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Production's Fiasco Means Benzie Lacks Growth Tools

County planning, zoning still remain out of sync

June 3, 2009 | By Shauna Fite
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Production Industries
  Production Industries, in business in Frankfort since 1952, is having trouble finding room to expand in Benzie because the county hasn’t met its zoning responsibilities.
On May 14, the Benzie County Planning Commission unanimously rejected a special use permit allowing Production Industries Inc. to relocate from downtown Frankfort to a site on Grace Rd. in Gilmore Township.

Although the vote was decisive, it was a tough decision for the seven commissioners. It underlined just how important it is for the county and its local governments to communicate effectively, and showed how crucial it is for the county to have a master plan and matching zoning ordinances that encourage the kind of economic growth that improves our quality of life. Ultimately, it revealed how crucial it is for county leaders and residents to understand and use the lessons of The Grand Vision regional planning project.

When they voted, the commissioners did not want to chase a business out of Benzie County, but they also did not want to allow a manufacturing plant into an agricultural area. They wanted to follow the wishes of the Gilmore Township Board of Trustees, which entrusts the county with its planning and zoning, and respect residents living near the proposed plant site.

And the commissioners were unwilling to set a dangerous precedent that would have made it easier for other industries to build factories in agricultural areas.

After the vote, Production Industries General Manager Dan McGrew said that his company still wants to remain in Benzie County. But he doesn’t know if that’s realistic.

“This has been a painful process,” Mr. McGrew said. “We worked with a local realty company for the past year to locate an appropriate site to meet our needs, including a Frankfort mailing address and ‘Class A’ roads for semi-truck accessibility. They’re just weren’t that many options.”

In the time between the two special use permit hearings on the application, urgent discussions about keeping Production in Frankfort belatedly began. By the second hearing, Frankfort officials, who said they were surprised by the permit request, had identified unlisted property that could work for the company and the city’s master plan.

After the vote, Production officials promised to meet with the city and the property owners to discuss ideas, and Frankfort City Superintendent Josh Mills said the city wants to do whatever it can to keep the company in town.

“We are looking into opportunities associated with keeping Production Industries in Frankfort.” Mr. Mills said. “We need more collaboration between local units of government and community entities in order to create these opportunities for business, thus creating jobs and enhancing the economic stability of the community.”

So, a solution may be on the horizon that could keep the company’s 11 employees—including ten local residents—off the unemployment line. But Production wasted a lot of time and over $20,000 in site evaluation and permitting expenses to get to the surprise vote, and may not be able to wait much longer before seeking other options.

The Real Problems
So, why wasn’t more done to assist Productions earlier?

One person with an opinion is Benzie County Planning Commissioner Karen Roberts. Like others who favor well-designed, not haphazard development in Benzie, Ms. Roberts says she wants to support local businesses and attract new ones. But, she said, some things need fixing.

“The process is flawed,” she said. “Oftentimes, businesses have already invested significant time and dollars on the approval process before the public hearing, where those directly affected have an opportunity to express how they feel about it.”

In this case, neither community members nor Frankfort officials spoke up about the project until the special use public hearing. Of course, this is why there are public hearings, but such discussion should begin long before a company spends lots of time and money on its idea.

And Ms. Roberts said there is another, more fundamental obstacle to attracting manufacturers to Benzie: “There is a lack of designated space for industry in Benzie County, industries like Productions with good jobs for our residents.”

Although Benzie long ago identified the need for such sites, it still hasn’t designated them. To this day, the county’s master plan and zoning ordinances do not correlate well with each other and, therefore, with sustainable economic growth. We have a very good master plan but, remarkably, our zoning ordinance is still being updated and the county still does not have designated spots for new industry. That is a big reason why the process broke down for Production: The right government tools are still missing.

Hopefully, the county, its planners, and residents will pay attention to what our neighbors who participated in Grand Vision workshops have come up with in terms of an updated master plan—and will heed that project’s basic message: “Growth happens, let’s decide how.”

The decisions we do—or do not—make today will affect us for decades, particularly when it comes to helping businesses grow. So, lets do it right, let’s do it together, and let’s do it quickly!

Shauna Fite is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s outreach coordinator and Benzie County policy specialist. Reach her at shauna@mlui.org.

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