Bay County Brownfield Redevelopment Authority hopes to spur cooperation and economic growth

When Laura Ogar looks at an abandoned gas station or empty factories in Bay County, she doesn’t see blight and decay. Instead, she sees the possibility for community growth in the form of new businesses, jobs, and family homes.

Ogar, Director of Bay County Environmental Affairs and Community Development, is working to make this vision a reality. She’s part of a team of people across Bay County who envision a bright future for the community.

Earlier this year, the Bay County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution authorizing a county-wide Brownfield Redevelopment Authority (BRA) by the end of 2021. BRAs determine which properties are eligible for re-development and identify financial incentives that could attract developers.

Brownfields are abandoned or unused properties such as old factories, gas stations, or office buildings that are contaminated with pollutants or hazardous waste. Once cleaned up, though, these blighted properties are primed to improve our economy. New businesses generate new jobs and additional taxes for the government. The cleaned-up property no longer damages our environment and puts buildings to good use again.
Phase II of Uptown - located in an area that once housed Sears and F.P. Horak - is under construction now.
Ogar has worked in the environmental field for almost 30 years and has worked to help redevelop brownfield sites for future use. She’s also coordinating the development of the county BRA.

“To be eligible to access BRA funding tools, a site must be located within a Brownfield Redevelopment area. We wanted to provide as much access to those economic benefits as possible,” Ogar says.

“This particular effort is a county-wide boundary for brownfield sites not served by a local BRA. There’s no requirement to participate, no fee, and local units can opt-out at any time.”
Phase II of Uptown includes 120 residential units.
So far, the city of Auburn plus Bangor, Frankenlust, Fraser, Hampton, Kawkawlin, Portsmouth, Williams and Monitor townships have joined the county BRA. The City of Bay City has an active BRA.

Once part of a BRA, communities have new options. Private development can enhance the tax base. Multiple jurisdictions can participate in financing or marketing of a property.

A great example of a brownfield redevelopment project is Uptown Bay City. The former site of Industrial Brownhoist, which sat vacant for many years, is now filled with homes, stores, restaurants, a hotel, and office space. A fountain at the center is often the setting for community events, concerts, and exercise classes.
Work on Phase II should be completed in late summer or early fall.
Phase II of Uptown – located in an area that once housed Sears and F.P. Horak – is under construction now. Phase II extends the edge of Uptown a little closer to Downtown Bay City, providing a sense of place and encouraging people to walk between the two districts. Phase II is comprised of 120 residential units , re-developing the M-25 exit ramp, and constructing new city streets.

“This is a beautiful site along the river,” says Al Warr, Director of Development for Shaheen Development. “Bay City’s whole riverfront is very attractive.”

Right now, Uptown has 25 businesses operating on the site. Phase II, which should be completed in late summer or early fall, is mostly residential.  Already, people are signing leases to live in Phase II. And Warr says he’s willing to talk to any business that wants to consider locating in Phase II.
Phase II extends the edge of Uptown Bay City a little closer to Downtown Bay City.
“We’re bringing in new housing for people,” Warr says. “We’ve got a small quotient of mixed use currently planned for (Phase II). We’re happy to speak to anyone, any businesses that want to join us.”

While the Uptown project may be one of the most visible in Bay City, it’s far from the only brownfield project. Shelli Thurston, Economic Development Marketing Manager for Bay City, says the city is home to five active Brownfield projects outside of Uptown. The others are The Legacy, Mill End Lofts, The Comfort Inn Bay City - Riverfront, Landaal Packaging Systems, and the Social Security Administration/LGK Development.
Uptown Bay City consists of medical offices, restaurants, coffee houses, retail businesses, offices, and residential space.One reason BRAs are so popular is they provide the redevelopment framework for impacted or obsolete properties to qualify for funding.

“It can coordinate with the EGLE, the Michigan Environment and Great Lakes Energy Dept,” Ogar says.

