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Wednesday, September 19,2012

Signs go up

Walnut Neighborhood residents, fed up with another Niowave no-show, display their frustration

by Andy Balaskovitz

Three or four weeks ago, Walnut Neighborhood resident Dale Schrader had 100 lawn signs made urging neighborhood company Niowave to “fix the facade!” of its new 14,000-square-foot pole barn in the residential neighborhood west of Old Town. 

When Mayor Virg Bernero learned about the signs, he thanked the neighborhood for not installing them while the city, Niowave and neighbors could agree to maintain a dialog among each other. Up until Wednesday, the signs sat in Schrader’s garage. 

By 10 Thursday morning, nearly a dozen signs lined neighbors’ properties. By Monday night, the number was closer to 30. The move is in response to the company’s postponing a neighborhood meeting that was scheduled for Sept. 13. Bernero announced the postponement at a City Council meeting last week; other neighbors found out from the city’s Planning and Neighborhood Development Office. 

It’s the latest chapter in the Walnut Neighborhood’s ongoing frustration with the company.  

“It’s very frustrating,” Schrader said last week. “I feel bad about doing this, but it seems like we still somehow have not got their attention — which is pretty astounding, really.”

Schrader said the neighbors reached a consensus about bringing out the signs.

At Monday’s Lansing City Council meeting, Niowave President Terry Grimm and chief operating officer Jerry Hollister addressed the controversy surrounding the company’s unsightly structure.

“We decided to fast track this project to keep up in the growth of contracts,” Grimm said during the meeting. “We understand the construction has been creating concerns. We apologize for not involving” neighbors.

Hollister then proposed creating a “site improvement working group” composed of neighbors, Council members, Bernero administration representatives and Niowave officials.

When asked about his reaction to the signs after the meeting, Grimm responded plainly: “Free speech.”

Hollister said he’s been scheduling meetings with Council members to discuss the issue and wants to move forward with the working group “as soon as possible,” without specifying a timeline. “We know we moved quickly initially,” he said of the pole barn’s construction. “We want to move quickly now to come to a resolution.”

Most recently, residents have been upset at what they perceive as a lack of involvement by the company itself. In July, company representatives didn’t appear at a neighborhood meeting on the issue. At an Aug. 22 meeting that included Bernero and members of his cabinet, three City Council members and about 25 neighbors, Niowave sent its landscape architect on retainer, Bob Ford, to discuss the problem — even though it was one of Ford’s first encounters with the controversy. (He said he was “naive” about the situation and was on a fact-finding mission to report back to the company.) 

“I feel bad this had to happen. The agreement was with Mr. Bernero that we would hold off and see what happens. This has just been long enough,” Schrader said. 

Bernero acknowledged the signs at the Aug. 22 meeting and thanked the group for not displaying them. He has said that last week’s meeting came “at a time when Niowave is involved in a couple of projects” and that staff was too busy to attend. 

“Mayor Bernero remains hopeful that Niowave and their neighbors will continue to work toward a ‘win-win’ solution,” Chief of Staff Randy Hannan said in an email last week.

A ceremony in early July celebrated Niowave’s $10 million expansion at its headquarters at the intersection of Walnut and Kilborn streets. The company, which specializes in manufacturing particle accelerators, renovated the vacant Walnut School in 2006 for its headquarters. A personal property tax abatement, worth more than $200,000, is on hold with the City Council as the pole barn controversy is resolved.

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