Saginaw and Bay City have something in common with Mark Twain: Rumors of their death have turned out to be exaggerated.
Like many mid-sized cities around the state 10 or 15 years ago, they seemed well on their way to becoming ghost towns. Downtown storefronts sat vacant. Movie theaters were shuttered. Parking lots were empty. Sidewalks went without walkers.
“You could have easily shot a cannon in any direction downtown and not hit anyone,” said Trevor Keyes, the president and CEO of Bay Future Inc., a non profit economic development agency in Bay County that was founded in 2004.
Outside the window of his office in the historic Phoenix Building on Washington Avenue, Bay City’s main street, two cranes were busy working on another historic building, the Legacy-Crapo Building across the street, a $12 million project that will convert it into a mixed-use office and residential space, with plans for 26 apartments on the top three floors, two office suites on the second floor and commercial space on the ground floor. Cranes! Once as rare downtown as carrier pigeons.
In downtown Saginaw, Delta College has finished plans for a $12.7 million, 35,000- square-foot building and large green space on what is now a parking lot. It is expected to be open for the fall 2019 semester.
In both cities, vacancy rates are down sharply and no one would risk firing a cannon in the streets. Much of the progress is the result of the work of both Bay Future and its older sister nonprofit, Saginaw Future Inc.
Saginaw Future Inc.
Saginaw Future Inc. was founded in 1992.
Its signature project is the 240-acre Great Lakes Tech Park in Thomas Township in western Saginaw County, which is offering free shovel-ready land for approved projects.
Saginaw Future spent $7.5 million on the park - $2,640,000 to acquire the land from the Faucher family and $4,860,000 on infrastructure, including a road that wends through the site and water, sanitary and storm sewer systems. AT&T fiber is available at the site, which current has one tenant, the second manufacturing facility of the Fullerton Tool CO., a maker of carbide tools for machining and cutting tools in factories.
Ten acres of the site were transferred to Thomas township to build an elevated water twoer and 30 acres were transferred to Fullerton, leaving 200 acres for development.
Saginaw Future helped Fullerton, a 75-year-old company that spent $882,000 on new technology at the plant, get a trade expansion grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corp., which goes to companies expanding their exports.
Fullerton has sales reps in Mexico and sells to customers all over the world, including Singapore, China, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Switzerland, Australia and Costa Rica.
JoAnn Crary, who has been CEO of Saginaw Future since 1993, said she is in early stage talks with three more prospective tenants. Officials from Foxconn, the Taiwanese
electronics supplier, visited the site before choosing last year to build its American factory in Wisconsin. She said companies can get as few as 10 acres or all 200, or increments in between.
In addition to free land for commitments to meet certain construction standards, park occupants are eligible for a 50 percent, 12-year abatement on property taxes.
According to Saginaw Future’s 2017 annual report, it was involved in 34 economic development projects last year that led to more than 376,000 square feet of planned expansons or new construction. County companies invested more than $177 million in projects and created or retained almost 1,400 jobs.
Other recent projects in the county include The Central Michigan College of Medicine’s $25 million, 46,000-square-foot building in Saginaw. Construction began in 2014. Sixty medical students, who began school in 2013 in Mt. Pleasant, completed their third and fourth years in Saginaw and graduated last year.
And The Bancroft and Eddy building in the heart of downtown Saginaw are now home to 150 luxury market-rate apartments and first-floor retail and commercial space, a development by Lakeshore Management LLC of Cleveland. An out-of-state firm spending $7 million in downtown Saginaw would have seemed impossible 15 years ago.
The Bancroft Building was born as the Bancroft Hotel in 1859, an elegant place that required men and women to enter from separate streets to maintain proper decorum, the men from East Genesee, the women from South Washington.
In 1915, the hotel was torn down, replaced by a far more elegant hotel, a 200-room Ionic-style building with a rooftop garden that featured outdoor bands and dancing in summer months. A 100-room addition was added in 1925.
The Eddy Building was built in 1874, with retail shops on the ground floor and offices on the top three. In 1892, two more floros were added to meet demand.
In the 1960s, both buildings started to decline, and in 1982, the Wingate Companies, a Massachusetts company, bought both of the buildings to be converted into subsidized housing for the poor.
In 2011, state housing officials annouced that Wingate had stopped making payments on the properties and the residents had to leave.
In 2013, Lakeshore Management bought both buildings and began extensive renovations, with the first tenant moving in late that year. Ground-floor tenants in the Bancroft building include a ballroom and banquet center, an art gallery, a wine and martini bar and a coffee and tea shop. Isabella Bank took over the first floor of the Eddy Building.
Last year, ROCO Real Estate, a Bloomfield Hills firm with more than 20,000 market-rate apartment units in 13 states, primarily in the Midwest and South, bought both buildings.
