By Jef Rietsma
Members of the Vicksburg Planning Commission appear poised to make a recommendation on whether to endorse a proposed $60 million renovation of the former Simpson Paper Company mill.
Known as the Paper City Mill Project, the ambitious plan – backed by former Vicksburg resident Chris Moore – was scrutinized by commission members during their work session Oct. 3 at Vicksburg High School. An estimated 100 people attended.
The balance of the 2 1/2-hour session was limited to discussion by the seven-member planning commission, whose members directed many of their questions to Village Manager Jim Mallery, Moore, Project Manager Jackie Koney and Paper City attorney Steve Sielatycki. The evening concluded with six public comments.
Because of the work-session format of the meeting, no votes were cast. The commission’s Oct. 17 meeting, however, could feature a recommendation for or against the proposal, which would then be fielded by the Vicksburg Village Council for a final vote Oct. 29.
Both meetings are scheduled to start at 7 p.m. at the high school’s Performing Arts Center.
Questions related to live-music events comprised the bulk of dialogue at the Oct. 3 assembly. Koney said Paper City is seeking in its approval, a stipulation allowing it to stage at least two major music-related events annually and additional, smaller performances regularly.
Though the majority of the audience appeared to be in favor of the plan, members of the recently formed Concerned Citizens of Vicksburg have indicated their concerns center heavily on the potential volume of music and the possible length of time into the night it would be allowed. Other issues its members have cited include the development’s impact on the area’s quality of life as well as the availability of parking.
Mallery said if the project is approved, issues related to traffic volume, flow and parking would likely be addressed in greater detail in 2019 with a separate planning commission application.
“The developer needs an opportunity to continue to develop their strategy in determining what size events are best for that property,” Mallery said. “Those discussions will take place similar to the discussions that have taken place on this development agreement. Staff will work with the developer to come to a fair and reasonable agreement that’s legally binding and that represent the core values of this village.”
He went on to note that decibel levels are included within terms of the agreement, and they vary depending on the size of crowd and day of the week. For example, a maximum decibel level of 85 is set for an event at which 20,000 or more people are present.
Also, the agreement in its current state calls for amplified sound to cease at midnight Fridays and Saturdays, and 11 p.m. any other days of the week.
Regarding infrastructure, Mallery said the fee for Paper City to connect to the village’s water infrastructure is in excess of $2.6 million. Meanwhile, Mallery said the cost to improve the wastewater infrastructure and flow rate as a direct result of Paper City’s proposed development is $2 million.
“I want the commission to be assured that we will represent the village’s interest and impact on our infrastructure system,” he said. “Wholeheartedly, we’ll be fair and reasonable, but Paper City realizes there are going to be substantial costs to the water/sewer hook-up.”
The Paper City project is being presented as a Planned-Unit Development. Attorney Lance Zoehof of Warner Norcross, explained that a PUD doesn’t fit into a specific zoning classification within a municipality’s normal ordinances.
He said Paper City’s plan is a perfect application for a PUD considering the extent of its uniqueness and extent of its mixed-use plan.
“As long as they hit minimum requirements that don’t have negative impacts on the surrounding community … the property itself gets rezoned and reclassified, and as long as they stay within their parameters, they are compliant with the zoning,” he said.
Paper City’s proposal includes a conversion of the existing historical structure and grounds to a multi-use facility to include apartments, office space, event space, multiple food- and beverage-production facilities, a craft brewery and beer gardens.
Koney addressed the commission and said Paper City has worked hard to make the process transparent, informative, responsive and responsible. She said Paper City has opened an office in the village’s downtown and staff members have been available to answer questions and address questions in person or online.
“We have given television and print interviews, provided frequently-asked questions on our website, and shared information at local community group meetings such as the Lions and Rotary,” Koney said. “Through all these points of contact, we have heard overwhelming support from the people of this community. We want to be good citizens while retaining the rights and responsibilities to build and run our business.”
Moore will be responsible for at least a quarter of the redevelopment’s cost. A Vicksburg native who now calls Seattle his home, Moore stepped in after plans were presented to demolish the mill, which closed in 2001.
He told commission members he wanted to do something to honor the village by bringing back to life a community icon, albeit in a different capacity from its original purpose.
Still, Moore acknowledged the challenges involved with the planning and zoning for such a project.
The majority of the six people who spoke at the conclusion of the meeting indicated their support for the project. The opponents who spoke reiterated that noise generated as a result of the live music, potential parking issues and traffic volumes were their main concerns.
Former village manager Ken Schippers received a round of applause after concluding his brief statement. He said anyone willing to take on a task as mammoth as renovating the long-abandoned mill should have the community’s support.
Schippers acknowledged Moore, Koney and Mallery for their collective commitment to the process.
“I’d just like you to know that I do put my support behind (the proposal) 100 percent … I hope it all goes well for you,” he said.