Local firms lead Port Huron redevelopment project


Connie Harrison, president of Baker College of Port Huron, and John Wheeler of Orion Construction have high hopes for the waterfront development that will eventually include a convention center. Courtesy Orion Construction

The city of Port Huron hasn’t been a targeted destination for local developers. But this time three Grand Rapids firms played instrumental roles in getting most of a $27 million development up and running on the city’s waterfront along the St. Clair River at the base of Lake Huron.

Orion Construction, JB Real Estate Development LLC and Meritage Hospitality Group, the trio responsible for the new Arena Place project in downtown Grand Rapids, drove the development that offers a lot of promise for Port Huron’s future hospitality and convention business.

“I’ve been doing this for 37 years and this was the most complicated deal I’ve ever done in my life,” said John Wheeler, a lead investor in the development.

Wheeler directs business development for Orion Construction and is a partner with Robert Schermer Jr. in JB Real Estate Development LLC. Schermer also heads Meritage Hospitality Group, which owns and operates 113 restaurants.

Orion Construction invested in the project and built the development that consists of the DoubleTree Hilton Hotel, Freighters Eatery and Taproom, and Port Huron Culinary Institute of Michigan. The Blue Water Area Convention Center is the final 40,000-square-foot piece that will be added to the waterfront site in 2015.

More than 400 attended a recent ribbon-cutting ceremony where the project was cited as a successful public-private partnership that involved the city of Port Huron, St. Clair County and the USDA Rural Development for Michigan on the public side. Backers have labeled the development as the rebirth of Port Huron’s waterfront.

A key player in that rebirth is the DoubleTree by Hilton Port Huron, a 149-room hotel that offers 9,800 square feet of meeting space in up to 13 rooms, a 5,400-square-foot ballroom that can accommodate as many as 600 guests, and two boardrooms for professional meetings.

JB Real Estate Development LLC owns the hotel and invested millions into the renovation of the former Thomas Edison Inn, which opened in the 1920s. Wheeler and Schermer, who have done about 40 projects together, hired Hospitality Specialists Inc. of Illinois to operate the DoubleTree.

“The new DoubleTree by Hilton has emerged beautifully under the Blue Water Bridge, and we anticipate exceeding the needs of all guests coming to the Port Huron area. It’s an exceptional product,” said Angela Mann, vice president of operations for Hospitality Specialists.

Wheeler said it was the hotel that got him interested in the project. Years ago, he served with Bill Ehinger on the board of Independent Bank. Ehinger owned the Thomas Edison Inn then and he told Wheeler the city and county were looking to build a convention center on the waterfront that would be attached to the hotel. He asked Wheeler if he wanted to buy the aging hotel.

“So I went down and looked at it and it was really in trouble. It was old, and no money had been put into it for 25 years. But I met with the city and the county and they gave me their vision on what they wanted to do: build a world-class convention center. They said they would help me finance this thing,” he said.

“They said they would work with me on new market tax credits and USDA loans. They pulled out their arsenal and said, ‘Please save us.’ The hotel was on the market for four years and they didn’t have a single offer.”

The county passed a $9 million bond to build the convention center. Meritage Hospitality got involved, as did other private investors.

“The vision just started getting stronger and stronger. A few years ago, I spent a lot of time there and I ended up buying the hotel, buying the land, building the culinary institute, building the restaurant, renovating the hotel and turning it into a full DoubleTree by Hilton,” said Wheeler.

Wheeler said Orion is building the convention center now, and it will be attached to the DoubleTree.

“We knew when we were approached about the unique financing for the Thomas Edison Inn — now the beautiful DoubleTree by Hilton Port Huron — that it was the right thing to do for the local community and the state of Michigan,” said Chip Windisch, merchant banking officer for Lake Michigan Financial Corp.

”Our extensive experience in tax credit incentives, expertise as Michigan’s only certified USDA lender, and our equity investment allowed us to create the complex, layered financing structure required to complete this project,” added Windisch.

The Meritage Hospitality Group, headquartered in Grand Rapids, owns the development’s restaurant. The Freighters Eatery and Taproom is a family-style restaurant that offers unique American fare and uses locally sourced products. It seats 230 patrons, has a 21-seat bar and an outdoor patio.

“The Freighters name was derived from its prominent waterfront location on the St. Clair River, which has more annual freighter payload passing our restaurant than the Suez Canal and the Panama Canal combined,” said Schermer, Meritage CEO.

The hotel and restaurant reportedly inspired Baker College of Port Huron to build the Culinary Institute of Michigan there. It’s a 23,000-square-foot, world-class facility with seven kitchens, an innovation lab that also serves as a classroom, a handful of multipurpose rooms, and a 50-seat, fine dining restaurant that will open in the spring. Students will serve as interns at Freighters.

“It will provide optimal hands-on learning experiences for our students, and the location will facilitate student involvement with the convention center and our other new neighbors,” said Connie Harrison, president of Baker College of Port Huron.

“The new culinary institute supports the economy on multiple levels by educating and training people so they can secure meaningful employment, feed their families and become productive community members,” added Harrison.

The development is expected to generate $25 million annually for the Port Huron economy over its first decade of operations. Wheeler said the main reason he got involved with the development was it allowed him to be a big factor in creating 270 new jobs.

“That part of the state needs employment bad. We have hired 195 at Freighters. We hired 35 people for the hotel and 35 people for the culinary institute. The convention center will add another 10 to 15,” he said. “So all in all, there could be some 300 new jobs created in the marketplace. There is so much pride in this project, it is unbelievable. I felt so proud. It was just really, really cool.”

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