The Milton in Battle Creek becomes a symbol of what’s possible when a community comes together

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

Known for its urban-style apartments and the amenities offered, The Milton in downtown Battle Creek has become a symbol of what’s possible when a community comes together to make a dream, a reality, says Randy Case, owner of the architectural firm – Architecture + Design Inc. – and the project’s preservation architect.
 
The community effort that saved an iconic building from the wrecking ball, earned Case and those who worked alongside him on the project the 2022 Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation presented May 5 in the rotunda of the State Capitol Building in Lansing. Case was joined by representatives of MDH Development, LLC; The Christman Company; and Integrated Architecture, each of whom played a significant role in the renovation project.
 
In a written statement from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office that accompanied the announcement of the award, the involvement of the many different community organizations and individuals was highlighted.
 
The Milton's grand staircase after restoration.“They were impressed by the level of involvement from the community,” Case says. “Everybody got involved in this project.”
 
The Battle Creek Community Foundation, Battle Creek Unlimited, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the city, and the county are among the organizations that were determined to save the building and restore it to its former glory. BCCF was one of the earliest financial supporters providing $500,000 to fix the roof in 2017.
 
Throughout the construction, funding continued to be secured to cover the cost of the $40 million project.
 
The building was named Old Merchants Tower when it first opened in 1931, after the Old Merchants National Bank and Trust Co. that it housed. It passed through a few different owners including Comerica Bank and Random Acquisitions LLC, and at one point had its name changed to the George C. McKay Tower.
 
Mark Harmsen, founder and president of MDH Development based in Grand Rapids and owner of The Milton, says one of the biggest challenges was coming up with the financing.
 
“It took three years to come up with the money,” Harmsen says. “I thought the building would be worth $12 million when it was finished, but it ended up that the actual cash we put into it was $40 million. At our final meeting with the Michigan Economic Development Corp., their vice chair said, ‘We’re going to give you $10 million. We simply always bypass Battle Creek and it’s time for Battle Creek to get some help.”
 
This was the largest grant ever given by the MEDC.
 
“Overall, it didn’t really surprise me knowing what the MEDC can do,” says Jamie Schriner, Program Officer for the WKKF. “They realized Battle Creek was lacking investment from the state and they recognized that without having so many local supporters behind it, the project wouldn’t have happened.”
 
The Milton is considered a Community Revitalization Project that rivals anything that has happened in a larger city like Detroit, Harmsen says.
 
“The MEDC showcases The Milton,” he says.
 
Schriner says this recognition could introduce other state entities to the opportunities available in Battle Creek.
 
But, before the MEDC made that financial commitment and went on to lift up The Milton as an example of what successful redevelopment should like, Harmsen found himself knocking on the doors of potential partners and donors in Battle Creek to get them on board.
 
“When I showed up and met with some of the nonprofit boards they were very skeptical of me,” Harmsen says. “I won’t say that I got the door slammed in my face, but I was close.”
 
He enlisted key leaders in the community, including Joe Sobieralski, President and CEO of BCU, and Brenda Hunt, CEO of the BCCF, to help him establish credibility and get meetings with other leaders and stakeholders who could move the project forward. He says he knew that the WKKF needed to be a key and visible part of this effort.
 
Schriner says leadership at the WKKF recognized the way that this project would fit with its core mission to ensure that children can thrive by ensuring that families have access to good jobs and equitable opportunities to thrive and reach their full potential.
 
“With a lot of this work, we try to frame our work. Rather than doing traditional economic development, our work is community economic development done in partnership with the community itself. In order to be successful, we must be community-driven and do what the community wants.”
 
The level and breadth of the community involvement with The Milton convinced Schriner and her team to join the effort. 
 
“My pitch to WKKF was that ‘As much as I need you to write a check and help us. More importantly, we need you as the big guy in downtown Battle Creek for you to raise your hand and say we support revitalization downtown. This building is the cornerstone.”
 
Harmsen says if WKKF had not publicly supported The Milton project, he doubts that the $60 million in funding for the renovation of the McCamly Plaza Hotel and the adjacent Festival Market Square would be happening. Schriner agrees, citing the new businesses that have opened since the successful completion of The Milton, including Torti Taco which frequently has lines of people on the weekends waiting for tables or a seat at its popular Oyster Bar.
 
