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Sunday, 02 August 2015 22:00

WMU plans for second phase of successful BTR Park

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Talk about a case of beating expectations.

When the Business Technology and Research (BTR) Park opened in 2000, Western Michigan University expected it would take 20 to 30 years to fill the site with companies. But just more than a dozen years in, the BTR Park is functionally out of space, and that’s left WMU looking for ways to expand.

The university intends to develop the adjacent 55-acre Colony Farm Orchard property near the corner of Parkview Avenue and Drake Road. In the coming months, the university will begin to publicize the designs for the site, with groundbreaking for the expansion occurring within a year, said Bob Miller, associate vice president of community outreach at WMU.

Miller was tasked with the majority of the marketing for the original BTR Park and will serve in a similar capacity for what he calls “BTR Park 2.0.”

While specific designs are still in the planning process, the university has had conversations with a small handful of companies interested in building at the park once the infrastructure is ready, Miller said. That said, the university plans to take its time to ensure the development is done right and sustainably, he said.

“On the one hand, we want to be very transparent and not hurry the process at all,” Miller said. “On the other hand, economic developers would like to have it ready to go yesterday.”

ADDRESSING CONCERNS

Development plans have been hampered somewhat by concerns over environmental impacts. In particular, as the plans emerged, a number of area citizens have raised concerns about developing the wooded Colony Farm property. WMU officials say the expansion project will include many of the same sustainability features as the first phase of the BTR Park, including stormwater management systems and the preservation of many natural areas.

Economic developers would like to see those issues addressed as quickly as possible so the university can move forward with the project.

“It would be a travesty and a shock if (the second development) didn’t happen,” said Ron Kitchens, president and CEO of Kalamazoo-based economic development organization Southwest Michigan First. “It’s the right thing to do, the time is right and we have good stewardship and leadership by the university to make it happen.”

The existing BTR Park houses the operations of 42 companies. While it’s unclear exactly how many companies the expansion could support, the university plans to develop anywhere from 38 to 45 acres of the available 55 acres at the site.

That will allow for about seven to 10 new buildings to be constructed, Miller said.

LEVERAGING TALENT

As plans move forward for the BTR Park expansion, companies at the present site say the planned addition will have positive, long-term results for the Kalamazoo region.

Take Atlanta-based Newell Rubbermaid Inc. as an example. Last year, the global consumer products company opened its Design Center in the BTR Park, officially filling the last developable property on the site, except for additional land where Newell Rubbermaid could expand in the future, as MiBiz reported at the time. One parcel also remains for California-based smartphone technology company Mophie Inc., which is expected to break ground on a research and development facility this fall, Miller said.

Newell executives say the company consolidated its R&D center to Southwest Michigan because of the region’s readily accessible talent pool, particularly for industrial designers. So far, the firm’s investment in the region is paying off, said Nate Young, Newell Rubbermaid’s senior vice president of design and innovation.

“(When we opened) last May, we were all about establishing a few, focused design teams that can serve all segments,” Young said. “We know how healthy that is here. That has proven to be really robust and we’re really happy with that.”

With a relatively small staff, the R&D center opened as “startup” within the broader Newell Rubbermaid organization, Young said. Since then, the center has grown to employ 107 people in teams that work on projects for 23 different brands, he said.

ROOM TO GROW

The better-than-expected success of the first phase of the BTR Park demonstrates to stakeholders that there are significant economic upsides for the second installation, says WMU President John Dunn.

Dunn told MiBiz that the university will work closely with the Kalamazoo community through the development process to address environmental concerns. Despite the park being aimed at the private sector, students at the university also will derive benefit from the types of companies attracted to it.

“Having a research university certainly adds value,” Dunn said. “This is one where if you build it, they will come — and they did. Now we need to provide additional opportunity.” 

Read 6406 times Last modified on Sunday, 09 August 2015 09:39
Nick Manes

Staff writer

nmanes@mibiz.com

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