By Scott Sullivan
The City of Douglas, working with developer Dave Barker, is eyeing a 75-acre project that would level the former Haworth plant and provide family housing on the west side of Blue Star Highway.
Council Monday passed a resolution of intent to create a Brownfield Redevelopment Authority to pursue rehabilitating the 7.11-acre site, which includes the 156,900-square-foot former factory at 200 Blue Star Hwy.
Also involved would be Barker’s 50.34-acre former Miro Golf Course land adjacent to the plant west of Ferry Street, and 16.84 adjacent southwest acres the city bought for $196,600 in 2013 from the Joseph Migas Trust Fund.
The Michigan Brownfield Redevelopment Program, operated through the Department of Environmental Quality, targets properties complicated by the presence or perception of contamination.
It provides grants, loans, tax increment financing and free site assessment to help revitalize such parcels.
Douglas will hold a public hearing on creating a Brownfield authority during its Monday, Feb. 18, council meeting in city hall at 7 p.m. The hearing is noticed elsewhere in this week’s Commercial Record.
The former Douglas Haworth plant, last listed for $1.7 million, sits on land zoned commercial but has had grandfathered-in industrial use since the 1940s.
Metal manufacturing operations there included plating, buffing, zinc dye casting, phosphatizing and painting metal parts. Pre-Haworth plant releases have caused contamination concerns since then.
The furniture maker announced plans in fall 2012 to close the facility, which then employed 110 workers and was Douglas’ largest taxpayer, phasing out metal fabrication and powder paint processing operations to consolidate in a newer plant. Its last workers here departed in 2014.
Geerlings Development Co. of Zeeland agreed in late 2015 to buy the site pending environmental assessments and receiving funding for needed mitigation, at the time envisioning a high-tech firm with local ties moving in, more business-incubator-type tenants and possible post-secondary educational offerings in the building.
Geerlings projected housing tenants that might create as many as 100 full-time light manufacturing jobs and invest up to $10 million here in the next two years.
Douglas agreed Jan. 21, 2016, with the DEQ’s offer of a $100,000 grant to study contamination under the building and to seek an $850,000 Brownfield Grant/Loan to help with the Geerlings effort.
Funds were to be used to mitigate safety concerns posed by trichloroethylene (TCE), an industrial solvent left in ground by Chase Manufacturing, which occupied the plant from 1965 to 1971.
A subsequent discovery of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), a stable contaminant also onsite, prompted the city to up its grant/loan request. Geerlings’ interest cooled as the price tag grew.
Enter Barker two years later, known here most recently as project manager for the Dunegrass development on the 130-acre former Presbyterian Camps fronting Lake Michigan in Saugatuck.
The Presbytery of Chicago, under stress to pay back a settlement from a sex scandal during the 1990s, sold the land for $10 million to Dune Ridge SA, LP owned by Einhoorn LLC of Grand Rapids owner Paul Heule. Most of Dunegrass’ 20 high-end homes on the lots western acres are now sold.
Barker some 25 years earlier helped develop the Wilderness Ridge and Summer Grove subdivisions in Douglas. His mid-1990s effort to develop 250 homes on the 50.34-acre former Miro Golf Course land was approved by the city but derailed by environmental and public concerns thereafter.
“We have a memorandum of understanding with Mr. Barker to explore a project that fills an important need here,” Douglas City Manager Bill LeFevere told The Commercial Record.
“Haworth has been generous working with the city,” said LeFevere, noting the firm and Douglas had a “donation agreement” by which the purchase would not be free but price mitigated considerably by the city addressing environmental issues on the property.
“We are still in the middle of negotiations,” Haworth public relations manager Julie Smith told the newspaper. “But we can confirm we are having discussions to transfer the property to the city.”
“I see this,” said Barker, “as a longrange effort to do something different than we have with the Dunegrass project.
“Douglas and the Saugatuck Public Schools have identified needs for diverse family housing. We’re an aging community. Affordable housing for younger families can help maintain the local labor force, fill our schools and keep Douglas/Saugatuck vibrant and dynamic.”
He foresees a scalable, 20-plus-year project involving shared public and private green spaces, recreational facilities; public water, roads and sewers; paved paths; a campus for active retirement, assisted living and medical care facilities; single and detached houses, many of them smaller; apartments; live/work units … what zoning and changing markets will allow.
“My goal is to work with as many local investors, builders, realtors and more as possible,” Barker continued.
“That’s a key part: investing in ourselves,” he said.
Allegan County has a Brownfield Redevelopment Authority Douglas could use, said LeFevere, but legal counsel suggested the city create its own for this project.
“After the Feb. 18 public hearing, city council could approve establishing it as early as its March 4 meeting, appoint members and set to work writing bylaws.”
The first step pending a successful land transfer, he and Barker agree, would be razing the old building.
“Depending upon environmental assessments, the old factory land could clean-capped and filled (similar to what was done with the Tower Marine spoils site two years ago),” said LeFevere. “Commercial ventures could then safely operate using municipal water there.”
“We have to deal with contamination from TCE, PCBs and arsenic from years-ago orchard spraying on the old golf course land,” said Barker. “Whatever we do will, of course, take money.
“I’m talking with environmental firms, land planners, cleanup and marketing specialists,” he went on. “Where government money is lacking I’m prepared to seek private capital.
“I want to move fast and get traction. I think the market is there. Keep demand high by keeping the price point down, draw people with our nearness to Lake Michigan and bigger population centers, lifestyle and quality of schools.
“It’s a big project and a fun one. People want to be part of it. I think it’s a win,” he said.