What happens when a downtown fades away?
Most people have heard why downtowns decline -- malls, big box stores, the internet, and highways take shoppers away from downtowns. Storefronts become vacant as customers go elsewhere. Vacant buildings aren't maintained and eventually become blighted. Downtown effectively fades away. Then what?
The fate of downtown Okemos -- a suburban community east of Lansing and Michigan State University -- followed that trajectory. The village's once-vibrant traditional downtown suffered significant decline and deterioration over the years. One by one, shops and restaurants closed. Redevelopment was impeded by vacant, blighted buildings, and soil and groundwater contaminated with oil, gasoline, and dry cleaning solvents from long-gone downtown businesses.
Revitalizing downtown Okemos is a high priority for Meridian Township, Okemos' local government. The village center had deteriorated to the point that many old buildings couldn't be salvaged. The township looked for a developer to build a whole new downtown.
The township found a development partner, Village of Okemos LLC, with a two-phased plan to rebuild downtown -- if it could be done safely. So Meridian Township reached out to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) for help. In August, an EGLE team began digging out highly contaminated soil under an old dry cleaner. That solved one immediate public health and safety problem. But other contamination in the 4.7-acre downtown has to be addressed.
EGLE awarded a brownfield redevelopment grant and loan to the Meridian Township Brownfield Redevelopment Authority for more environmental remediation and demolition. The $1,300,000 grant and $1 million loan will be used to dispose of contaminated soil, demolish blighted buildings, and construct a system under the new buildings that will protect future residents, customers, and workers from harmful petroleum and solvent vapors that can't feasibly be removed.
In Phase I of the redevelopment project, Village of Okemos LLC will construct several three- to five-story buildings and parking on two abandoned, contaminated village blocks. Residential, retail, restaurant, commercial, and office space will encourage people to come back to Okemos' dwindling downtown. The $117 million project will complement adjacent residential neighborhoods and nearby commercial corridors and recreate Okemos' village center. The developer and Meridian Township expect 100 new jobs will be created during this first phase. A deteriorated downtown will be renewed, and residents, visitors, and workers will be protected thanks to a partnership between EGLE, Meridian Township, and Village of Okemos LLC.