As published in The Recorder
Big Albion Plan to Revitalize Downtown Brought to the Public
A few dozen people gathered in the old Sanders Building for a “Community Celebration” that was more like an unveiling party. It was a coming together of people who have been working quietly for a few years to acquire resources and Albion real estate, with another group of people who were curious to find out what is going on with the empty buildings downtown and who is doing it.
“I am interested in the stores, and curious. Glad someone has taken an interest. Things can only go up. I wish them the best,” stated Jim Dean, owner of Yesterday’s News Antique Store, and former writer for the Battle Creek Enquirer.
“I don’t know yet,” commented Sue Ott, owner of Jolly Green Junction, “I want to find out. Even though I live in a township and not the city, I am still interested.”
“It’s nice a group has gotten together. Hope it will help both the City and the Townships,” shared Barbara Frederick, a former Calhoun County Commissioner. “I remember when Albion had downtown businesses.”
Those who were in the know included Mayor Garrett Brown, who said about the eight architectural drawings that were on large panels around the room, “When we can see the vision, it’s easier to accomplish it. I knew about it and this was the soonest we could share the vision.”
A brief presentation was given by three individuals, two were from Albion, and one was an outside consultant who has helped several Michigan cities to work with the State of Michigan and other governmental organizations to gain permits and help secure additional funding for revitalization projects. The three speakers were Bill Dobbins, president and CEO of Caster Concepts Inc., Amy Deprez, President and CEO of Albion Economic Development Corporation and Bruce Johnston, co-owner of Revitalize LLC, Mason, Michigan.
Many people had been wondering why secrecy was needed with the purchasing of downtown Albion real estate. Bill Dobbins, explained the reasoning of the method of operating during the “quiet phase.”
“The process started five years ago; it was a winding road.” He shared that for successful purchasing of large blocks of an area to be developed, it works best if a high percentage of real estate is owned by a smaller group with the means, along with public funds, to complete the development in one fell swoop.
He explained there was interest in downtown by several individuals including himself, and his wife Karen, both 1974 graduates of Albion College, and other investors with ties to the college. One of the organizations involved with the real estate purchasing is a public charity with the acronym A.R.C., for Albion Reinvestment Corporation, a community envisioning entity. “We accumulated $800,000 of real estate, a bunch of old buildings that want TLC to be functional.”
The Executive Director of ARC, Amy Deprez then spoke about “the Big Albion Plan.” She stated she has given this presentation many times, presumably to the city officials, state officials, and investors who are coming together to approve and finance the master plan. Deprez spoke about the loss of the city’s tax base in downtown Albion, and a few highlights including Kids ‘N’ Stuff, Bohm Theatre renovation, Stirling Books and Brew, Albion Malleable Brewery Company, and the Peabody Project. She mentioned that a typical downtown redevelopment project might take 10-15 years by doing projects like these one at a time, but an opportunity arose to do them all at one time with the controlled acquisitions. The Big Albion Plan (or B.A.P.) was written last year with an anticipated 2-3 year time frame. “It is special,” she said about sharing the architectural renderings with the public. “A pretty picture gives us the money.” The group is in the process of getting more detailed estimates for each project, that will be completed and funded separately, although all at the same time.
She pointed out that some of the architectural boards had the name “ARC” on them, but others carried the term “ACE” on them. She explained that three groups are coordinating the financing for the BAP efforts, one being ARC, the non-profit previously mentioned, the other being A.C.E. Investment Properties, owned by Bill Dobbins and the agency building the Peabody Project. The third investor is Albion College, which will have two or three entities downtown, including the Ludington Center, which opened in January 2017.
She went on to say, the goals of the Big Albion Plan are to renovate 29 storefronts into “white-box” condition, create 40 one-bedroom apartments, and 12 two-bedroom apartments with a range of rent structures. Deprez explained that the process is starting with the brewery and Peabody Place, with many people interested who are investing the time and resources to make this happen. The next step is to get more funding secured, and a funding expert, Bruce Johnston, was enlisted to better connect the Albion community to resources at the state level.
Bill Dobbins then spoke to introduce Bruce Johnston, but also explained some of the factors that are taken into consideration for successful downtown revitalization. He said working with Vicki Baker, professor of Economics at Albion College, along with her students, they developed a list of indicators for a healthy downtown, including a concentration of between 3-5% of the city’s population occupying downtown apartments. Dobbins said this could be up to 400 people ideally, but with the completion of the Big Albion Plan project, the number may be closer to 200 people living within an easy walking distance of downtown. He estimated that at this time there are between 20-25 people living downtown.
Dobbins went on to share that Albion College’s Economic students reported that communities build from the downtown out and that Albion had to start somewhere with rebuilding. He stated that the Big Albion Plan would restore the city from the “ills of the past” and revitalize them “for the next 150 years.” This statement brought the most considerable applause of the evening.
Bruce Johnston shared that he started to work in Albion with the Brownfield Redevelopment Authority, the group that prepared the funding and location for the new Courtyard by Marriott Hotel.
“This is the only time in the state I’ve ever seen people with the wherewithal enough to do something about it,” stated Bruce Johnston, the consultant who is working with the Big Albion Plan in speaking of the overall funding compared to the scope of the downtown revitalization project. “It will look like Albion did back in the 20’s, the 30’s and the 40’s.” He said the state has stepped up with financial incentives, due to the local support. He said similar projects did not work in Detroit or Grand Rapids due to too many owners. He also explained that no one would be getting rich off of the projects, there will be no “killing to be made, that people in the community want it to be successful. No one is looking to flip the properties.”
Johnston explained that estimators are now working on each of the projects and the budgets will be complete by the end of the year. The work would include the backs of the buildings and restoring all the brickwork.
The cohesive downtown project will have an overall budget of about $20 million dollars, but each project will be funded separately and completed individually, yet at the same time. The lead person of the project is Amy Deprez, CEO of Albion EDC.
The literature at the event included a description of two projects slated to be complete next year, by December 2019.
The first new project listed for completion in 2019 are the “Superior Street Lofts” at the corner of S. Superior and Erie Street. This is the old Sander’s Furniture Building and the location of the meeting itself. The plan states “ARC is actively recruiting a national brand franchise hardware store for the first-floor commercial space. The upper two floors allow for twelve one-and-two-bedroom loft-style apartments. The building serves as an anchor for downtown and completion of this project will add significant value to our downtown.”
The second new project listed is for Superior Mercantile Co., located at 217 South Superior. This is where the old FedCo building was located, across from the new hotel.
The plan calls this “a fresh, upscale and vibrant market for visitors and locals alike. Specializing in packaged liquor, boutique wines, craft beers, artisan sandwiches, and salads and much more, this space will create a “foodie” destination for people near and far.”
The A.R.C. non-profit organization shows the members include Bill Dobbins, President, and Dr. Sam Shaheen, developer of the Courtyard by Marriott Hotel, Vice President.
The term “white box” in this article refers to a commercial space with the basic four walls, a finished or unfinished ceiling and limited lighting and floor covering. Space does not include any particular buildout that a tenant may need. Any buildout is negotiable as to who is going to pay for it and as to how it is done.
A grey box is more simple than a white box, sometimes without doors or windows, just walls and a roof.