One Challenge facing many old downtowns on the comeback is what to do with former newspaper buildings – imposing structures that often take up large city blocks. The former Flint Journal building is now a thriving farmer’s market open seven days a week. Saginaw County-based SVRC Industries Inc. bought the old Saginaw News building for $500,000 in Devember 2014, with help from state and county entities, including Saginaw Future. The building, which had housed the paper for 50 years, was shuttered in 2009.
The Downtown Dvelopment Authority, which Saginaw Future administers, sold two parcels of land to SVC, including an adjacent parking lot. Saginaw Future also helped with a brownfield grant of $1 million and a combination grant and loan of $3.5 million from the Michigan Strategic Fund.
SVRC’s budget for the project, dubbed SVRC Marketplace and scheduled for a grand opening on June 8, is $19.8 million. The building, which is almost 100,000 square feet, will include retail and office space, an incubator/shared-work space, a 37-stall indoor farmer’s market, a food court and a lounge and ballroom. Outside the building there will be a pavilion for 48 vendor stalls for the Downtown Saginaw Farmers’ Market.
Saginaw Future also is working with the Saginaw County Chamber of Commerce, Saginaw County, the Saginaw River Alliance of commercial dock owners and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to study whether it makes economic sense to deepen and widen the shipping channel in the Saginaw River for the 17.5 miles to Lake Huron. Will the cost be offset by the benefits of opening the channel to bigger cargo ships?
Bay Future Inc.
A visitor early for a meeting in downtown Bay City recently crossed the Veterans Memorial Bridge into the central business district and pulled into a parking lot along the Saginaw River. He headed south along the river for a job and within minutes came to a site, and sight, that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago.
On adjoining lots, surrounding lawns and green spaces were a collection of new buildings, including a Comfort Inn, a DoubleTree Inn, a Courtyard by Marriott, a McLaren healthcare facility, a Real Seafood restaurant, a Central Michigan University Research Corp. business accelerator and shared work space, the new headquarters for Michigan Sugar, a Dow Corning office building and a long string of one-story condominiums.
This is Uptown Bay City, a 25-acre waterfront development that Bay Future helped shepherd with Saginaw-based Shaheen Development over the last four years. It also includes boutique retail shops and, atop a building housing Chemical Bank offices, 20 condos that quickly sold out, at prices ranging from $152,000 for a one-bedroom unit to $495,000 for a penthouse suite.
There is no more symbolic and tangible proof of Bay City’s resurgence than this, on a former brownfield site that had been home to an iconic manufacturer for 100 years, beginning in 1873, when a group of local businessmen purchased the MacDowell Foundry Co. and began a new business called Industrial Brownhoist.
Founded the same year as a worldwide financial panic, it barely survived. The company started off as a maker of galvanized pipe for area salt mines, engines and boilers for local sawmills and shipbuilders and industrial saws for factories. Eventually it morphed into the world’s leading maker of large cranes and hoists. In 1881, it built the first railroad steam shovel and later built hoists for the construction of the Panama Canal.
The factory shut its doors in 1983.
The site was briefly brought to life in the early 1990s when Michigan Congressman Robert Traxler announced that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wanted to build a science park there that would house supercomputers. The hoist factory’s old administration building was renovated and leased to Unisys Corp., which did indeed install a supercomputer.
But soon after Traxler’s retirement, the EPA dropped its plans for a science park and Unisys moved the supercomputer out of the city.
Another development project underway in the city is the Mill End Lofts on Water Street in downtown Bay City, site of a storied center of commerce that had gone dark in 2005.
In 1862, the Globe Hotel opened on the site. During prohibition, tunnels under the site hid drinkers from the prying eyes of the law. In 1940, the Mill End Store opened there, billing itself as the world’s more unusual store for its collection of everything under the sun.
The store closed in 2005, and in 2007, the building was bought by Paul and Peggy Rowley, whose family-owned business, Rowley’s Tire & Automotive Services Inc., was founded by Paul’s father, Art. The building couldn’t be saved, though, and was demolished in 2012.
The next year, up went a $7.5 million, three-story commercial and residential building, with Midland-based Three Rivers Corp. doing the architectural design and construction management and Bay City-based Freiwald-Staudacher Design Inc. doing the interior design.
Tenants began moving into the 24 residential units in 2014. Units range from 960 to 1,615 square feet, with rent starting at $1,200 a month.
Bay Future’s annual report for 2017 is due out later this month. According to the 2016 report, the agency was involved in projects that year that created 284 new jobs and retained more than 70 jobs, with total new investment in the county of $201 million.
One Project near and dear to the hearts of the millennials who are fueling urban renewal was a tax abatement granted for a $1.3 million investment in a new Bangor Township facility for the Tri-City Brewing Co.