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Wednesday, March 20,2013

Fixing the facade

Niowave's personal property tax abatement may come with strings attached

by Andy Balaskovitz
City Pulse file photo
The Lansing Economic Area Partnership has stepped in to try resolving the dispute between Niowave Inc. and Walnut Neighborhood residents over the appearance of the company’s 14,000-square-foot pole barn.

LEAP has hired a local architecture firm, C2AE, to draw up fašade changes that would better blend the building with the neighborhood. A redesign may ultimately be inserted as a requirement for the company’s tax abatement on new equipment.

Led by 4th Ward Councilwoman Jessica Yorko, the Council voted 5-3 Monday night to table the six-year, $550,000 personal property tax break Niowave is seeking until a design and cost estimate are drawn up by local firm C2AE.

“I know there is a timeline, but I want to take our time on this,” Yorko said before moving to table the resolution. The Council originally planned to vote it out of committee Monday with final approval up for a vote at its next full meeting. Council members Carol Wood, A’Lynne Boles-Robinson and Jody Washington voted against tabling the request.

Bob Trezise, president and CEO of LEAP, approached C2AE last week to do an “objective, quick analysis of fašade options for the building and those potential costs.

“Once we have that information, that allows all of us to proceed in some kind of decision-making process for a solution,” he said. Trezise said he hopes to have results from C2AE by the end of the week.

Any fašade changes could be required as part of what’s called a “universal agreement,” a standard document for all incentive projects that sets goals a company agrees to meet as part of the incentive, Trezise said. For example, the number of jobs it says it will create as part of the incentive.

At this point, Trezise simply wants a concept and cost of a solution agreeable to neighbors, Niowave and the City Council. “Is it $1 million? $200,000? I literally don’t know,” Trezise said Tuesday morning.

C2AE’s work is being paid for by the Lansing Economic Development Corp., which is managed by LEAP, Trezise said, adding that C2AE will invoice the LEDC when it’s done.

It’s also uncertain exactly how fašade improvements would be paid for. “I presume the ultimate answer is primarily Niowave, with possibly some assistance, if appropriate, by others,” Trezise said.

Fašade changes are a “potential eligible activity” that could qualify for $100,000 from the revolving loan fund of the city’s brownfield authority, he said. But the who-will-pay-for-it discussion is premature without a concept and price, Trezise added.

Niowave is planning to invest $5 million in personal property and add 25 new jobs as part of the request. The particle accelerator company was chosen by the U.S. Department of Energy last week to do “billions of dollars” of isotope research, chief operating officer Jerry Hollister announced to the Council Monday night.

“We welcome the accountability of the city and the City Council on agreements we’re coming to with the neighborhood,” Hollister said, referring specifically to Walnut Neighborhood residents Mary Elaine Kiener and Dale Schrader, who each met with company officials over the past nine days.

The Council will likely take up the request again at a special Committee of the Whole meeting on Monday. It’s possible all parties will stick to the original timetable of a final Council vote later that night.

Washington, who was against tabling the discussion, said she voted no because “enough is enough. This has been going on for nine months. How much time and energy and stress has been given in this situation when all it took was for them to sit down at the table to come up at the last minute to talk. I am just not willing to waste anymore time or energy on this issue.

“Quite frankly, I’m tired of being bullied by corporations, people and everyone else,” she said, adding that she “loves the company” and would “love to keep it in Lansing,” but isn’t sure whether granting the abatement will encourage Niowave to stay.

During his meeting last week with Hollister, Schrader presented a few sketches of fašade changes. They include brick bases below siding and a shingled roof. Some changes could lead to the building’s becoming a “centerpiece for the neighborhood,” Kiener said.

She is optimistic about this past week’s negotiations — even if they started nine months after neighbors started taking up their fight with the company.

“That’s what we’ve been able to accomplish this week because Niowave was willing to work on the fašade,” she said Monday night. “Some people are saying it’s just an 11th-hour fix. I’d rather have an 11th-hour, 59-minute agreement than a 14th-hour lose-lose.”

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