July 7, 2019

The Morning Sun

There is a new plan for the future of the 300-acre SmartZone in Mt. Pleasant.

The SmartZone Conceptual Design Plan would transform the land, which is owned by Central Michigan University and located south of the football stadium.

It would be a mix of uses, with office space, industrial space, retail space and even housing and parks.

The housing would not be targeted toward students per se, but rather toward retirees who want to downsize and the “missing middle,” young professionals who are not ready to buy a house.

Erin Strang, president and CEO of the CMU Research Corp., said the market has changed for what companies want when they are considering locating in the SmartZone.
Michigan SmartZones were created by the state in the early 2000s as a way to attract high-tech jobs to cities in the state. They were to be located around university towns.

“The concept was this land would be developed, with innovative companies, with high paying jobs,” Strang said. “Now, throughout the years, Google hasn’t been knocking down the door to put in a location here.

“Trends have changed in land development,” she added. “It used to be industrial parks and tech parks were kind of a thing, and that’s how this one was set up. So fast forward to 2019, that’s not what we are seeing with trends as it relates to business development.”

In December 2015, the university put CMU Research Corp. (CMURC) in charge of evaluating the land.

The pluses are that infrastructure is in place, with roads, sewer systems, and fiber and technology.

The property was zoned a U-zone in 2016 (now Special District U). They also dissolved some guidelines that had been in place since the 1980s.

But still companies were hesitant.

CMURC hired an urban planner, Gibbs Planning Group, to study the area and put together the design plan.

The conceptual design plan says that ideally the land would be used in the following ways:

630,000 square feet of office space,
30 acres of industrial property capable of supporting 600,000 square feet of new assembly or manufacturing space
105,000 square feet of retail
915 new residences
16 acres of parks and town squares
40 acres of preserved open space
15 acres of cropland.

“We are still very much looking for technology companies,” Strang said. “The high-tech, high-growth jobs that are first and foremost still the objective of the land. However, the trends have changed with the companies that are looking to develop on the land.

“The types of companies we are looking to bring in and grow – the reality is the millennials and the workforce of tomorrow are looking for more ancillary things,” she said.

One factor that companies use when evaluating an area is its walk score: are there other things, such as a coffee house or a place to hang out, in close proximity or within five miles? Strang said the SmartZone currently has a score of 52; companies look for a walk score of 80 or above.

“When they go out for a site selection, right off the bat this land would be disqualified for a potential opportunity,” Strang said. “So, what this plan is proposing in addition to the tech park, is to add additional items throughout the area that would help get companies interested in being there. It’s about creating density in that area to help attract these companies we are looking for.”

The SmartZone already is home incubator businesses that are helped by CMURC. However, those businesses don’t always stay in Mt. Pleasant once they are ready to expand.

One business went from six to 40 employees and ended up moving to Grand Rapids, Strang said. “The conversation was, where are these people going to live? We want our workers to be close to our offices, we want to be able to go grab a bite to eat and come back to the offices.”

It is hoped this plan could change that.

One of the first sources of potential businesses, Strang said, is corporate satellite offices of companies that already hire CMU students as summer interns in other cities. Having a site in Mt. Pleasant would allow the companies to keep the interns, who spend the summer gaining experience, in roles the rest of the year, while providing opportunities for students during the school year.

The design plan received support from the Mt. Pleasant City Commission at its June 24 meeting, on a 5-2 vote. Vice Mayor Lori Gillis and Commissioner Petro Tolas voted against it.

Tolas said it would create a “city inside a city” and be competition for Mt. Pleasant merchants and apartment owners. He also wondered about the impact declining enrollment at CMU could have on the housing market.

“I do not want competition with our zoning that we just changed along Mission,” Gillis said, referring to the city’s new zoning ordinance, which allows mixed-use buildings on South Mission with commercial space on the first floor and apartments on other floors.

“My major concern here is the competition with the city, if you do develop a city within a city and start providing housing and different types of mixed use, not only for the development out at the regional center that we hope to have at some point in the future. I don’t want this to compete with us, that 300 acres that we will be developing, or along Mission. I would rather have people that are looking for those mixed-use buildings to be taking on those vacant buildings (on Mission) and either rehabbing them or taking them down to the ground and building something new,” Gillis added.

Strang disagrees, saying she doesn’t view it as competition.

“We don’t want to compete with downtown. We don’t want to complete with the existing retail that is already in place. We want to try to identify more of the micro-enterprise businesses,” she said.

For example, CMURC works with entrepreneurs who are creating products. They might have just one product or a niche service. The retail locations in the SmartZone could give them a place to sell their goods or services, but they would be different from what other stores in the city are selling, Strang said.

The housing would be marketed to two demographics: Older people who are ready to downsize and the so-called “missing middle,” such as people who are not ready to commit to a owning a home.

The land would still be owned by CMU. The university would lease the land to a developer who would sublease it to the tenants.

Property taxes would be paid on the buildings. The land itself is tax-exempt because it is owned by the university.

“Any development in that space would increase the tax base of Mt. Pleasant,” Strang said.

The CMU Board of Trustees would have the final say on any potential development.

Strang also explained the history of the SmartZone. In order for the state to approve one, it had to be approved by the city and the university it was to be located at.

There also had to be a business accelerator to help the businesses, which is what the CMU Research Corp. is.

The CMURC Board of Directors is always chaired by the president of the university. The city manager also is on the board.