HUDSONVILLE –– While the redevelopment of traditional small downtowns across Michigan may look different than the activity in larger, urban settings, municipalities increasingly are defining their visions and attracting investors.
Case in point: The Ottawa County city of Hudsonville, located southwest of Grand Rapids, lacked what many experts would consider as a traditional downtown, largely because it’s bisected by Chicago Drive, according to City Manager Patrick Waterman. The development of the four-lane, high-speed road resulted in the closure of many businesses decades ago, he said.
But in recent years, Waterman and others in city government have taken a variety of steps to make their city center more walkable and bring in more services and amenities.
“Small towns still have the ability to attract residents that traditionally were moving to the suburbs,” Waterman said during a panel discussion in early March hosted by the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC), a trade association for the retail real estate sector. “This resurgence in the urban core is very noticeable in the big cities, but it’s not as noticeable in the smaller towns.”
Recently, Hudsonville’s efforts to attract the kind of development that its stakeholders requested has started paying off.
Zeeland-based Geerlings Development Co. Inc. recently started work on the $4.2 million mixed-use Hudson Center at 3424 Chicago Drive. Upon completion, the 25,000-square-foot, three-story building will offer ground-floor retail space, offices and apartments.
Developer Scott Geerlings, who also serves as a partner and president at Midwest Construction Group Inc., said a Hudsonville elected official first suggested the apartments. Initially, Geerlings said the cost to build the apartments and the rents they would need to demand made the project unfeasible. But after unlocking a variety of incentive dollars, the development wound up working and a second phase of the development already is in the planning stages.
“Our timing was almost perfect,” Geerlings said at the ICSC conference. “We were probably six months early, but at the end of the day, it gave us time to really get our project in order and made it a better project. Had we moved forward earlier, it probably would be two floors without the apartments on top.”
‘GETTING THE BALL ROLLING’
Hudsonville, like many other traditional smaller downtowns, is experiencing its first wave of investment in decades.
Waterman said the city went through a lengthy community engagement and master planning process, known as Imagine Hudsonville 2030, that was aimed at guiding development over the next several years for the town of 7,100 people.
Last June, the city opened Terra Square, a farmers market and event space adjacent to Geerlings’ Hudson Center project.
“That kind of got the ball rolling, that started to pique the interest of the outside community and created a buzz that there was something going on in Hudsonville,” Waterman said of the Terra Square project.
Moreover, he said the master planning process allowed the community to define its vision and work with developers who could bring it to reality. In doing so, the overall approvals process for projects can go much easier.
“We know 90 percent of our residents say they want a walkable downtown,” Waterman said. “We know they want more restaurants. So when we’re talking about projects and spending public dollars on projects that support those, we can say, ‘This is what you asked for.’ We shouldn’t be hearing opposition.”
Community economic development sources say the Hudsonville model of aligning a development vision with zoning policies that are then marketed to developers makes for a burgeoning trend around the state.
“We’re really seeing communities on a large scale being way more proactive than ever before,” said Joe Borgstrom, principal with Place & Main Advisors LLC, an East Lansing-based consulting firm focused on community redevelopment and economic development. “For a long time, communities took the approach that, ‘We’re here, (developers) will find us.’ They’re starting to understand that they need to market themselves proactively in the redevelopment game.”
The state’s Redevelopment Ready Communities, a technical assistance certification program administered by the Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC), also stresses many of the same practices. The program seeks to implement best practices and policies for streamlining the development process.
Nearly 20 communities around the state have received the certification, including several Detroit suburbs, Marshall, Allegan, Kalamazoo and, most recently, Battle Creek.
While the MEDC was unable to provide specific data as to how much investment the program has spurred, the certification sends a positive signal to the development community, said Peter Colovos, principal with Prairie Real Estate Group LLC, a Benton Harbor-based real estate development and management firm.
“As a developer, I want to make sure a community has their act together,” Colovos said during the ICSC conference. “When you go through the (Redevelopment Ready Communities) process, you really should also be driving a culture that is pro-business, pro-development, understanding what good placemaking is. I think that really it should say that you’re open for business.”
That’s a message that Waterman in Hudsonville takes to heart.
“You don’t want to be known as a community that’s difficult to do business with,” Waterman said. “For the most part, the message is, ‘Let’s get (developers) through quickly, let’s make it as painless as possible and get this done from start to finish.’”