up.”
Essex remembers downtown when he was growing up and would like to see a grocery store, bakery and more businesses to bring in foot traffic.
He is a partner in Core Realty Partners with Steve Mastella. Both Port City Group and Core Realty Partners have offices downtown.
“I have been pretty blessed to do business in this community and benefitted from that,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun and it gives my team the opportunity to get involved in these projects.”
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