Proactive zoning attracts new businesses to Kingsford

When retail chains Shopko and J.C. Penney closed their stores in the town of Kingsford, it was a serious blow to the city of 5,600 near the Wisconsin border.

Happily, proactive zoning changes by city officials paved the way for both prime retail locations on Carpenter Avenue to be repurposed for new, thriving businesses.

Midway Rentals and Sales purchased and renovated the former 69,899-square-foot Birchwood Mall, which was home to J.C. Penney and other retailers, in 2022. 
Ride North bought the former 94,213-square-foot Shopko and Oien Interiors properties and relocated the company’s headquarters to those sites.

Because neither new business was a retail operation, the properties required a more expansive business zoning. Fortunately, thanks to foresight by city officials, the rezoning took place ahead of the companies’ plans to buy the properties.

“Just going through the public hearings and the notification requirements and so forth takes time. So, with that already done in advance, it probably saved (the businesses) several months, with the potential of maybe losing them to some other locations,” says Tony Edlebeck, chairman of the Dickinson Area Economic Development Alliance and Kingsford city manager at the time.
Edlebeck says communities must try to be proactive to stay ahead of the game a little bit — rather than reactive.  “It's worked out for us,” he says.

The backstory: It was a dark day for Kingsford when the Shopko store closed about five years ago, recalls Tony Edlebeck, chairman of the Dickinson Area Economic Development Alliance and Kingsford city manager at the time. Shopko was a large general merchandise chain from Green Bay, Wisconsin, that originally built a store in Kingsford in the early 1970s. “Then they did an expansion and actually built a brand-new store at the same location in about 1987 or 1988,” Edlebeck says.
But the company pulled out 30 years later when Shopko declared bankruptcy in 2019, closing all its stores after failing to find a buyer.  It was a blow to the community, and the sister city of Iron Mountain as well, Edlebeck says. “We’re rural so there were a lot of people from the surrounding area in northern Wisconsin and in the Upper Peninsula that used Shopko for a number of different things. So it was devastating for the area.”

At nearby Birchwood Mall, J.C. Penney and Sears were among the anchor stores that closed around the same time, Edlebeck says, and nationwide, malls seemed to be moving in another direction. In Iron Mountain, for instance, the Kmart that anchored a mall there closed and remains vacant today, he says.

A proactive response: Edlebeck, as city manager of Kingsford at the time, went to the city council and “kind of gave them some ideas that maybe we should be looking at rezoning some of the properties … to make them a little bit less restrictive so that we could look at something that was not going to be necessarily retail.”

The zoning was changed from B-1 community district, designed to meet the general shopping needs of area residents, to B-2 general business district. The latter allows more diversified business types.

 The council approached the planning commission, which discussed the matter over a number of months and went through a lengthy process, which took several public hearings, to relax the zoning in designated areas. 

Ride North: That change worked well for Ride North, which has several retail businesses in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula that sell small utility tractors, campers, trailers, RVs and ATVs. The company was looking at creating a centralized location so that they could operate through one computer system. 

“They had been looking at a piece of property … where they were going to build a new facility,” Edlebeck recalls, “and they came to me inquiring about the Shopko store because it was only just over 20 years old at that time. I told them, ‘You know, it has already been rezoned,’ and that what they were proposing would meet the new zoning.”

The company negotiated a price which was substantially less than the cost to build a brand-new facility, he says, “plus they had the amenities of the city’s infrastructure, the city's fire protection, full time police and fire, and a location right on M-95 going through the city.”

In 2020, Ride North converted the former store to its company headquarter offices, showroom floor, storage area, assembly and maintenance areas. Now, 23 full- and part-time employees work at Ride North in Kingsford.

In addition, the company purchased property nearby that is now used for assembling materials from different factory locations and distributing to the company’s other locations. “Plus, they're doing their training for different facilities for both sales and also for installation and so forth,” Edlebeck says. 

Midway Rentals: The former Birchwood Mall site has been repurposed as well, by Midway Rentals, the largest construction and industrial supplier and equipment rental business in the Upper Peninsula. The company sells and rents industrial equipment and industrial tools to contractors and also rents equipment such as small excavators, forklifts, small tractors and so forth for doing construction type of work. The company had been seeking a location to expand into the Iron Mountain area because a lot of the contractors are there.

Shortly before he retired as city manager, Edlebeck got a call from the company’s attorney inquiring about zoning at the vacant Birchwood Mall. “I informed him, ‘I have good news for you — (the property has) already been rezoned … so that hurdle was already met. They moved forward with the negotiations with the property owner,” he says. “(Now) they're going very strong.”

What’s next: These days the city’s focus remains proactive, but the focus has shifted to residential development and infrastructure improvement, says Kingsford City Manager Michael Stelmaszek. Housing remains a need, in Kingsford and the surrounding communities of Iron Mountain and Breitung Charter Township, he says. “We're what you'd call a bedroom community, we don't have a lot of businesses and we're predominantly residential. We have focused on continuing to develop our housing opportunities in the city,” he says.

The 100-year-old city also is in the process of ambitious upgrades of its water and sewer system, a three-part project to be paid for by rate increases, grants and various state and federal funds for which the city continues to compete. “Our first project is an $8.4 million project being carried out right now, our second project we hope to start next spring. The city is competing for funds, too, for the third part, bigger than the first two combined. The third project is just in its planning stages, and we're optimistic,” especially with the recent announcement of the expansion of Michigan’s Clean Water Plan, he says.

Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years. She is a regular contributor to Rural Innovation Exchange, UPword, and other Issue Media Group publications. 
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