COLDWATER — When Clemens Food Group began searching for a site to house its new 550,000-square-foot pork processing facility, access to wastewater capacity emerged as its top requirement.
Finding a community with ample capacity to treat the 3 million gallons of wastewater its new facility would generate on a weekly basis took precedent over individual site selection, incentives and other economic development tools, according to executives. Clemens also looked for communities that had a willingness to expand their wastewater systems in the future.
“For our industry that uses larger quantities of water than maybe other industries, wastewater rose to the top for us as being that number one area we looked at for infrastructure availability,” said Eric Patton, senior vice president at Hatfield, Pa.-based Clemens Food Group. “Because wastewater is heavily associated with capital expenditures, typically we find (capacity) is sufficient for (municipalities’) needs at that time, but they do not have additional capacity to allow future growth. They may be willing to expand, but the time associated with that is generally very problematic when you’re going through the process of identifying a site for a new facility.”
Ultimately, Clemens Food Group chose Coldwater, a small city roughly 50 miles southeast of Kalamazoo, for its $255 million facility, which will bring 800 jobs to the community when it comes online this fall.
“Coldwater did a wonderful job of attracting us to the area and facilitating various parts of the project to meet our needs,” Patton said. “They were a true partner in attracting us and helping us bring this project together.”
Clemens’ decision to locate in Coldwater underscores a larger theme of the growing importance of wastewater infrastructure when it comes to economic development, particularly for rural communities.
“It’s a prerequisite to have wastewater capacity,” said Paul Beckhusen, director of the Coldwater Board of Public Utilities and a point person on the Clemens project. “You can’t go out and sell yourself as something you’re not. … In the utility business, you have to look multiple years down the road. If you don’t have the infrastructure, you’re going to miss the opportunities.”
Beckhusen worked closely to connect Coldwater’s wastewater treatment plant with Clemens Food Group, which sits approximately five miles away. Coldwater also is “getting its ducks in a row” to grow its municipal wastewater facility, as Clemens expects to expand its facility in five years.
The focus on wastewater infrastructure is not limited to Coldwater. To the north, a coalition of local government entities in Manistee County plans to seek federal funding to create wastewater infrastructure around Portage Lake, located 50 miles southwest of Traverse City.
The project would connect the existing municipal wastewater facility owned by the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians to nearby Onekama Township, Pleasanton Township, Arcadia Township, Bear Lake Township and the village of Bear Lake.
“It’s a real game changer for that neck of the woods,” said Tim Ervin, director of resource development for the Alliance of Economic Success, a Manistee-based economic development organization that’s helping spearhead the project.
Initial estimates show the wastewater project will cost approximately $37 million, Ervin said, noting that it is still early in the development and funding stages. So far, local governments have agreed to form a sewer authority and submit a proposal for grant funding and low-interest loans to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
If the project comes together, it would enable further economic development throughout Manistee County, which lacks space suitable for development without municipal wastewater in place, Ervin said.
Beyond the prospects for future development, Ervin points to an existing project — the redevelopment of the Portage Point Inn — as being particularly reliant on the establishment of a municipal wastewater system.
Once completed, Portage Point Inn could support around 100 jobs, but the redevelopment hinges on transitioning the property from its current on-site wastewater system to a more robust municipal utility, according to Ervin.
“The renovation of the hotel is pretty dependent on having municipal wastewater treatment,” he said.
Michigan’s water infrastructure as a whole was thrust into the spotlight in 2014 on the heels of the Flint water crisis, where inadequate infrastructure and poor planning resulted in lead leaching into people’s drinking water.
Since then, improving Michigan’s water infrastructure has become a cornerstone of the Snyder administration’s 21st Century Infrastructure Commission, which hopes to identify ways to improve systems throughout the state.
A report drafted by the commission in November 2016 showed Michigan facing an $800 million annual shortfall in its water and sewer infrastructure needs as a result of “decades of deferred maintenance and a lack of knowledge on the condition of our water-related assets.”
EMPLOYING EXISTING CAPACITY
While small communities focus on increasing access to municipal wastewater, larger municipalities are recruiting businesses to their region by marketing their systems’ excess capacity.
Jonathan Wilson, an economic development coordinator for Muskegon County, said one of his primary jobs is to develop Muskegon’s wastewater system and attract new users to the region.
The county has roughly 30 million gallons of excess wastewater capacity daily, which is primarily the result of large industrial facilities closing in past decades.
To employ that capacity again, Wilson is targeting a variety of companies, particularly those in the food processing and related industries.
“We bring in a large amount of hauled waste,” Wilson said. “We have hauled waste trucks come from all over the state, as far as Detroit, on a monthly basis that drop off waste directly.”
Muskegon County is talking with several unnamed waste hauling operations to relocate their operations to the area “based off the idea that they can connect to our system that has so much extra capacity,” Wilson said.
Moreover, the county is working to secure funding aimed at connecting its wastewater facility to the Continental Dairy and Fairlife Dairy facilities in Coopersville, a move that Wilson notes is imperative for those companies to stay in the region as they expand.
“They are expanding regardless, and we need to find a way to accommodate that expansion as a region, either by expanding Coopersville’s capacity or connecting to a system that has excess capacity like ours,” Wilson said.
In Grand Rapids, the city recently detailed plans to construct a biodigester system that would divert high-strength waste from companies such as Founders Brewing Co., Coca-Cola Bottling Co. and SET Environmental Inc. away from the municipal wastewater system.
The project also includes building a pipeline connecting Founders, Coca-Cola and SET to the digester, as well as a phosphorus recovery system.
According to Mike Lunn, the environmental services manager for the City of Grand Rapids, the $30 million project will free up 20 percent of the city’s wastewater capacity, allowing it to attract more businesses in the future.
“The idea is to shift some load off of the water resource recovery facility and treat it on the side to free up capacity for future growth,” Lunn said. “That leaves us room for growth. If another food producer comes into town, we can accommodate them.”
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story mistakenly stated that Muskegon County is targeting businesses that ship hog waste. The county actually accepts hauled waste from around the state, and is working to attract more waste haulers to the area.