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Delivering the Good News

Restoring historic post office builds pride, cooperation in Jackson

September 10, 2003 |

MLUI/Bruce Giffen
  A unique partnership between Consumers Energy and the City of Jackson transformed the town’s long-shuttered main post office into the grand entrance to the company’s new headquarters.

As a young boy growing up in Jackson, Michigan, Carl English enjoyed downtowns. At special times of the year, he particularly relished traveling to Detroit to view the department stores’ holiday window displays. His own hometown’s downtown provides even fonder memories. He often visited Jackson’s impressive post office, where his mother worked.

Restoring a Childhood Memory
Today, as president and CEO of Consumers Energy-Gas, Mr. English still recalls those childhood visits. “I remember those big pillars,” he recently said of the grand building. “The building’s fantastic architecture has huge remembrances for me.”

Today the place is about more than remembrances. Consumers recently purchased and restored the Beaux Arts building, which was built in 1933. It is now the gateway to Consumers Energy’s new headquarters — a 12-story, 370,000-square-foot tower built directly behind it. The building’s interior is a spacious lobby with a conference center and a coffee shop.

Even before it was completed this summer, Consumers’ visionary project began producing benefits for the city. The construction work injected $103.9 million into the town’s lagging economy, boosted the company’s downtown annual payroll to $52 million, and doubled its downtown workforce to 1,350 people.

Today, downtown Jackson is enjoying a civic revival. A State Historic Preservation Office grant will fund a survey of historic downtown resources. Work has begun on redeveloping six brownfield sites near the new Consumers complex, one of the largest such efforts in Michigan in recent years.

New Plans for Old Sites
One site will use historic preservation tax credits to transform itself from an industrial facility and armory into the Armory Arts project, an arts and cultural hub with 25 studio/loft apartments for artists, plus classroom and commercial space. Two new municipal parking decks compliment the post office’s classic lines and add about 1,000 parking spaces that are available for evening and weekend events, when Consumers’ employees are not using them.

MLUI/Gary Howe
  The restoration of the former post office transformed its interior into a spacious lobby that includes a conference center and a coffee shop.

This summer, the city made use of those spaces by sponsoring free, Friday night concerts in a new public amphitheater adjacent to the just-built Consumers complex. The recently improved and reopened Grand River Trail, adjacent to the complex, will feature an arts walk with sculpture plazas, benches, and a riverfront promenade.

“The post office is a bridge to the past,” said Mr. English. “We would have lost a lot if it had not been for the post office bringing us together. It sets a different tone for the business. Everyone is absolutely delighted. Every place I go, almost the first comment I get is on the beauty of the site.”

Tradition Inspires Teamwork
Three words describe why the city and the company so successfully executed such a large and complicated project: Timing, commitment, and cooperation.

In 1998, as leases on two of their three corporate locations were expiring, company executives decided to consolidate them and began planning for a big move. But to where?

Consumers Energy has deep roots in Jackson. It was founded in 1886 as Jackson Electric Light Works and always maintained a downtown office and strong community ties. Its 650 employees made it the downtown area’s second-largest employer. So company officials asked: If Consumers Energy continued its longtime commitment to downtown Jackson, how could the community help the project?

“It was time to get people serious about working together,” Mr. English said.

A surge of civic cooperation followed. Twenty-six city departments united to fund the development of a new master plan. Officials formed a regional sewer and water authority and reshaped the police, fire, and emergency medical services into regionally coordinated units. The city held a referendum that extended its council terms from two years to four, increasing the efficiency and stability of Jackson’s city government.

A Powerful Partnership
Key business groups and services also changed their operations. They formed The Enterprise Group of Jackson, consolidating business services traditionally delivered by chambers of commerce, visitor and convention bureaus, manufacturers associations, and economic development offices into one office. It provides developers with “one-stop shopping” for their proposals.

Photo courtesy of Consumers Energy
  Jackson’s main post office in 1933.

Meanwhile Consumers Energy negotiated with the city government for assistance. The company obtained $39.5 million in mostly public funding from 14 different sources, including tax increment financing, loans, grants, public improvement funds, and foundations. Tax credits worth $11.5 million offset the additional cost of building downtown instead of at a rural site.

The city agreed to manage a 21-parcel land acquisition, legal fees, engineering, environmental assessments and remediation, traffic analysis, infrastructure, parking plans, river enhancements, and streetscape improvements. It retained title to all the project’s land and its two new parking decks.

In return, Consumers agreed to finance renovation and construction costs of $65 million. Jackson and Consumers signed an agreement in 2000. This July city and company officials joined Governor Jennifer Granholm and other leaders to formally dedicate the new complex. Ms. Granholm had honored the project in the spring, presenting Consumers with one of Michigan’s first Governor’s Awards for Historic Preservation.

One major reason the region’s governmental units and business leaders were so cooperative was that Jackson’s economy needed help. The city’s population has declined steadily since the 1930’s, its economy since the 1970s. Jackson’s current unemployment rate is among the state’s highest, while average income is about $5,000 below the Michigan average of $37,387.

Steve Czarnecki, president of The Enterprise Group, said the town’s improved facilitation of redevelopment projects shows that it has the “creative talent to take a blue-collar community to a knowledge-based community.” He said his group would continue to focus on brownfield redevelopment instead of greenfield construction because it transforms the city’s blighted areas into positive assets using existing tax tools.

Revitalization efforts are expanding with new plans and projects. City Manager Warren Renando said the city is assembling development packages that retain Jackson businesses.

“We want to make our existing businesses stronger,” said Mr. Renando. “And I have to get people to believe in themselves and the place that they’re in. A sense of community pride will make people want to live here.”

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