The various pockets of development in Allegan County make the area difficult to define in broad strokes.
To the west, there’s the Lake Michigan shoreline, dotted with high-end homes and the resort community of Saugatuck, as well as a corner of the city of Holland that includes the West Michigan Regional Airport. In the middle of the county lies the city of Allegan, with its storefronts in historic buildings and the North American headquarters of Perrigo Co. plc. To the east in Wayland, the Gun Lake Casino continues to grow as part of a sweeping $100 million expansion project announced in 2019.
Meanwhile, the areas between the various cities and villages are covered with agricultural land, where farmers produce of a wide array of goods.
“It’s a pretty diverse range of private sector employers in the county,” said Jennifer Owens, president of Lakeshore Advantage Corp., the economic development agency for Ottawa and Allegan counties.
She cites, for example, the county’s largest employers, including the pharmaceutical company Perrigo with more than 3,000 employees, office furniture manufacturer Haworth Inc. and meat processing plant JBS USA.
“That’s a really good thing, that the largest private sector employers are not just in one industry,” Owens said, adding that the large employers are a huge driver of local economic development.
As a central hub and the county seat, the city of Allegan’s downtown has grown in recent years, especially since the key redevelopment of a former JC Penney building into lofts and commercial space called Lumberman Lofts. Only one vacant building remains in the city’s downtown.
“We’re seeing a lot of growth and interest and action in our downtown,” said Allegan City Manager Joel Dye. “That’s started other developers getting interested in coming here.”
The city of Allegan is waiting for voters to decide whether to sell city park land for an 80-room boutique hotel downtown, which Dye said would help keep visitors of local companies in the city, as well as attract tourists. The city also is assessing whether to remove a dam on the Kalamazoo River, a Superfund site, which would increase fishing, tourism, kayaking and other recreational opportunities, Dye said.
In the downtown, Allegan has been working to develop more units of housing so more people can live and work in the city. Currently, a significant percentage of Allegan County employees commute from outside of the county, Owens said.
“They either commute east or west, and so having more housing available in downtown areas will help continue to grow not only Allegan, but Saugatuck and Douglas are also there — some phenomenal downtowns,” Owens said.
Real estate market
The commercial real estate market is similar to that of Kent County, although quite a bit smaller, said Steve Marcusse, a senior vice president at the West Michigan office of Colliers International.
Marcusse has worked south of the Kent County line to help people buy and develop buildings in industrial parks.
“There’s different sections: Part of it is the Holland market, or just south of Grand Rapids, or just north of Kalamazoo. Each of those three main areas all kind of function differently with different dynamics, as opposed to the whole county itself,” Marcusse said.
Infill opportunities for commercial development exist along state trunklines, Dye said.
According to data from Berkshire Hathaway Home Services, there are currently 60 commercial listings in Allegan County, with an average list price of $573,000. Forty commercial sites have been sold this year.
Cheri Schulz, a broker and realtor with Berkshire Hathaway who does primarily residential and small commercial, described the market as “hot,” although some inventory issues remain.
“The inventory of active listings on the market in residential areas is very low,” she said. “We have more buyers than we have listings to show them. That has helped drive up the prices.”
Property values have greatly increased since the Great Recession for both residential and commercial sites, she said. Schulz expects 2020 to be a strong year in Allegan County, while inventory will remain a struggle.
She attributes the inventory issues to Baby Boomers choosing to stay in their homes, as well as the high costs of new construction.
“We’re still in a market where it’s more cost-effective to buy an existing home and make some changes than to build new,” Schulz said.
Schulz, who also serves on the Allegan County Economic Development Commission, said one of the concerns is getting people who work in Allegan County to live there versus in Grand Rapids or another nearby larger city.
Despite a general lack of inventory, there are opportunities for new developments in Allegan County, such as in the city of Allegan’s historic Mill District in the vacant former Imperial Carving Co. building. Meanwhile in Plainwell, portions of the former Plainwell Paper Mill Co. Superfund site also continue to sit vacant.
As well, elected officials and others have pushed for county-wide access to broadband, which is lacking in some areas, as a way to help attract more people. Rep. Mary Whiteford, R-Casco Township, has been working on the issue in recent years, particularly in Laketown Township, where residents have advocated locally for a solution.
“For most people, that’s a required necessity,” she said of broadband.
Another opportunity for Allegan County could also come by improving its comparatively low educational attainment, Owens said. Only 22.7 percent of county residents, and 17.1 percent of city of Allegan residents, possess a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The rate compares to the state average of 28.6 percent and 38.1 percent in adjacent Kalamazoo County.
“Not having an in-district community college for either Allegan or Ottawa County is a little bit of a challenge,” she said. “That’s something we see as a priority, potentially five to 10 years from now.”
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