Daunting, yet doable
 
Harmsen’s eventual ownership of The Milton began after 616 developers, based in Grand Rapids, wanted to get out of their involvement with the re-development of the building. They were the first to step forward and indicate an interest. The City of Battle Creek set up a meeting in 2012 between 616 leaders and Andy Cooper, a venture capitalist who found himself as the new owner.
 
“There was this guy in Florida who was doing random acquisitions. He defaulted on a very large loan to Andy and the collateral on the loan was this building. So, Andy now owns this condemned, vacant, abandoned building. He never intended to own this building. I agreed to get involved because I wanted to do case studies for 616 and Andy. If it was well thought out and methodical, I thought we could have a wonderful building.”
 
In the interim lawsuits involving the building began popping up and Harmsen spent close to two years fighting those lawsuits on behalf of Cooper. The two worked out a deal that would give Harmsen an ownership stake in the building in lieu of financial compensation from Cooper. 
 
When Cooper indicated that he wanted no further involvement with the building, Harmsen agreed to take ownership, even though he never intended to be the sole owner.
 
“But I like big challenges and took it on as a challenge and once that happens, I don’t quit,” Harmsen says.
 
A real estate developer who worked with investors to build condos and develop platted lots, Harmsen, who is 67 retired at the age of 48. He now works as a consultant managing properties, mostly in Grand Rapids, for high-net-worth individuals handling anything that relates to real estate or construction. But, The Milton, he says, was unlike anything he had ever dealt with.
 
“It looked like something that got bombed out in World War II,” Harmsen says. “The bank vault door was covered in rust. The ceilings had collapsed everywhere. Rubber membrane roofs and the roofs were gone. It was like a rainforest in here and because of all of the mold, we had to wear full Hazmat suits to enter the building. Most people said we should tear this building down.”
 
After seeing that it was “incredibly solid, with good bones” supported with steel and concrete, Harmsen knew it could be saved.
 
Case, who specializes in historic preservation architecture, was brought on board to ensure that the restoration of the building would retain much of the original appearance of the building. Together, he and Harmsen located artisans and craftsman who were able to match the original colors used to paint the ceiling on the mezzanine level and the lobbies, masons, and plasterers who painstakingly worked to ensure smooth and lasting surfaces, and preserved historic doors on the mezzanine level.
 
The restoration work also included “decorative metal artists who refurbished the handrail on the grand staircase and rusted out chandeliers,” Case says. “We had a company that worked on the limestone exterior. We had to restore the exterior and some of the brick on the back required patching to replace the look of stone. The artists we brought in were able to source and find the materials to match what had originally been there.”
 
As the artists focused on their parts of the project, Integrated Architecture based in Grand Rapids designed the building’s 85 apartment units.
 
“Mark worked with them to make sure the mix of apartments was right and met the demand for what people like to rent. They determined there was a need for micro-units,” Case says.
 
The Milton is fully occupied with a waiting list that leads Harmsen to believe that he could build another 200 apartments downtown and fill them in no time.
 
“We’re looking at 6,000 people working downtown and 1,800 of them at Kellogg. Young people want to live downtown and be a part of things and not have to drive and get in a car,” Harmsen says. “This is a cool building and if you work downtown, it’s convenient.”
 
Equally significant is what the restoration of The Milton symbolizes to the community and those living outside of Battle Creek. For Harmsen, it’s the cornerstone of downtown architecturally and is showing people that “yes, downtown will be back. This is the beginning. It gets the fence-sitters off the fence about developing in downtown and gives people a belief in what’s possible.”
 
Some of these people, including Javier Fortoso, owner of Torti Taco, have already taken that belief and turned it into successful businesses, Schriner says. She refers to the Milton as a catalytic investment.
 
“You Look at projects that are the size of The Milton. You have to have serious courage to take that on,” she says. “You see so many folks with the best intentions who start a project and never finish it. Not many can bring it to the finish line.”
 
Harmsen says he and his team were able to do just that because of the involvement of individuals and organizations who weren’t willing to give up on an important part of the city’s history.
 
“It is a legacy thing. It’s a sense pride in your town,” Case says. “It’s important to savor the history and realize what was involved in the community in order to make this building a signature piece of the city’s skyline.”

 

Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.