For the developer at the Mill at Vicksburg, sustainability is key

Economic growth does not need to come at the expense of the environment, especially when the developer cares deeply about the community where the work is being completed.

The Mill at Vicksburg, the $80 million redevelopment of the former Lee Paper Company mill about 20 minutes south of Kalamazoo, is one example. Developer Chris Moore’s goal is to create an enduring place for residents of his hometown to enjoy when it is completed.

The project sits on 120 acres of land that includes wetlands, streams, and arable farmland, and the environmental remediation efforts cover most of the property. 

Some of the cleanup work was completed by the County and the State before Moore acquired the property, but his efforts go above and beyond what is necessary and include some surprising elements. “We didn’t know what uses we would have on the property,” says Jackie Koney, Chief Operating Officer of the project, “so we’re remediating environmental contaminants inside the building to the highest standards.”

The Mill at Vicksburg project has brought in giant grinder machine to help crush 10,000 tons of concrete down to 3/8” diameter pebbles.One unusual element has been the creation of an “edible forest” the team is planting in coordination with area students. The work is being planned in coordination with Dr. Noni Heikes, who runs the Future Farmers of America program at the local high school. The fruit will be available for visitors to pick and enjoy, and the hope is to be able to donate some to local food service programs.

They intend to continue planting nut trees, fruit trees, and berry bushes as well as companion plants to attract pollinators and repel pests. “This is an ongoing legacy project meant to be a lasting gift to the community,” says Heikes. “It’s also a great learning experience for students.”

To make use of the pollinator habitat they have created, Midwest Energy provided them with a grant to start a beekeeping operation. “The hive will have a plexiglass observation panel,” says Heikes, “and the collection system will allow us to collect honey without opening the hive.”

In keeping with the goal of being a good steward of the environment, the Mill team has kept the entire property pesticide-free for the past three years. 

The giant grinder machine will be on-site at The Mill at Vicksburg for approximately four weeks.The buildings are also getting the full clean-up treatment. Having been constructed over the course of a century, there was asbestos and lead-based paint in abundance.

The lead-based paint is removed by carefully blasting in such a way that the underlying wood, brick, and steel is not destroyed. “We test a method of paint removal on a sample area, and if it looks good, we call in the State Historic Preservation Office staff to approve it,” says Mark DeLisle of DeLisle & Associates, a consultant on the project.

The asbestos is removed as the remediation process continues. If a team finds any material that could potentially contain the toxic material, work is halted until a sample can be tested. “I can’t – and won’t even try to – identify asbestos by sight,” says DeLisle.

The contaminated material is bagged and taken to a special landfill that is capped to keep it from escaping into the groundwater. 

The buildings sat vacant for nearly two decades and some of the wooden structural elements were damaged beyond repair. Instead of using typical laminate wood beams, trees were sustainably harvested in the Pacific Northwest so that the new structure closely matches the old. The effect is something that feels brand new yet has the patina of a 100-year-old building.

The move to recycle the product at Vicksburg Mill, which is part of the Mill’s sustainability commitment, eliminates the need to have 500 dump truck loads haul the 7,143 cubic yards of waste to landfills. “The upper levels of the east wing are as stunning as I expected,” says Koney, “but what surprised me is the finishing room. I just never thought of it as a pretty building, but now that the brick, wood, and steel beams are exposed, it's just gorgeous.”

Similar efforts are being made to keep the exterior authentic. A team of masonry experts, each with 15 years or more of experience, are making use of 80,000 bricks salvaged from a recently demolished horse track in the Chicago area. So far, this has kept them from having to recreate bricks from new material.

“The masons are basically touching every inch of that building, and it's a very big building,” says Koney. “That takes a very long time and their attention to detail, their care, and their craftsmanship is just astounding.”

Even the buildings that are not part of the final project are being saved in one form or another. Several outbuildings were salvaged to be reused by businesses in nearby towns, and the concrete from buildings that were demolished is being re-used on the site.

The pile of concrete – 10,000 tons of it – is in a two-story mound that is visible from the road. “We’re saving over 500 dump truck loads of concrete from going to the landfill,” says Koney. “The recycled materials will become the underlayment for roadways, sidewalks, and parking lots that will be on the property.”

When finished, the 400,000 square foot Mill will house a brewery, restaurants, event space, indoor and outdoor music venues, a hotel, and a museum of beer paraphernalia. The intention is to create a destination that will cause spin-off development throughout Vicksburg.

“Bringing the mill property back to life is not just about creating a special place, it’s about creating a safe environment, both inside and outside the building,” says Moore. “It’s going to take some extra effort, but we’re here to do this the right way.”