MUSKEGON — Lots filled with dirt, sand and rubble are not uncommon in downtown Muskegon, following the leveling of industrial sites and more recently the former Muskegon Mall.
Over the past year, however, the lots have started to change. The dirt, sand and rubble are still there, but now they are being moved and the lots are being cleared as the sites are readied for construction.
Buildings and roads seem to grow out of the sand. The sight of bulldozers, backhoes and other heavy machinery is common. The outline of a new cityscape is becoming visible — this one with more windows than smokestacks.
In the past few years, there has been the addition of the National City building, the Parmenter O’Toole building and the Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center, among other renovations. Residential options also have gone up on the other side of downtown: Artworks, Amazon and Watermark Lofts.
Still to come is the renovation of the Daniels building, the Muskegon Savings Bank Building and the Century Club on the Downtown Muskegon Development Corp.-owned former mall site, the VidaNova condominiums and the Viridian Place office and residential developments at Edison Landing; and the Hot Rod Harley Davidson and Hyundai dealerships, all scheduled to be finished within the next two years.
Muskegon is changing, and one man who has seen most of the change and facilitated much of it is Mayor Steve Warmington. Elected in 2002, Warmington has been mayor through many of the developments in the downtown area, beginning with the energy center.
“It’s added to Muskegon immensely,” Warmington said of MAREC, which brought an additional Grand Valley State University presence to the area. The GVSU Annis Water Resource Institute is a nearby neighbor.
Along with the added GVSU presence, Warmington said the energy center also brought new technology and a business incubator to help bring new businesses and community leaders to Muskegon. MAREC, which is owned by the city and leased with an option to buy by the university, opened in 2003.
Following its opening, Warmington said the city turned its sights on assisting the Downtown Muskegon Development Corp., make up of the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce, Community Foundation of Muskegon, the Paul C. Johnson Foundation and Muskegon County, in the purchase of the former mall site. The city has since sold its share and used the money to help pay for $700,000 in improvements to Western Avenue, which was also paid for in part by federal funding.
“That construction right now is as important to the community as the completion of Shoreline Drive was,” Warmington said.
Jim Edmonson, president of Muskegon Area First, said the recent growth and development was 10 years in the making, following the site clean-up of Edison Landing and the construction of Shoreline Drive.
“The other factor is the rest of the region — the Midwest and Michigan itself — realizing it’s a good opportunity in terms of market potential,” he said of Muskegon and the “inexpensive lakefront property for sale.”
As more and more people see the value in living downtown, Edmonson said, there will be more and more businesses and services arriving to meet the needs of the downtown residents, bringing more jobs into the area.
Stuart Kingma, vice president at S.J. Wisinski & Co., said that he believes the real estate market in Muskegon is changing, made evident by several real estate deals that have recently taken place after the properties were on the market for anywhere from 10 months to two years.
“I think there is a subtle change in the market demand and I think that’s being reflected in the renewed interest in the sites,” he said. “We’ve seen a nice pickup in business in the market segment that has been quiet for some time.”
All properties that were recently bought or leased were existing industrial structures, Kingma said. Two of the buildings were bought by developers and three by people who are using them.
“Two of the users were expanding and one opening a new business,” he said. “It’s been a challenging marketplace because the demand has just not been there. I think the business climate is finally starting to improve.”
Kingma said until now, Muskegon has not taken advantage of Muskegon Lake, which he described as the city’s greatest asset.
“The change is coming,” he said. “You’re starting to see some new developments. I think it’s going to be a long process, but I think it’s finally headed in the right direction.”
The properties that were leased or sold ranged from $500,000 to $4 million.
“The larger buildings have brought lower (prices) per square foot,” Kingma said. “The smaller buildings have been relatively stable (in price).”
Kingma said all five of the buyers were from the area.
“It’s been quiet for a while; we’re starting to see a resurge. It’s nowhere near the pre-9/11 days,” he said. “We hope that it leads to additional employment opportunities and a turnaround for the local market.”
In addition to the industrial property, Warmington said people are starting to take a look at the former Muskegon Mall site.
“There certainly are people talking about some lots on the property,” Warmington said.
He said much of the investment is coming from outside of Muskegon.
“It’s exciting to see the investment, and investment coming from outside our own community,” he said.
The Parmenter O’Toole law firm is originally from Muskegon, but MAREC came from GVSU in Allendale, the developer of VidaNova is from Grand Haven, and the developer of Viridian Place is from Grand Rapids. Watermark Lofts was developed by ANM Group from New York and Artworks was developed by a company based on the east side of the state.
Warmington said having the outside investment brings a sense of pride to the Muskegon area.
“I think it’s a real sense of excitement to see it happening,” he said of all the construction and development. “Those are the types of things that bring jobs.”
In the next 10 years, Warmington said, he sees more development along Muskegon Lake.
“We want to take advantage of our waterfront,” he said.
Though the downtown area is large now, Warmington said he believes the downtown will continue to expand south to Pere Marquette Park.
“There’s been a lot of investment that’s been coming in,” he said of the area between the downtown and the beach.
Warmington said the three largest projects he has seen since becoming mayor have been the energy center, the Lake Express High Speed Ferry and the sale of the Terrace Street Lots to the owners of the Hot Rod Harley-Davidson dealership. With so many projects, Warmington said that his focus is always on the future.
“The next one that you’re working on is the most important.”