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Published in Economic Development
West Michigan economic development organizations have compiled a list of top sites ready for potential large-scale projects, such as this former BASF industrial property in Muskegon Township where a life sciences company plans a $430 million redevelopment. West Michigan economic development organizations have compiled a list of top sites ready for potential large-scale projects, such as this former BASF industrial property in Muskegon Township where a life sciences company plans a $430 million redevelopment. COURTESY PHOTO

Economic developers inventory top 10 large West Michigan properties to help lure projects

BY Tuesday, October 18, 2022 04:21pm

Three economic development organizations serving a 13-county region in West Michigan have narrowed nearly 150 properties down to 10 sites that would be suitable for potentially large industrial or advanced manufacturing projects.

The roughly eight-month effort comes as state and regional economic development leaders experience a strong pipeline of potential projects and a desire to be prepared to land the next big investment. Securing land for these projects is often a first step before the state can offer highly competitive incentive packages.

Backed by Michigan Economic Development Corp. grant funding, The Right Place Inc., Lakeshore Advantage Corp. and Greater Muskegon Economic Development led a $50,000 project to narrow about 140 potential industrial properties down to the 10 most suitable for large developments, including a top five “A” list.

The project was part inventorying properties of 50 or more acres as well as determining barriers to development, said Travis Alden, senior director of community development at The Right Place.

“Everyone has a different definition of what build-ready or shovel-ready means,” Alden said, noting that a goal of the project was to “get more developable industrial property online.”

“We decided that we needed to get proactive and not just do an inventory of what larger sites are out there in the 13-county region, but do some analysis of what would need to be done to bring more of them online,” Alden said. “There’s some science and art behind it as well to narrow down the sites. We ended up with a short list of ones we think have a lot of upside and a lot of desirability from a development perspective, particularly for larger sorts of projects.”

Alden said the roughly 140 sites that were narrowed down to about 30 are relatively close to infrastructure and are amendable for zoning. The team brought on engineering firm Fishbeck for additional GIS mapping and to identify topography, wastewater and other infrastructure. The organizations also worked with officials at DTE Energy and Consumers Energy on the sites’ energy infrastructure.

That led to an “A” and “B” list of five properties each. The “A” list comprises properties that, after working through minor local approvals or securing state funding, “could be game-changers in terms of when they become activated,” Alden said. The “B” list may involve “a little more of an uphill climb to get there.”

While Alden declined to say where exactly the properties are located, they are within eight of the 13 counties spanning Region 4 of the state’s economic development collaboratives (EDC). The Region 4 EDC includes Mason, Lake, Osceola, Oceana, Newaygo, Mecosta, Muskegon, Montcalm, Kent, Ottawa, Ionia, Allegan and Barry counties. 

The top sites range in size from 74 acres to 285 acres.

“If all of these were to come online, be activated and ready for marketing and development, that would put another 1,420 acres online for manufacturing and industrial development in West Michigan,” Alden said. “That would be huge and give us a bit more to bring to the table when we have some of those big inquiries.”

Project pipeline

The project reflects a similar effort in Southeast Michigan, where the Detroit Regional Partnership recently developed a web-based portal of large, vacant sections of development-ready land across an 11-county region, according to media reports.

The West Michigan project came as The Right Place and the MEDC were courting global battery manufacturer Gotion Inc. for a $2.36 billion project now moving forward near Big Rapids.

Economic development groups more broadly describe a strong project pipeline for the region.

“There’s no shortage of inquiries coming into West Michigan,” Alden said.

This summer, life sciences company Global Life Sciences Solutions USA LLC received $5.7 million in state grants and incentives to repurpose a former BASF site in Muskegon Township as part of a $430 million project.

Morgan Carroll, director of business development at Greater Muskegon Economic Development, said existing infrastructure was crucial in attracting the Massachusetts-based company to the former BASF site and for attracting other projects.

“It’s great to have 50 or 100 acres, but if there isn’t infrastructure there, then the site really just isn’t a viable option,” Carroll said, citing reliable energy and wastewater infrastructure. To that end, GMED recently supported a $60 million grant from the Michigan Strategic Fund Board to help complete a wastewater pipeline to facilitate agribusiness growth in the Coopersville area.

“Having that infrastructure is super critical,” Carroll said. “And it’s hard for a lot of communities to get because it’s just so darn expensive.”

Carroll said narrowing down a list of five sites in the region was crucial to position them for potential grant funding to build out infrastructure, if needed.

“We got really picky towards the end because if we’re going to be asking for money in the future for infrastructure, these sites need to be close to interstate access and need utilities and the talent pool there,” Carroll said. “There’s a lot of factors at play in picking those sites.”

Carroll added that the site-readiness project was “really based upon the fact that we’re seeing all of these huge project requests coming to the state of Michigan. And those get sent out to us as economic developers and we can’t submit (proposals) because we don’t have the sites or the acres.”

As well, state lawmakers have prioritized investing in site readiness for large projects. A recent $846 million reallocation into the Strategic Outreach and Attraction Reserve (SOAR) directs $250 million to the Michigan Strategic Site Readiness Program. That includes $25 million for grants to local economic development organizations and $100 million for improving industrial sites where a potential user has not been identified. Another $75 million is for the assessment of “mega-strategic” sites, while the remaining $50 million is for improving sites planned for a specific user.

Experts say this type of site preparation is key even before states enter the high-stakes competition involving large incentive packages.

“When companies are looking at where they’re going to site a new operation, they’re looking at some very fundamental things that need to be there: Enough land for the space they’re going to take up, and water and electricity at reasonable rates that are critical inputs to their processes. They need enough reliance that there’s a workforce there and an ability to train and replicate that workforce going forward. These are all must-check boxes,” Kristin Dziczek, auto policy adviser at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, told MiBiz this week. “When they get four, five or six different places that check all of those boes, then it comes down to incentives.”

Alden described it as a deflating feeling when economic developers are unable to even offer a qualifying site.

“There’s nothing that you hate more than if there’s a qualified inquiry, a qualified prospect looking at your community or region … and you don’t have the property, sites or infrastructure to meet those needs,” Alden said. “You have to say, ‘We don’t have the product to offer you,’ and that really stinks.”

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