Community collaboration draws investors to St. Clair County for 2014

Baker College of Port Huron’s Culinary Institute of Michigan, DoubleTree by Hilton and the Blue Water Convention Center were developed by John Wheeler. (Mark Rummel | Times Herald)

Baker College of Port Huron’s Culinary Institute of Michigan, DoubleTree by Hilton and the Blue Water Convention Center were developed by John Wheeler. (Mark Rummel | Times Herald)

By Tony Wittkowski | City Reporter | The Times Herald

From public safety to multi-million dollar developments, St. Clair County communities are working together.

Officials said the decision to work collaboratively started when the economy crumbled a few years ago, with the results of the new regional approach becoming more tangible in 2014.

Dan Casey, chief executive officer of the St. Clair County Economic Development Alliance, said the most visible success is along the St. Clair River in Port Huron, with the DoubleTree by Hilton and the Blue Water Convention Center.

“People from St. Clair County are lucky because there are a lot of counties in the state that don’t support development,” said John Wheeler, who is the president of Orion Real Estate Solutions, a partner of JB Real Estate Development and the developer of the DoubleTree and the convention center.

The convention center needed to be connected to a nationally flagged hotel so it could be financed. Wheeler attended meetings with county commissioners, Port Huron officials and the head of the Business Convention Bureau.

Two years and several meetings later, Wheeler said the financing was completed.

“I could tell they put a lot of research into the convention center,” Wheeler said. “(Former Port Huron city manager) Bruce (Brown) was the first to call me about developing a possible hotel that would connect to it. But those (group) meetings had a heavy influence on my decision.”

St. Clair County administrator Bill Kauffman said the community collaboration includes bringing together county board members, legislators, state agencies and other county staff to assist communities with potential investment projects.

The collaboration for the convention center involved several government agencies, including the Michigan Department of Transportation, Michigan Economic Development Corporation, St. Clair County Brownfield Development Authority, the Visitors Convention Bureau and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Several times a month this year (in 2014), groups like this would be asked to meet with a local community and a potential developer,” Kauffman said. “The purpose of this effort was to demonstrate the level of cooperation that exists in our community and depth of support that can be brought to the table on behalf of a project.”

Kauffman said the EDA would get a group of bankers together to sit with the developers to discuss or assist in financing the project.

“When you can demonstrate to a potential investor that everybody is working together, it tends to signal to the development community that we are going to do what we can to help their investment,” Kauffman said.

Casey said collaborations started in 2009 when 150 people from different committees across the county met and developed a strategic plan called Blue Meets Green.

The county didn’t begin to see the success that stems from the collaboration until 2014 because plans take time to develop, Casey said.

“A lot of the groundwork that allowed this year to show its potential occurred because of the work in 2009,” Casey said. “It was an organic process.”

For 2015, Casey said he would like to see the collaboration effort extend toward restoring the St. Clair Inn in St. Clair.

The EDA is working with St. Clair officials to find an investor to purchase the hotel and get it back up and running.

Replacing a power plant

The DTE plant in Marysville took a group effort to attract a developer.

Randall Jostes, chief executive of Commercial Development Company of St. Luis, Missouri, said the city and other county agencies went to great lengths to craft an offering.

Jostes said his first sit-down meeting was with Marysville Mayor Dan Dammon, city manager Randy Fernandez, county chairman Jeff Bohm and Casey.

“We had over 45 people in attendance at the early meetings, and many of those agencies were there,” Jostes said. “They are motivated to make this redevelopment successful. That was something we were looking for.”

Fernandez said they tried to put the right people in the room at one time, so questions developers had could be answered in one meeting.

“By doing that, we know what our marching orders are to keep the process moving along,” Fernandez said. “Nobody can do it alone. You need these collaboration partnerships.”

Brian Phinney and his father purchased the old Wonder Hostess Bakery Outlet building at 808 Gratiot Blvd. in September with the intent to open Harsens Island Brewery.

The Rochester resident said they were looking at different cities, but chose Marysville after meeting with city and county officials.

“We had a few meetings over the course of eight months with Randy Fernandez and a couple of commissioners, and everyone was very enthusiastic,” he said. “It’s important to have good support from the municipalities to get things going.”

Port Huron city manager James Freed said one of the state agencies that is brought in for collaboration with communities is the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

The Blue Water Young Professionals came together and helped write a grant for the river walk and received $40,000 from the DNR.

Since the city received grants from the community foundation, it allowed the Young Professionals and the city’s recreation department to collaborate on the grant application.

“If they were not partnered with a municipality, this grant would not be available,” said Nancy Winzer, director of the Port Huron Parks and Recreation Department.

When state agencies are looking at suitors for their grants, they prefer groups that collaborate, Freed said.

“People who give grants don’t want their money being the only money in the pot. They want to see leverage to get something bigger done. When the state gives us money, we are able to match that with local dollars and local partnerships.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at (810) 989-6270 or twittkowsk@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Jan. 9, 2015)

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