KENTWOOD — The City of Kentwood is headed into a redevelopment stage.
Redevelopment has been one of the areas Mayor Bill Hardiman has really promoted, said Terry Schweitzer, the city’s community development director, zoning administrator and building official.
“We’re at a point where we’ve been on a growth spurt for 20 years and there’s a recognition that there’s going to come a point in time, probably not too far in the future, where redevelopment becomes an issue,” he pointed out.
Basic safety issues have been the priority for the past couple of years as Kentwood has concentrated on adding police, fire and court personnel, Hardiman said, adding that the city is now building new facilities to accommodate that expansion.
“Once we get past safety, I think one of the most important things is economic development,” he said, adding that the goal is to have good, solid, thriving businesses that not only provide residents with goods and services, but also with jobs to support individuals and families.
“A lot of our attention has been focused on new growth. I think we’ve been growing so fast we haven’t paid as much attention to older portions of Kentwood and portions that need redevelopment.”
Division Avenue is one of those areas; some of the buildings along Division have gone vacant. There’s also some concern about building vacancies at 44th Street and Breton Road, Schweitzer said.
Most of the vacated “big boxes,” however, have been filled in recent years, said Lisa Golder, the city’s economic development planner.
“I think that speaks well for the economy of the area, that it can still make use out of those buildings,” she added.
The next challenge will be filling the building on 28th Street being vacated by Kmart. But given its location, she doesn’t think the building will remain vacant for long.
If development moves south with the opening of the South Beltline, she said, the city’s economic development team may have to get “very creative and flexible” about retaining and attracting businesses.
Like most other cities, Kentwood businesses and industries are down as the result of the recession. But the fact that six to eight new tax abatement projects are in the works is a good sign, she said.
Kentwood doesn’t have an overall economic development plan per se, but like a lot of other communities it works with The Right Place Program to direct new business the city’s way, Golder said.
“We’ve tried to look at what the business community’s needs are and address them through our Economic Development Corp. (EDC). To bring people into the city, we rely on The Right Place because they’re much better at doing that sort of thing.
“As a community we are concentrating more on the retention part of the equation — trying to keep the businesses that we have right now,” she said.
The EDC works to stay in touch with local companies and their needs and to keep them informed about city projects and activities, as well as available programs.
About two years ago the city changed its tax abatement policy because city commissioners were concerned Kentwood was perceived as giving away too much to businesses and not enough to homeowners, Golder said.
To try to balance that, they looked at changing the policy to shorten the length of the tax abatement period.
“That was partially due to a promise that was made to residents, when we looked at getting our police and fire millage, that we would change the tax abatement policy and shorten it up — as long as it didn’t have a negative effect on the business community,” Golder explained.
A study committee determined shortening the length of the abatement from eight to six years would not be detrimental.
However, if a business wants to reuse an existing vacant industrial building, the city will consider lengthening the tax abatement period to eight years. The policy change doesn’t appear to be a big issue among local companies.
“They still go for the six years, and they’re staying in Kentwood,” Golder said.
There are a few new storefronts in Kentwood, too.
Horrocks, a Battle Creek-based produce retailer, will be moving into a former grocery store center at 44th Street and Breton Road that’s been vacant for five years.
Lowe’s is another newcomer to the city. Saint Mary’s Medical Center offices now occupy the former Kentwood Village Mall on 44th Street and Kalamazoo Avenue, and that’s been a real plus for the area, Schweitzer said.
Holland Home is soon to expand with an additional 204 independent living units, and Lacks Industries has continued a steady growth pattern in Kentwood as well.
A lot of smaller industrial businesses are going through the tax abatement process, Schweitzer noted, and a number of German companies have located in Kentwood over the past year or so.
The EDC has a loan program for businesses along Division Avenue in Kentwood, as well as a revolving loan fund it offers at 75 percent of prime to other area businesses. It’s more or less a short-term, gap-financing program that works like an SBA (Small Business Administration) loan.
“That’s been a very good program for us,” Golder added. “A lot of companies are taking advantage of it, most of them retailers.”
The business-local government communication aspect is one the EDC will continue to focus on, Golder said. The EDC is now working on a plan to deliver city information, news and updates to businesses quickly via e-mail.
It’s also developing a promotional brochure on Kentwood that will be distributed through The Right Place Program to new businesses and people interested in locating in the area, as well as to real estate agents.