Over and Out: Strife splits Emmet County from Northern Lakes Economic Alliance
Antrim, Charlevoix and Emmet counties are increasingly being viewed as attractive places to do business, pulling in nearly $450 million in new private-sector investment in the past five years.
In spite of the rosy financial outlook, there have been spots of dissent, most notably from Emmet County. A recent decision by the county to leave the Northern Lakes Economic Alliance because of tight finances reportedly stemmed from dissatisfaction over the benefits the county was receiving from the alliance.
The NLEA was founded in 1984 by Antrim and Charlevoix counties to conduct economic development work on their behalf. They were later joined by Emmet and Cheboygan counties. Emmet, the largest of the four counties, had been a member of the alliance for 30 years.
During the past five years, NLEA reports it has helped bring $462 million in business investment to the four-county region, adding 835 new jobs and retaining 2,777 existing jobs, according to its 2018 annual report.
“That’s the value of working regionally,” said NLEA President Andy Hayes.
About $446 million of that investment and 3,200 new and retained jobs were in Antrim, Charlevoix and Emmet counties, he said.
Hayes said the dispute with Emmet County began in January when a new county board of commissioners undertook a series of budget cuts and questioned the value of the alliance.
“They asked, ‘What have you done for us lately?’ and apparently the answers weren’t good enough,” Hayes said. “It was a very combative situation, unfortunately. They quit. They said they were out.”
Subsequent negotiations to keep Emmet in the fold failed. In May, the county board voted to stay with the NLEA through the end of the year and consider a longer-term contract at a future date. The alliance board rejected that arrangement.
“We’ve been at this for 35 years. We’re not interested in the short-term,” Hayes said. “We want to dance with someone who wants to dance long term. The bottom line is we don’t work in Emmet.”
NLEA also will no longer provide economic development assistance for any cities and other local units of government in the county, Hayes said.
Emmet County provided about $85,000 a year in financial support for NLEA. Hayes said the loss will not result in any layoffs or cutbacks in services to the remaining county members.
John Calabrese, the Emmet County administrator, said budget issues played a major role in the county board’s decision to leave the NLEA.
Earlier this decade, the county issued more than $15 million in bonds to build the Headlands International Dark Sky Park and create a countywide emergency medical service. Repayment of the bonds costs the county $1.5 million a year, Calabrese said.
The county also is facing millions of dollars in capital improvements needed for county facilities, including a county-owned medical facility and the sheriff’s department. The county has an annual budget of about $23 million a year.
Calabrese declined comment on the effectiveness of the NLEA, saying his job is to carry out board directives. The county has economic development and brownfield committees and will continue to work with local units of government in jobs-producing business development projects, he said.
“Time will tell” whether economic development in the county will suffer as a result of Emmet leaving the NLEA, Calabrese said.
New Projects Boost Antrim, Emmet and Charlevoix Counties
Despite the split with a regional economic alliance, one proposed project could have a major impact on downtown Petoskey, Emmet County’s largest city.
Florida fast-food franchise executive Bob Berg wants to build a large mixed-use development, including a hotel and theater, on a long-vacant piece of property known as “the hole.” His Petoskey Grand development on the west edge of downtown, unveiled in March, would also contain 30 apartments, 11 brownstone homes, a retail pharmacy and a parking garage for 343 vehicles.
Berg, a longtime vacationer in the area, has not announced the cost of the project. There have been numerous other failed development proposals for the site, which has been vacant since 2007.
The Petoskey Planning Commission has had several meetings about the project and is expected to consider a planned unit development zoning change for the property on July 25.
In downtown Charlevoix, The Lodge Hotel is being expanded into a 57-room boutique hotel that will be renamed Hotel Earl. The new name is a tribute to master builder Earl Young, who constructed the 40-room hotel originally known as Earl Young’s Weathervane Lodge in 1959. Young, who died in 1975, is noted for designing and building Charlevoix’s 26 iconic stone “mushroom houses.” The hotel was acquired last year by Paul Silva, who runs a metro Detroit property management company and owns a vacation home in the Charlevoix area.
Hotel Earl will be operated by Troy-based Hotel Investment Services, which manages a variety of hotels, resorts and conference centers. The amount of investment in the project was not disclosed. The hotel is slated to open on August 1, but the opening could be delayed by about a month due to ongoing construction, said hotel manager Ian Fleming.
“We’re still hoping for August 1, but everything has to run smoothly to make that date,” he said.
Among the hotel’s amenities will be an indoor pool and fitness center, a 1,500 square-foot luxury suite and a third-floor lounge and bar “with phenomenal views of Lake Michigan and Round Lake,” Fleming said.
The hotel will employ about 20 people, he said.
In Boyne City, a proposed $9 million apartment and retail complex would help ease a critical shortage of affordable housing in the area. The project is called Lofts on Lake Street.
Lansing-based Michigan Community Capital (MCC) wants to build 42 apartments and retail space in the downtown area. MCC is a nonprofit organization that receives funding from state and federal agencies to invest in mixed-use and multifamily rental projects.
The apartments would be aimed at renters who earn between $26,000 and $60,000 a year. The project could provide housing for workers the area needs to fill a growing number of jobs, Boyne City’s City Manager Michael Cain said. “Obtaining more housing is one of our top community priorities,” he said.
The Boyne City city commission has approved a special development district for the project, which makes it eligible for a property tax abatement of up to 10 years. The commission is expected to act on that request in early July.
MCC also is seeking a grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation to help offset development costs and is hoping to begin construction on the project this fall or in early 2020.
The largest regional business development project in recent years is the new, $125 million EJ foundry in Antrim County’s Warner Township.
Formerly known as East Jordan Iron Works, the company’s new foundry replaces a foundry EJ built in 1883. The new foundry was completed last October, but became fully occupied in April, said Tom Teske, EJ vice president and general manager.
All 350 workers from the old foundry have transferred to the new one, which is located near the intersection of M-32 and U.S. 131. The foundry produces manhole covers and grating for water, sewer and drainage systems, and telecommunications and utility networks.
Teske said the new EJ foundry could present a lucrative development opportunity at the site of its old foundry, which included a mile of lakefront on the southern arm of Lake Charlevoix. The company is working with the city of East Jordan to create a master redevelopment plan for the property, he said.
Buck Love, director of business retention and growth at Northern Lakes Economic Alliance, said the alliance is involved in an effort to use the new EJ plant as a catalyst to expand economic development along the northern U.S. 131 corridor in Antrim county, including the village of Elmira and Warner Township.
“We’re pulling together all the necessary units of government and building a consensus” of how to attract more development to the area, he said.
“There are a lot of good things going on in northern Michigan,” Love said. “We have more than enough projects to keep us busy.”