INSIGHT ON: Economic Development – Splinters of the past

Posted on Jul 1, 2014 :: Economic Development , Insight On
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer
Among the many products created from salvaged lumber pulled from the Mirro Bakeware plants are tabletops. It is estimated the Mirro complex contains several million board feet of old growth maple and hemlock. Photo courtesy of Niagara Worldwide

Among the many products created from salvaged lumber pulled from the Mirro Bakeware plants are tabletops. It is estimated the Mirro complex contains several million board feet of old growth maple and hemlock. Photo courtesy of Niagara Worldwide

There are some wounds that time can’t heal by itself.

Sometimes, a little intervention is required.

In the case of Manitowoc, a combination of the two has become the latest symbol of a transformation taking root in the community. As the long anticipated demolition and salvage of the Mirro Bakeware complex got underway earlier this year, it marked an opportunity to concentrate on better times and let the bitterness over the company’s departure fade.

The battered complex left behind was an eyesore casting a long shadow over some of the economic progress the region has made.

“I think everyone is relieved to see things happening. They want the eyesore gone,” says Connie Loden, executive director of Progress Lakeshore, the economic development corporation for Manitowoc County. “It represents the ability of this community to heal and show that we are much more dynamic.”

Perhaps no one is happier to be moving forward than Eric Spirtas, the St. Louis businessman who acquired the 900,000-square-foot building in 2007, only to see the Great Recession stymie plans for the site’s redevelopment.

Now, after some tense exchanges with the city, he has razed one of the complex’s three-story buildings and has a much clearer concept of the approach for the remaining buildings.
“Now we have an idea how to stage it,” Spirtas says. “Getting that first building done gave us a chance to figure out a system. Now we are moving to the five- and seven-story buildings.”

While the pace may be slower than some would like to see, Mirro’s long history in Manitowoc has created some unique economic opportunities going forward. Namely, the building is filled with timber and other building products that can be reused for future projects.

It is estimated there are several million board feet of old growth hemlock and maple timber in the complex. Much of it was cut in the last century from trees that may have been 200 to 300 years old. In other words, you can’t find modern building materials with these characteristics.

Niagara Worldwide, the company owned by Spirtas that is doing the reclamation and demolition, has been working to develop sellable products from the salvaged materials, as well as identify potential buyers.

“It would be great if we could get an architect with a big project that needed these elements,” Spirtas says. “But we do have some buyers, and we are moving forward.”

Brandan Gauthier doesn’t mind the slower approach. He’d rather save as much of the building as possible than have it wind up in a landfill. After all, several generations of Manitowoc residents spent their lives working there.

“It’s more than just the lumber or the doors or the lights,” says Gauthier, who runs Classic Reclamations and Gauthier Furniture in Two Rivers and is helping with the materials reclamation.

While he would prefer to see old buildings saved in their entirety, he says recycling building materials has both a practical and nostalgic approach.

“There is a growing market for these kind of materials,” Gauthier says. “But when I go into these buildings, I can’t help but think about the people who dedicated their lives to these companies.”

In addition to working on the reclamation, Gauthier is documenting for historical purposes how the materials were used and where in the building they were from.

Over the river

The former Mirro site is not the only large, former industrial site seeing new life. A quick jaunt along the lakeshore into Two Rivers finds the former Thermo Fisher Scientific facility that closed in 2012 also being salvaged and demolished to make way for development.

Thermo Fisher is actively involved with the project, and after the salvageable materials have been removed, the company will clear all the remaining buildings from the 12.5-acre site. It will join an adjacent 3.5-acre site, giving the city of Two Rivers nearly 16 acres of developable land on the harbor front.

No plans for the area have been announced.

Doing it downtown

As the long shadow of the Mirro complex dissipates, a new vibrancy has returned to downtown Manitowoc. Several retail businesses have opened or relocated to the historic downtown area, filling vacant buildings and sprucing up storefronts.

Barry Nelson, one of the entrepreneurs leading the charge, says the area is starting to hit a sweet spot in its resurgence, much of it driven by property owners and business owners doing the simple things well.

“I think people are seeing the challenges that downtowns face are solvable,” says Nelson, who along with his wife Lisa, owns four downtown buildings and operates the Manitowoc Trading Co. “We are getting the right people in place who believe in downtown.”

Simple improvements, such as fresh paint on building facades, have helped generate a buzz about what’s happening downtown, Nelson says. Not that he wants to take anything away from the efforts of shop owners who often work 80 to 90 hours a week.

“You spend less than $1,000, and all of a sudden everyone is talking about it,” he says. To me, that’s money well spent.”

Clusters of industries

The Lakeshore Industry Cluster Initiative launched a little more than a year ago is now moving from the planning phases to implementing projects that can help the various sectors grow.

The manufacturing cluster, which is the most active of the groups, plans to launch a supply-chain directory for manufacturers in the county. The cluster will adapt the software used by New North for its Wisconsin Wind Works directory, which will save costs and allow the project to move ahead at a quicker pace, Loden says.

“We have 75 companies in now and we expect more,” Loden says. “I think a lot of them were surprised to learn there were local suppliers or potential customers right here. It’s been a real active group.”

In addition to the manufacturing cluster, the Lakeshore Initiative includes dairy, agriculture and tourism clusters.

One of the more interesting ideas to emerge from the agriculture cluster is an idea to tie into the local and regional breweries that have sprouted up in Wisconsin by reintroducing hops as a cash crop to the area.

“It was a hops growing area at one time,” Loden says. “It would allow brewers to create some unique regional tastes.”

Bottling success

Two Rivers and Manitowoc County have pledged a combined $1 million in financing to help Paragon Partners move its bottling operations to the Lakeshore area.

The Manitowoc County Loan Review Board approved a $250,000 loan, while the Two Rivers City Council signed off on $750,000, to help Paragon Partners purchase and renovate the abandoned Paragon manufacturing plant that shut down more than a decade ago.

Paragon Partners will be putting up $1.15 million towards the $2.15 million purchase price, and could be bottling Danny’s Deliriously Delicious Coconut Water as well as a beverage called Increase Energy in the facility by year’s end.

In with the new

The EDC has changed its name to Progress Lakeshore to better represent its mission and the area it serves.

The name change, announced in May, comes as the organization celebrates its 10th anniversary. Tapping into expertise from partners such as Lakeshore Technical College and Holy Family Memorial, the private economic development corporation determined a more active brand better communicated its approach to economic development, Loden says.

“We wanted a business name that more clearly defined who we are and what we do,” she says.

The new name also eliminates the confusion that the group is part of the county or other governmental organization.