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Wednesday, September 4,2013

14 months

Those behind the scenes of the deal announced Tuesday between Niowave and the Walnut Neighborhood weigh in on the media's role over past 14 months

by Andy Balaskovitz
Bob Trezise first realized he had a problem in the Walnut Neighborhood 428 days ago.

As president and CEO of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership, he helped announce on July 3, 2012 — alongside two U.S. senators and a Navy rear admiral — a $10 million expansion in the Walnut Neighborhood by Lansing-based particle accelerator company, Niowave Inc.

But that day was the first time Trezise had seen the new 14,000-square-foot research facility that neighbors immediately dubbed a “pole barn” and that this paper featured as “Eyesore of the Week.”

On Tuesday, Trezise and some of those same vocal neighbors announced an agreement between Niowave and the neighborhood to — as yard signs have demanded for months — “fix the façade.”

The building will undergo a $244,100 exterior makeover. Niowave agreed to a new exterior surface with trim and brick and stone masonry on prominent walls that match the adjacent Walnut Street School, which holds the company’s headquarters. Changes also include faux windows, a painted roof that won’t reflect sunlight, a repaved parking lot and landscaping.

As part of a development agreement attached to a personal property tax exemption that would save Niowave nearly $550,000 over six years, the changes must be completed within a year if the Council approves the incentive. Niowave had put its request on hold after the controversy blew up.

Rina Risper, president of the Walnut Neighborhood Organization, said the group “will be supporting any incentives that come Niowave’s way.”

Niowave will pay for $120,500 of that.

The rest of the $244,100 will come from a revolving fund administered by the Lansing Brownfield Redevelopment Authority that’s made up of fees paid by developers working on brownfield projects. The brownfield fund can only pay for eligible activities as defined under the state’s brownfield act, which in this case involves landscaping, parking lot resurfacing and demolition of portions of the building. The site qualifies because the City Council approved an original brownfield plan on the entire property at 1012 N. Walnut St.

The fight received ample media attention. Those involved with the negotiations among LEAP, Niowave and the Walnut Neighborhood have mixed feelings about the media’s role in those 427 days getting to what Mayor Virg Bernero called a “new definition of win-win.”

Dale Schrader, a Walnut Neighborhood resident who took part in Tuesday’s press conference, thinks the media played both “good and bad” roles in drawing attention to the conflict and the attempts at resolution.

“In the beginning I thought it was good,” he said. “Then so many people started saying different opinions, it got confusing toward the end. We had to shut down the media at the end.”

Trezise, meanwhile, said he knew he “had a big problem” the day he first laid eyes on the building.

“This had to be resolved no matter what,” Trezise said, meaning that regardless of how much initial media attention there was, it was going to take serious negotiations to resolve it. But Trezise questions whether the media should play a role when agreements are trying to be reached behind closed doors. After LEAP stepped in to help broker a deal between Niowave and the neighborhood in March, Trezise said he didn’t intend to “negotiate in public.”

Bernero, who originally defended the pole barn, thought the media’s coverage over the past 14 months was “maybe above average,” adding that some articles “were great, right on. Maybe it was even above average.”

But he said the tax incentive request hanging over the development since the expansion announcement was perhaps the neighborhood’s strongest card.

Niowave officials, though, were more guarded about how the negotiation played out publicly. Niowave Chief Operations Officer Jerry Hollister paused when asked about whether the media helped or hurt the process. Some neighbors and Council members thought the company had a public relations problem, mainly for not showing up to multiple neighborhood organization meetings when asked to do so.

“I don’t know, honestly,” Hollister said.

“The bottom line is we always wanted a solution.”

Trezise told the several media outlets on hand Tuesday the entire process was a “fascinating journey” — one that makes Niowave a “better company, the neighborhood a better neighborhood and LEAP a better organization.”

“Honestly, there were several times I told Rina (Risper) I’d had enough, threw a tantrum in my office, maybe kicked a chair,” he said. “I learned a lot during this experience. It taught me a lot about economic development.”

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