Berrien County's lead economic development agency is doing everything in its power to attract other businesses to join them in downtown Benton Harbor, while at the same time adding more than a dozen new apartments to the central business district.
Cornerstone Alliance has secured a tentative commitment from Cressy Commercial Real Estate to build more than a dozen apartments and more than 3,000 square feet of commercial space in downtown Benton Harbor,literally right next door to Cornerstone's own office facility on Main Street. The agreement is contingent upon support from both the City of Benton Harbor and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC).
With support from the City of Benton Harbor and the State of Michigan, Cressy Commercial Real Estate will redevelop the iconic building at the corner of Pipestone and Main Streets, the epicenter of downtown and on the periphery of the Benton Harbor Arts District. That building, located at 126 Pipestone, was originally built in 1882 and was launched at the time as the Gray Building. It underwent a facelift in 1961, and has since been referred to as the Harbor Center Building.
Greg Vaughn, Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of Business Development at Cornerstone Alliance says, “This is a transformational project for the City of Benton Harbor and continues the momentum created by previous residential developments on Main Street and the Arts District.” Vaughn says, “We met initially with the Benton Harbor Brownfield Redevelopment Authority and they understood the dire situation we were facing with the building. Their initial support was key to getting this project underway, so we began an exhaustive search to find a developer willing to redevelop the site. We were just weeks away from having the building demolished, so we’re grateful that Cressy Commercial Real Estate had a vision for the site and has spent the last six months trying to find a way to make this project work.”
Cornerstone Alliance purchased the building in October of 2017 with the intent of bringing new business and residents into the City of Benton Harbor. Vaughn says they then spent more than a year discussing the project with developers from Berrien County, the region and multiple states before reaching an agreement with Cressy Commercial Real Estate.
The photo accompanying this story on Moody on the Market shows an architectural rendering reflecting what the building could look like once the dated facade is returned to its more historical image.
The Benton Harbor City Commission and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation both will play key roles in the project. However, without support from both entities, the Harbor City Flats apartments cannot be built.
Cornerstone Alliance President Rob Cleveland says, “Redevelopment of old buildings is not an easy thing to do and finding developers with a vision and patience to take them on is even more difficult.” Cleveland contends, “From the time we acquired the building, we knew the project involved a lot of risk. The building is in deplorable condition and needs immediate rehab or demolition." He adds, "This collaborative effort took a multitude of partners. Greg Vaughn and Shane Kissack have made it their mission to bring this project to life."
Cleveland notes, also, that "The MEDC has supported redevelopment of the building from the very beginning. Working with the Benton Harbor Brownfield Redevelopment Authority, Cressy Commercial Real Estate, Mayor Marcus Muhammad and several Benton Harbor City Commissioners, we’ve all had a common goal – to preserve the building. I’m hopeful the City of Benton Harbor will take the necessary steps to bring new investment, new residents, new taxpayers and new housing options to the City of Benton Harbor." Cleveland warns, however, that, "Without the City’s support, the building will be demolished due to the public safety concerns and the condition of the building.”
Cornerstone Alliance arranged personal tours of the building last December (2018) for Benton Harbor City Commissioners and city personnel. Mayor Muhammad and a few of the Commissioners attended those tours that included a visit inside the building as well as renderings of what Harbor City Flats apartments may look like.
Mayor Pro-Tem Duane Seats said tonight, "Every improvement helps the residents" of Benton Harbor as he chaired the Economic Development Committee meeting at City Hall where Cornerstone officials presented the project. They will return on March 15th to the full City Commission to ask approval of a tax freeze plan that would lock in current tax assessment rates for up to 12 years on the project and for approval of the project itself.
Ken Ankli, Developer and owner of The Sheffield at City Center, a newly renovated historic building a block away says, “The revitalization of downtown Benton Harbor is strongly tied to returning its wide array of historic buildings to active and dynamic use.” He adds, “Every new renovation adds strength to those that have gone before. Every success attracts new interest; every success adds to the unique urban fabric of downtown. The transformation of Harbor Center underscores an established trend – people want to live in downtown Benton Harbor!”
With approvals from the Benton Harbor City Commission and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, construction could begin this summer, in June of 2019.
Cornerstone Alliance is a non-profit, investor-governed, economic development organization primarily focused on increasing employment opportunities, private sector capital investments and the local tax base in Michigan’s Great Southwest; with specialized business services offered in economically distressed areas.