EGLE offers funding programs that allow for initial site investigations and can help identify cost estimates on cleaning up properties. “There are other state grants and loans and federal funding can be available,” Ogar adds.

Another financial incentive for brownfield redevelopment is tax increment financing (TIF), which allows for the reimbursement of costs accumulated while redeveloping obsolete, contaminated, or historic properties.
The Brownfield Redevelopment Authority helped transform a section of riverfront from one filled with decaying buildings to a vibrant community filled with upscale housing and vibrant businesses.
Shawna Walraven, Bay County Treasurer and Chair of the Bay County Land Bank Authority, thinks there is a great value for a Brownfield TIF program in Bay County. Land Bank properties often face unique and costly challenges such as environmental cleanup.

In most cases, the private market has already rejected the properties that go to the Land Bank. The abandoned properties lead to a myriad of problems. Once cleaned up, though, these same properties can stabilize neighborhoods, increase property values, reduce health and safety concerns, and add to the tax base. The private market may also have rejected these properties.

“There are sites that are financially not feasible for redevelopment,” Walraven says. “This ends up causing blight and delaying organic growth of our neighborhoods.”
Large windows give occupants a view of the Saginaw River.Walraven adds that this is an opportunity to make such projects financially feasible for those wishing to invest in the community.

“The Land Bank has a small but revolving inventory of properties that could benefit from the Brownfield TIF program,” she says. “Once the infrastructure and processes are in place this could benefit any number of properties.”

Joining a county-wide BRA makes sense for governmental units. It lifts the burden of administrative tasks from communities where there may not be projects every year.
Uptown Bay City residents choose between brownstones, trendy lofts, penthouse suites, and high-rise condominiums.“It’s really just a matter of convenience and to have efficiencies for administrative work,” Ogar says.

BRAs can be a valuable tool in attracting developers. Most developers are looking for the financial tools the BRA offers. A smaller community that has a BRA has a competitive edge in attracting new developments and jobs.

“Bay County Executive Jim Barcia has said his top three priorities are ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’,” Ogar says. “He encouraged this effort to get the county wide BRA established in order to foster job creation, not just during the cleanup activity or during remediation of a blighted or environmentally impacted property, but afterwards as well when the new development comes online and opens to a new business.”

Ogar adds this is how job creation happens — one job at a time.
Re-developing brownfields turns once-neglected property into space that can attract new businesses, jobs, and residents.When Barcia first ran for State Representative in 1976, there were over 4,000 employees at Bay City Chevrolet, now Bay City Powertrain. Today, there are under 500.

“My concern was seeing a declining population, especially among our younger people,” Barcia says.

He thinks the county wide BRA is a great way to attract investors and developers to look into brownfields in Bay County. This can also help with retaining and attracting employees and residents and avoid losing them to places like Oakland County or Detroit.
The newest section of Uptown Bay City is easily visible from the West Side of the river.
“We have smaller family sizes these days. If you look around Bay County, you may or may not see an avenue to a prosperous career and putting roots down, getting married, possibly having children, and remaining in Bay County, or moving to Bay County.”

Barcia adds if change doesn’t happen, Michigan Works! has projected that Bay County will lose 17% of its population by 2030.

“We need to do everything we possibly can to improve our economic condition here in Bay County and create the jobs that are going to keep us vibrant, strong, and well into the future for several generations,” says Barcia.

“We've experienced recessions and we've had COVID-19. But I believe Bay County has to be more aggressive at attracting investment.”

Many of the residential units in Phase II are already leased.Barcia hopes a county-wide BRA advertises that Bay County is open for business and welcomes any interest in the area.

“We should continue to focus on recruiting new people to the area and retaining many of our young, talented individuals,” he adds.

“These investments made through a BRA result in a cleaner, less contaminated community, new job growth and business investment and they also increase cooperation and shared technical resources,” adds Ogar. “We don’t see a downside to this effort.”
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