For years, the city of Hudsonville wanted to encourage developers to create a more traditional downtown for the Ottawa County community.
Officials often found themselves in a Catch 22 in trying to spur those kinds of development projects. Because the city lacked what’s traditionally classified as a downtown area, the local government was unable to seek funding incentives for developers, which in turn hindered the growth of a centralized urban area.
“That put us at a disadvantage of attracting developers to come build because we couldn’t have incentive money for them to do that,” Hudsonville City Manager Patrick Waterman told MiBiz.
As a result of the widening of Chicago Drive in the 1950s and 1960s, “we had a lot more of an auto-centric strip mall development pop up” in what used to be the downtown area of Hudsonville, he said. But without the ability to offer incentives to developers, the city felt paralyzed to change course.
Enter the Redevelopment Ready Communities program from the Michigan Economic Development Corp.
The program, which launched in 2013, aims to help communities like Hudsonville access state incentive funds through a certification. To date, 31 municipalities across the state have completed the certification for Redevelopment Ready Communities, and more than 200 communities are in the process of getting certified.
The program offers a signal to developers that the communities want to encourage redevelopment opportunities and that they have transparent and streamlined processes.
While large cities seeking multi-million dollar projects can qualify, smaller communities also can use the certification to revitalize a business, building or another small project, said Michelle Parkkonen, director of the Redevelopment Ready Communities program.
“They may see a downtown business owner that wants to reinvest in their building or someone that is looking to open a business,” she said. “The work that we do is beneficial to your residents, your business, as well as developers who may have never invested in your community before.”
Redevelopment Ready Communities began as the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, which focused on suburbs of metro Detroit. The MEDC took notice of the program’s work, thought it could be beneficial to communities across Michigan and acquired it in 2012.
Some communities have used the program to get “on the map” for investors and development partners, to indicate that their area is ripe for redevelopment and to show that the local government will be transparent and predictable.
“It’s really being prepared to accept new investment, reinvestment, identifying assets and opportunities,” said Kara Wood, economic development director for the city of Grand Rapids, which became certified in May 2018. “The goal is to attract and retain businesses and offer customer service that streamlines the development process.”
Wood said it took about 12 months for the city to be fully certified. The certification is valid for three years.
To get certified, communities must send a representative to an in-person training on the program, or use an e-learning tool. Next comes a self evaluation, which measures the community against the program’s best practices.
MEDC staff weigh a community’s public outreach, master plan, zoning regulations and development review process. It also seeks to educate board members and advertise redevelopment-ready sites, operating under six best practices developed in conjunction with public- and private-sector experts.
The Redevelopment Ready program offers a seal of approval that a community understands the process of working with the private sector, said Luke Bonner, founder of Ann-Arbor based Bonner Advisory Group LLC.
Bonner’s company offers economic development consulting, real estate strategy and economic incentive consulting. He works with “a lot” of developers focused on public-sector projects.
Developers must stick to timelines to keep investors happy, which underscores the importance of communities having streamlined processes.
While larger communities like Grand Rapids likely had some Redevelopment Ready standards in place before becoming certified, smaller or rural communities can benefit from unlocking state grant funding for a public project, according to Bonner.
“That kind of stuff makes a huge difference,” he said.
In Hudsonville, officials began implementing the city’s master plan and attracting developers while it was in the process of getting certified.
“The MEDC came alongside us and recognized Hudsonville was not certified (yet), but we were close,” Waterman said.
The Redevelopment Ready program allowed the city to attract a developer for the Hudson Center, a $4.3 million, three-story mixed-use building. The project leveraged more than $686,000 in incentives from the MEDC’s Community Revitalization Program.
“We would not have been able to attract that development had we not been involved in the RRC program.” Waterman said.
In the last few years, Hudsonville officials have made investments to revitalize the city’s downtown, including landscaping Chicago Drive and converting Harvey Street into a pedestrian-friendly main street.
The city also repurposed a formerly blighted car dealership into a $2.1 million public space including a farmers market, event center, co-working space and restaurant. The project allowed the city to attract private investments like the Hudson Center on Harvey Street. More mixed-use buildings are in the works.
“It’s important for developers to know that you want them to be in your community, and remove the red tape that traditionally stands in the way of projects getting approved,” Waterman said.
The final public project includes the construction of Village Green, a 1-acre area that will serve as a central greenspace and gathering place for downtown, around which additional mixed-use buildings will be constructed. Hudsonville is pursuing grants and negotiating with landowners to secure the parcels for the Village Green project.
Scott Geerlings, owner of Zeeland-based Geerlings Development Co., said his company’s investment in Hudson Center would have been impossible without the incentives Hudsonville was able to gain through working with the MEDC.
“Hudsonville embraced the program,” he said. “They so desperately wanted to create a downtown. (The incentives) make it an economically-doable project and really enhances their downtown.”