Sawyer demolition project highlights county land bank year

MARQUETTE – A $486,000 grant project to demolish three dozen dilapidated structures next to the K.I. Sawyer Elementary School constituted the biggest project in 2013 for the Marquette County Land Bank Authority.

Anne Giroux, land bank authority chairwoman, presented a review of the entity’s year recently to the Marquette County Board. The mission of the authority is to work collaboratively with local community organizations and governmental units in finding the best way to return tax-foreclosed properties to the tax roll.

“We were lucky enough to receive almost half a million dollars through the Blight Elimination Program,” Giroux said. “We submitted a very good application…this site had a lot going for it, it was next to an elementary school, I was going to be foreclosing on it soon, everything just lined up to really hit the targets in this Blight Elimination Program and what they were looking for.”

Grant funding was made available in Michigan through a 2012 Blight Elimination Program, which is the result of a lawsuit settlement with five of the country’s largest mortgage service providers.

Of a total of $97.2 million allocated to Michigan, $25 million is being directed to blight elimination. Of that money, $10 million was slated for projects in the city of Detroit, with the remaining $15 million to be distributed the demolition projects in communities across the state.

“Out of the $15 million, we did get almost a half a million here in Marquette County,” Giroux said.

The badly-dilapidated structures demolished had been vacant since the U.S. Air Force closed Sawyer Air Force Base in 1995.

“The pictures don’t do justice to the scope of this project. You really have to had driven by this site prior to the demolition and drive by it now to see,” Giroux said. “It’s a 14-acre site and there were 15 large buildings taken down and 21 garages removed right next to the K.I. Sawyer Elementary School.”

Some finishing touches to the project remain.

“We have a small amount of work that’s left, just some site restoration work that needs to be done in the spring and that will be closed out,” Giroux said. “The land bank authority has already agreed to transfer the property to the Gwinn School District.”

Overall, Giroux said the land bank had a relatively quiet year.

The county foreclosed on 14 parcels in 2013, down from 41 in 2012 and 44 in 2011. Marquette County’s foreclosure rate for last year was 2.1 percent compared to the average statewide foreclosure rate of 14 percent.

“Because we had such a low number of foreclosures, we only acquired seven parcels whereas in previous years you can see we were up 18, 19,” Giroux said.

Two additional land bank authority demolition projects were completed last summer. One project involved a home in Champion Township, where the authority invested $5,974. The second demolition was of a former gas station and market in National Mine. The authority contributed $9,343 and the township provided $8,442.

“In National Mine, Tilden Township came up and helped us split the cost of that demolition,” land bank Secretary Deborah Pellow said. “And let me tell you that was an eyesore that needed to be gone for a long time and it looks really nice there now.”

In Ishpeming Township, development of a site continued where the former West Ishpeming School, which was built in 1916, was demolished by the land bank authority in recent years.

“There are three homes that have been built there by Habitat for Humanity and there’s an additional home that’s going to be built in 2014,” Giroux said. “They look very nice – big improvement in that community.”

Giroux said the land bank authority is continuing to work with neighbors in that area.

“We recently sent out a survey to try to find out what they think about the progress that has been made and get their feedback,” Giroux said.

County commissioners applauded the efforts of the authority.

“So, the land bank is doing good stuff, I hear good stuff all the time from the townships,” Pellow said. “I know how appreciative they are that we have a land bank and we’re being useful in getting rid of some of these blighted properties.”

Commissioner Bruce Heikkila wanted to know why the Sawyer property was deeded to the Gwinn School system.

“Aren’t they downsizing? Or what would they need property for? Wouldn’t it be better to keep it in the land bank and dispose of it,” Heikkila asked.

Giroux said the redevelopment potential of that property is “pretty slim.”

“The philosophy that the land bank board has taken is that we’re really not interested in hanging on to property,” Giroux said. “In this case, it’s not getting back on the tax roll, but we want to get it back into hands of somebody who’s going to maintain the property.”

Giroux said she was not sure what the school district planned to do with the property. A reverter clause in the deed requires the land be returned to the county if not used for school purposes.

“They certainly can use the additional area there,” county board Chairman Gerald Corkin said.

John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. His email address is jpepin@miningjournal.net.