By Jef Rietsma
A two-year effort that included an arduous amount of documentation and research paid dividends in 2016, when the Lee Paper Mill was awarded landmark status at the state and federal levels.
With the designations in hand, a plan to improve the facility into a commercial, business and residential development will benefit from tax breaks afforded by its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.
More important to anyone with a nostalgic attachment to the mill, however, the state and national designations mean the core building on the site since its creation in 1905 will remain.
Gene Hopkins is a preservation architect with Ann Arbor-based HopkinsBurns Design Studio. It was charged with compiling information necessary for the mill’s inclusion on the State Historic Preservation list as well as the National Historic Preservation.
“I remember a few years ago now getting the call to come look at the building for the first time. We did a complete walk around and I remember thinking what a great building this is,” Hopkins said. “I couldn’t help but see all the potential and all the character-defining features, so I immediately saw it as a great building that needed to be saved and preserved.”
Hopkins conceded the integrity of the building, abandoned for more than 15 years, may not be solid. But the tools and resources it will take future owner Chris Moore to bring it to an acceptable standard are in place.
He said its historical value is impossible to overstate. Hopkins said its founding was as a rag mill, wherein fine paper was created out of remnants from cotton and textiles. All other mills in the Kalamazoo Valley region created paper out of wood pulp.
Coupled with the fact the main building and subsequent add-ons are still standing and in a salvageable state provided HopkinsBurns representatives a strong case to state to national historic-preservation officials.
Hopkins and his peers appeared before the State Historic Preservation Review Board in May 2015. The government-appointed panel threw its support behind the request for historic-preservation consideration immediately.
“They are supported by the state’s Historic Preservation Office, so we worked with the office to develop a case and tell the story of why the building is significant,” Hopkins said. “Once the office says that you feel you’ve dotted the I’s and crossed your T’s, and made a compelling case for its historic significance, they put you on the agenda to publicly present to the State Preservation Review Board.”
Hopkins said the plan was well put together, the pitch to the review board went well and its immediate approval for preservation was not a total surprise. He said the 61-page application detailed every facet of Lee Paper Mill’s historical significance and value to Vicksburg.
The next step was a review by representatives from the National Park Service. Its members pored over the supporting documents and gave the green light in September 2016.
“That was a major milestone for this site,” Hopkins said. “At the state level, the feedback they gave us was that this building is very special, very unique, very historically intact, and the fact it was a rag paper mill and not a pulp paper mill made it extremely unique. And how long it survived as a paper mill also made it very compelling. Obviously, the feeling was consistent at the national level.”
The historical designation provides 20 percent federal tax credit.
Hopkins said he is excited for Moore and confident the redevelopment will live up to the hype.
“Chris and the Moore family are incredible, and for Chris to take this on the way he has, he’s going to pull it off; it’s going to be absolutely phenomenal for not only Vicksburg but the whole region of Southwest Michigan,” Hopkins said. “It’s going to be an amazing, amazing project.”
HopkinsBurns is slated June 30 to submit documents to the Michigan Historical Preservation office and the National Park Service for historic-preservation tax credit.
Moore, who resides in Seattle, in 2014 formed Paper City Development LLC to spearhead the redevelopment.