What is Being Done to Revive the Old Paper Mill in Vicksburg?

By Sue Moore

The Mill of South County, formerly known as Fox River Paper Company, Simpson Paper Company, Simpson Lee, and originally Lee Paper Company, sits in the middle of the Village of Vicksburg.

It was the heart and soul of the community when at its height, it employed some 250 workers, made high grade, cover papers and provided good jobs for kids coming right out of high school.

Women workers in the early 1900s sort paper when the property was known as Lee Paper Company.

Now it is a derelict property, possibly sitting on high levels of contamination, with its buildings deteriorating every day.

Village taxpayers, area residents and elected officials all need to be concerned about what happens next to this property, according to Mary Balkema, Kalamazoo County treasurer. Her office has stepped into the breach by acquiring the buildings and land in what she calls a “tax reversion” action in 2013. In turn, her office may transfer the mill and its environs to the Kalamazoo County Land Bank, headed by Kelly Clarke, executive director.

These two entities, together with the Kalamazoo Brownfield Redevelopment Authority staffed by Lee Adams, are working side-by-side to find a use for the property and get it back on the tax rolls. They are also working in conjunction with Southwest Michigan First.

It may sound simple, but it’s not, according to Bill Adams, president of the Village of Vicksburg. The Village inherited the problem from the previous administration, and now the challenge is putting all the pieces of the puzzle together to make something special happen and to establish a productive use of the property.

The outline is shown of property that forms the brownfield portion of the old mill property in Vicksburg, as seen from an aerial view. The Village Council is being asked to combine the old and new sections of the property in a new brownfield development authority in order to maximize the availability of funds to improve the saleability. The roof on the newest addition of the mill collapsed during one of the snow storms in March and will need extensive repairs. Insurance adjusters have been called in to evaluate the damage. Clean-up of all the environmental damage on the property is still being evaluated for contamination.

The following actions have already taken place.

Step One – In 2013, Balkema, as treasurer, foreclosed on the major parcel consisting of 21.36 acres where the two large wings of the mill are sitting, along with the area that used to house the machine room.

Step Two – Finalized acquisition of an adjacent 4.08 acre parcel with adjoining structures which are deemed to be the most saleable part of the mill. This was acquired in December, 2013, with a considerable donation from the Vicksburg Foundation, and then turned over to the Land Bank.

Step Three – A request for and completion of a site specific environmental assessment.

Step Four – Cordoned off the property to casual entry and installed surveillance equipment which ties in to the Village police department.

This step is still to be accomplished.

Step Five – Bring all of the Kalamazoo County resources together to get the property into a saleable position.

The big question is how will all of this work in 2014 and beyond and who is authorized to make this happen?

The answer: a mill partnership with the county treasurer, the county Land Bank and the county redevelopment authority.

Complicating the work is a brownfield declared portion of the building still lingering from 2001 which was presumably administered by the Village’s Downtown Development Authority but the principals said they were not aware of this. This has to change and the Council will need to act upon turning it over to the County at a future meeting. This will mean the entire site will be in its own self-contained Brownfield Plan. The plan falls under the Kalamazoo County Brownfield Redevelopment Authority.

The Land Bank is negotiating with two separate businesses that want to purchase the 4.08 acre parcel of the mill and has asked each one for proposals, due in April. This means there could possibly be a viable business in the most hospitable part of the property, sometime yet in 2014, according to Kelly Clarke.

“It’s the human element we are all concerned about,” Balkema says. “The roof in the newer portion recently collapsed with the weight of this winter’s snow. It’s very dangerous right now.”

While touring the property in 2013, she found a pop bottle with mercury in it, just sitting on the floor.

“We’ve had small fires and a big fire that destroyed the northeast wing,” she says. “We’ve also had kids gain casual entry to the buildings, windows pinged out, creating problems. It took 30 years to get in this condition, so the clean-up won’t happen overnight. Our plan looks out three to five years, as it’s the taxpayer now who has to clean up the mess.”

Lee Adams, Brownfield administrator; Mary Balkema, Kalamazoo County treasurer; and Kelly Clarke, Land Bank Executive Director, review the environment assessment study for the Mill of South County site.

What is a Land Bank?

“We typically address abandoned and neglected properties that are difficult to sell because of the costs and risks that a private developer is unlikely to take,” Kelly Clarke, Land Bank executive director said. “This includes blighted, vacant or condemned parcels that are often better placed in our hands until we can identify a responsible plan for them with the community in mind. We work very closely with the local governmental unit which houses any particular piece of property.   The Land Bank is funded via a variety of sources including the County Tax Reversion Fund, donations and grants”.

What is the Brownfield Redevelopment Authority?

The Brownfield Authority has tools to improve property but no ownership, says Lee Adams, from the Kalamazoo County Brownfield Redevelopment Authority (KCBRA).

“The MDEQ (Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) has the authority to act upon previous owners if there is a potential liability connected with the property,” he says. “The KCBRA can provide Tax Increment Financing (TIF) for environmental activities. In the case of the mill, we expect to find the funds to come in and clean things up through grants and loans from the MDEQ, MEDC and other entities.”

Once a property has been accepted into the Land Bank, its taxable value reverts to zero. Then when it is sold and reassessed, the difference in paid taxes, reverts to the TIF each year for up to 30 years, making this fund available to pay off any loans and public or private expenses that were used to improve the property. The Brownfield Authority allows eligible expenses for site preparation and demolition, depending upon the need, Adams says.

Treasurer’s Office Actions?

“This spring and early summer, we will work with the community of Vicksburg to determine what they want,” Balkema says. “We have access to redevelopment experts from Kansas State University through an EPA program, staffed through KSU, offering guidance on money from loans and grants that could help fund renovation or demolition, depending on what can realistically be repurposed on the Mill of South County.”

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