After parting ways this spring with a Southfield firm, the Downtown Muskegon Development Corp. is now focused on rebuilding roads through the 23-acre site and selling off individual parcels for commercial and residential developments, instead of having a lone developer undertake a larger and more complex project encompassing the entire site.
While the manner in which the nonprofit development group proceeds has changed, the vision has not: To turn the former mall site into a new commercial, residential and entertainment district.
“We’re off plan A and on to plan B, but the project hasn’t changed,” said Chris McGuigan, president of the Community Foundation for Muskegon County.
The community foundation is one of three parties that formed the Downtown Muskegon Development Corp. two years ago to acquire the mall site to ensure local control over its redevelopment. Other partners in the development group are the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce and the Paul C. Johnson Foundation.
While the strategy change puts the mall site’s redevelopment back to square one, the work and planning done to date has generated genuine enthusiasm in the community about the potential to create a new downtown for Muskegon, leaders of Downtown Muskegon Development say.
“It’s tapped a deep, abiding vision of what Muskegon should be,” McGuigan said.
Downtown Muskegon Development initially envisioned selling the mall property to a single developer and signed an agreement with Southfield-based Charter Development LLC to plan and undertake the project.
After devising a conceptual proposal that called for developing 75,000 square feet of commercial space and 200 residential units via surrounding town homes and upper-floor lofts above storefronts, Charter Development walked away from the project last year when issues arose over the fate of five historic but rundown buildings on the site that some interests wanted preserved.
Once that issue was reconciled, Downtown Muskegon Development Corp. sought to secure a new purchase option with Charter Development, but later pulled the plug because the partners concluded they were taking on all of the financial risk involved in the project.
“We don’t discount the work Charter did in the project and it was extensive, but the partnership wasn’t headed in the right direction,” McGuigan said.
Among the concerns was that Charter Development was perceived in the community as an outsider coming in and taking over control of a prominent piece of property in the heart of the community.
In moving forward, the partners in Downtown Muskegon Development believe they have a better chance at success by selling parcels to residential and commercial developers who would undertake smaller projects, rather than pursuing a broader mixed-use development for the entire site.
“Now we can work with multiple developers,” Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce President Cindy Larsen said.
The first step toward that end is to rebuild the streets running through the site, a move that should help spur further interest from developers. The development group has already been talking to developers, including one interested in doing commercial and residential work in a square-block area off of Third Street, between Western Avenue and Clay Street.
“We’ll put the streets back and then you’ll see the rest of it evolve,” Larsen said. “The sooner we can get the roads in, the sooner you can see the buildings go in.”
Downtown Muskegon Development is now working to identify potential funding sources for rebuilding the streets, including local, state and federal grants to cover the estimated $1.2 million cost, and continues to talk to potential developers, McGuigan said.
Partners in the group now realize that their involvement in redeveloping the mall site will take longer than first expected, perhaps two to five more years, McGuigan said.
“It’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of the people who are active in Muskegon staying in the room,” she said.