Mussels muscle in on $80M project

Developers of Mill at Vicksburg excited to find endangered species on-site.
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The Mill at Vicksburg covers 120 acres and includes sections of Portage Creek where a significant number of snuffbox mussels were found. Paper City Development

The Mill at Vicksburg redevelopment has turned out a curious environmental find.

Lead developer and Vicksburg native Chris Moore announced an $80 million plan to transform the century-old paper mill at 300 W. Highway St. in Schoolcraft Township into a mixed-use development in July 2019, according to a previous Business Journal report.

During restoration and remediation of the old industrial site, however, environmental researchers scouring sections of Portage Creek along the 120-acre campus discovered a rare find: snuffbox mussels.

The rare freshwater mussel is native to eastern North America and is listed as an endangered species in both the United States and Canada. The finding was so unusual that the project’s leaders and environmental investigators now are surveying the entire 1,800-foot stretch of Portage Creek on the property to assess the potential to improve the habitat for conservation of the species.

Project leaders were adamant about exploring all options of preserving and protecting the historic property’s attributes and character. Incorporating decades-old equipment and wood into the new development seemed logical, but helping preserve an endangered freshwater mussel wasn’t expected.

“As we’ve considered what to do with the section of Portage Creek that runs along our property, we engaged environmental experts to research the creek and advise on environmental issues we should be aware of,” said Jackie Koney, chief operations officer for Paper City Development, which owns of The Mill at Vicksburg. “Very quickly in the process it was determined that this particular section of the creek is full of very rare snuffbox mussels. My team didn’t know anything about them, but the environmental scientists are pretty stoked about this, so we’re giving it the proper attention!”

Since April, Vicksburg Mill leaders have hosted a team of research scientists to survey the creek, and now the team is evaluating this situation and providing guidance on how best to improve the habitat for the conservation of the snuffbox mussel and other species in the creek.

Scientists surveying the site are currently working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine how best to handle the mussels during the creek cleanup. Koney said the effort does come with some additional expenses, but the conservation is running parallel to the overall site work and won’t impact the schedule for project completion.

Marty Boote, senior scientist at the national environmental consulting firm Environmental Consulting & Technology Inc., is leading the endeavor. Boote, based out of ECT’s Ann Arbor office, is a Certified Ecological Restoration Practitioner with 28 years of experience in restoration work throughout Michigan and the Great Lakes including Portage Creek of the Kalamazoo River watershed to the north.

Boote said discovery of this population is important for conservation of the species and that the population is unique in that snuffbox is not only present but abundant and the dominant species in Portage Creek.

Dr. Renee Mulcrone, biologist with environmental consulting firm ASTI Environmental in Brighton, also was shocked at finding the population of snuffbox mussels.

“I’ve been working on mussels my whole career and this is very exciting (to see) these here,” Mulcrone said.

Once the environmental survey is completed, researchers and Mill leaders will discuss the next course of action, which could include seeking state or federal grant money to help with restoration of the creek to improve the habitat.

The Mill has covered all expenses associated with this research and is open to suggestions from the researchers and state and federal fish and wildlife officials.

When complete, the 369,711-square-foot Mill at Vicksburg will feature a variety of elements: a 40-room hotel; 40 apartments; 274,192 square feet of commercial space that will include a brewery and craft beverage area with public viewing; a museum; hop and malt processing; offices; educational facilities; retail space; and 24,573 square feet of indoor event space, the Business Journal reported in 2019.

Because of the emphasis on brewing, having a clean creek adjacent to the property is integral to the project, Koney said. The property’s heavy industrial history left the creek with significant amounts of toxic sediment and metals.

“That’s what we’ve been left with,” Koney said. “It’s been 20 years since the mill was running, and the damage isn’t horrific but there is work to do.”

The mill began operation in the early 1900s and produced paper products under multiple owners until its closure in 2001, according to a previous Business Journal report.

While the preservation of snuffbox mussels is being considered, Koney added the project also faced a setback because of the COVID-19 crisis, and instead of a projected completion date of 2024, it likely will be pushed out to 2025.

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