Two Grand Rapids-based firms, Lott3Metz Architecture LLC and Rockford Construction Co. Inc., worked on a facade improvement project at the Farmers & Merchants Bank building at 92 W. Main Street in Benton Harbor. Two Grand Rapids-based firms, Lott3Metz Architecture LLC and Rockford Construction Co. Inc., worked on a facade improvement project at the Farmers & Merchants Bank building at 92 W. Main Street in Benton Harbor. COURTESY RENDERING

Strong economy boosts development activity in Southwest Michigan

BY Sunday, June 09, 2019 07:00pm

BENTON HARBOR — As real estate activity picks up in Southwest Michigan, officials in the Benton Harbor area are hoping a developer will take interest in renovating a historic downtown building. 

Cornerstone Alliance, an economic development organization serving Berrien County, in May issued requests for proposals to redevelop the vacant Farmers & Merchants Bank building at 92 W. Main Street. 

The project, which will be eligible for more than $100,000 in cash and incentives, is part of ongoing efforts to redevelop Benton Harbor’s downtown. Combined with other recent and planned projects, developers have shown a “considerable amount of interest” in the area, said Greg Vaughn, vice president of business development at Cornerstone Alliance. 

The two-story Farmers & Merchants Bank building has more than 12,500 square feet of space, is zoned for commercial use and is close to two other significant renovation projects in the city’s downtown. 

“It’s an iconic building, an attractive building,” Vaughn said. “We are putting some incentives on the table to help attract a user for the facility. People are looking for investment opportunities and we think this is a good opportunity for anyone who has an imagination and wants to grow their investment in a community that’s really ready for redevelopment.”

Vaughn remains confident the building will generate interest, especially after Benton Harbor native and NBA player Wilson Chandler partnered with Cornerstone Alliance to complete a $250,000 renovation of the building’s facade this month. A pair of Grand Rapids-based firms, Lott3Metz Architecture LLC and Rockford Construction Co. Inc., were involved with the project. 

As well, Cornerstone Alliance has taken other steps recently to help reinvigorate downtown Benton Harbor. That includes the Harbor Center project at 126 Pipestone St., which Cornerstone Alliance acquired and sought developers for a couple of years ago. Now Cressy Commercial Real Estate is completing a $3 million historic renovation of the building, which will bring a dozen new apartments and more than 2,000 square feet of commercial space downtown. Residency is expected to start in spring 2020.

“Addressing that building and now working on addressing the bank building are definite steps in the right direction to making the downtown Benton Harbor area more attractive to future developments,” Vaughn said, noting a mixed-use redevelopment is also taking place at the Sheffield Building at 132 Pipestone Street.

While downtown Benton Harbor remains a focus, recent developments and business investments also have contributed to heightened activity across the southwest corner of the state. 

Loren Gerber, a founding broker at Stevensville-based Core Real Estate Inc., said commercial real estate sales as reported through the multiple listing service are about 2.5 times higher this year than in the prior year, based on dollar volume.

Among the projects, roll-covering manufacturer Vail Rubber Works Inc. is in the process of building an $8.3 million facility in Berrien County’s Royalton Township after outgrowing its longtime space in downtown St. Joseph.

As well, United Federal Credit Union bought a former Whirlpool Corp. office in St. Joseph to house its new corporate headquarters, as MiBiz reported in April. The 80,000-square-foot office on Hilltop Road will accommodate the credit union’s growth plans and house staff currently working at corporate offices on South State Street in St. Joseph and in Niles.

In May, St. Joseph-based LECO Corp. donated 50 acres of industrial real estate to Cornerstone Alliance, which along with the Renaissance Development Fund will partner with Berrien County Community Development and the Berrien County Land Bank to hold and collaboratively showcase the property to find the best use for the site. 

The property is located in Lake Township at the intersection of Lemon Creek Road and Gast Road, just north of the city of Bridgman. The site, which is adjacent to the CSX rail line, is zoned for industrial use.

LECO, a manufacturer of analytical instrumentation, mass spectrometers, metallography and optical equipment, also recently invested in a $19 million expansion in St. Joseph Charter Township.

“Those projects, as well as the projects going on in downtown Benton Harbor, plus a couple others on the drawing board, to us are good indications that our area continues to do well,”  Vaughn said. “There’s still a considerable amount of interest in growing a business in the Benton Harbor-St. Joseph area.”

Vaughn believes the activity in the area comes as a result of a combination of factors.

“The economy is better, naturally, and there’s some pent-up demand — people have held out for a while on projects,” he said. “They need more space, they need more employees and equipment, so they’re making those investments.”

Core Real Estate’s Gerber, who has worked in the real estate industry in Southwest Michigan for 32 years, attributes the activity to partnerships between developers and Cornerstone Alliance.

Hospitality and tourism have expanded with an increase in hotel accommodations, wineries and microbreweries, which all help to fuel the interest in the area, he added, noting the region is “a great place to live” with many nearby natural amenities.

The Benton Harbor area also is situated at the intersection of major highways, so it is equipped for logistical use, Gerber said. As well, the area has vacant industrial land, which is in short supply elsewhere in the region. 

“There’s a lot of talent in the area,” he said. “We could always use more. We can accommodate industries. There’s a lot of people working on this, and a good community to support jobs and have people locate their business here.” 

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