From Prison to Tech Hub: Plans for Grand Traverse Science and Technology Innovation Center unveiled

A former prison will have new life as a tech hub after its purchase by the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians (GTB) this past spring.

Plans for the 180-acre site include state-of-the-art manufacturing technology, a technical education training center, a new railroad hub, and a command and control center for satellite launches.

The Grand Traverse Science and Technology Innovation Center (STIC) is a project being managed by Grand Traverse Economic Development (GTED), the non-gaming, economic development arm of the GTB.

The Michigan Department of Corrections closed Pugsley, previously a minimum-security prison, in the fall of 2016, citing its age, small size and the state’s dwindling prison population. The property had previously been positioned as a potential brownfield redevelopment site for manufacturing by Traverse City-based North Bay Capital, which had a purchase agreement in place before pulling out in late 2019.

According to GTED CEO Roger Stull, a three-phase, multi-year plan is in place to clean up, revamp and upgrade the Kingsley property, which sits just west of US-131.

Phase one involves renovating and preparing the buildings on the main Pugsley property for future tenants, which include GTED-owned companies such as Bay Shore Steelworks and Grand Traverse Engineering & Construction (GTEC), as well as locally rooted space startup ATLAS Space Operations.

Phases two and three will look beyond the existing 40-acre development, using the remaining acreage for new infrastructure.

Certain spaces are earmarked, with Bay Shore Steelworks’ manufacturing operations renovating what used to be the Pugsley gym building. The business is also acquiring a new state-of-the-art waterjet cutting machine, which will be a part of its STIC setup.

ATLAS Space Operations will bring fresh tech to STIC in the form of a new satellite communications dish system. Stull says he’s also been in talks with several Michigan manufacturers to bring industrial-grade 3D printing systems to STIC.

Having these new technologies on premises would help to drive one of the center’s main goals: education. Stull envisions STIC as not just a place for tech businesses to set up shop and thrive, but as a training hub where northern Michigan residents could learn skilled trades.

“Our goal is to provide training to tribe members, to veterans, to everyone,” Stull explained, listing STEM, manufacturing, construction trades, and engineering as courses or training programs he’d like to see offered on the STIC property.

Having robust technologies like waterjet manufacturing machines or 3D printers, he added, would help give students hands-on training with the newest tools.

“We want to actually create job opportunities out at the STIC facility,” he said. “As part of that, we’re talking to a number of colleges and universities to potentially put actual accredited science and technology courses there at the property as well.”

Stull adds that several educational institutions – including Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) in Traverse City – have already shown interest in STIC, in part because of its location.

“It’s sort of in the middle of a lot of small little towns and it’s right off of a major highway, so it’s a very good location to offer courses for people that typically drive all the way into Traverse City,” he said.

Regardless of educational partnerships, GTED is beginning to make training a priority. The organization has hired Eva Menefee –who holds masters’ degrees in both education and public administration and previously worked at both Michigan State University and Lansing Community College – to lead its on-site training center.

Stull’s vision is that, after training students successfully at STIC, GTED will be able to help those individuals find jobs at the innovation center – whether with GTED directly or with one of the tenant companies.

Grand Traverse Economic Development acquired the former Pugsley Correctional Facility this past spring with plans of turning it into a tech hub.

Another goal for GTED is to establish STIC as the site of a Michigan-based command and control center for satellite launches. This past winter, GTED submitted an application for the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association (MAMA) for STIC to be considered as a site for MAMA’s Michigan Launch Initiative.

Through the initiative, MAMA is aiming to establish infrastructure in Michigan for the launch of small and midsized satellites, most of them into low earth orbit. If MAMA selects STIC as the site for a new command and control center, Stull says STIC would essentially be “what Houston is to NASA” for Michigan satellite launches.

No actual rockets would launch from STIC, however. In February, MAMA announced Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport as the likely site for a new spaceport, where actual satellite launches would occur. If selected, STIC would be the control center for those launches.

“It’s just like what you see on TV, when they have the big computer center and they’re watching the screens and controlling the systems remotely,” Stull said of STIC’s potential role in satellite launches.

A further-off plan for STIC – one that would likely fall into the second or third phase of developing the property – is to bring a railroad spur track directly onto the property. That type of infrastructure, Stull says, would make STIC an ideal spot for setting up warehousing and distribution facilities. Those facilities would serve manufacturers operating out of STIC premises, but could also be extended to offer logistics and warehousing services to the local community at large.

Other site plans are being considered, such as three renewable energy manufacturing operations on-site: helix wind turbines, housings for solar panels, and parts for electronic cars and trucks. Another idea is to build STIC into an entire campus – one that not only includes training centers, company headquarters, and other technical facilities, but also workforce housing.

Wherever things go from here, Stull says he’s confident that STIC will end up being an economic boon for northern Michigan.

“We believe this will bring several hundred new jobs up here, as well as bringing new manufacturers and interested businesses into the area,” he said, “especially if we can get the command and control center there at the site.”

Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association Identifies Marquette as location for second spaceport

On June 23, MAMA announced that a location in the Upper Peninsula just north of Marquette would be the likely site for a second Michigan spaceport. That site, along with the tentative Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport location, would ground the Michigan space launch operations that GTED is hoping to have a hand in with STIC.

The search for potential spaceport sites lasted for more than a year, with several consulting firms working to rate and rank different sites based on “existing commercial and public infrastructure, geographic and terrestrial mapping, living standards, and workforce development.”

Currently, MAMA estimates that spaceport launches could begin in Michigan as soon as 2023. The organization shared in a press release that licensing through the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has begun at Oscoda-Wurtswith Airport for the site of a “horizontal” space launch facility. The U.P. spaceport, which would be a “vertical” space launch site, would likely begin operations a bit later, in early 2025.

According to the FAA, there are currently 12 licensed spaceports in the United States, including nine that can accommodate horizontal launches and four that are set up for vertical launches. Spaceport America, located in New Mexico, is built for both horizontal and vertical launches. In Michigan, the main intention is to use both horizontal and vertical launches to carry satellites to low-earth orbit (LEO). This launch infrastructure would enable Michigan to meet a growing global demand for LEO satellites, particularly for 5G networks.

MAMA estimates that the Oscoda and Marquette spaceport sites, along with the new command and control center, will collectively bring more than 2,000 jobs to Michigan. MAMA is currently in the midst of a site selection analysis for the command and control center, which is expected to be completed this November. These facilities are just one step in the organization’s goal to build a Michigan “space ecosystem,” which it hopes will create 40,000 jobs in the state by 2025.