For this sleepy town on the Lake Michigan coast, the project invites comparisons (albeit on a much smaller level) with that of Bay Harbor in Petoskey with the creation of an extensive residential and marina project on 30 desirable waterfront acres.
Many in the area believe the development will mean Elbertas return to the glory days of its past with the addition of 300 new jobs and $100 million in private investment.
For over 100 years, Elberta was the industrial hub of Benzie County. Known as South Frankfort until the early 1900s, Elbertas deepwater port was home to the Ann Arbor railroad car ferries for nearly a century.
Yet, during the 1970s, it was apparent the ferries days were numbered, and when the last ship left in 1982, Elberta lost its economic base, its major employer, and much of its population. The area went into economic shock.
Now, Elberta is bouncing back, thanks to the renovation of 30 acres of abandoned commercial property, including one of the last undeveloped sites along the Lake Michigan shoreline.
The vacated property includes 12 former asphalt storage tanks, a railroad roundhouse and freight dock, a cannery and auto repair shop. All will soon be removed to make way for a major redevelopment.
Scott Gest, whose company, Elberta Land Holding Company (ELHC) bought the former Koch Materials Company facility last year, did their homework and presented a plan for the redevelopment that includes multi-family condos, townhouses, a marina, a public pier off the park and 140 boat slips.
Gest brought in planners, engineers, and other professionals who met with the people of Elberta to determine the vision for the development of the waterfront.
It takes time to develop a sense of what a community wants, and patience to see the long term, Gest said. Weve been working on these ideas for over seven years, and are working to preserve the landscape, the historic significance, the environmental quality and create jobs.
The area is being reclaimed as part of a Brownfield redevelopment project to address environmental concerns and move ahead with development of three of Elbertas waterfront areas.
Brownfield properties are vacant or abandoned properties with known or suspected environmental contamination.
We are in the process of the first stage of demolition, Gest said. We had to first remove what was left of the asphalt in some of the tanks, and then weve been held up by windy weather, but work is proceeding. We expect the tanks will be down by the end of the year.
The dozen tanks vary in size from 30,000 gallons to four million gallons, on about 10.5 acres at the west end of the village along Betsie Bay and Lake Michigan. When the storage facility was active a few years ago, under Koch, deliveries of up to 28 barge loads of petroleum products came to the Elberta plant from an Indiana refinery. Trucks would begin rumbling through the village in the early morning hours and continue all day long. Residents became used to the smell emitted from the facility.
Weve always had the vision that the tanks would come down. Were thrilled that its finally happening, said Laura Manville, village treasurer.
The clean-up project also will help preserve a portion of the old railroad roundhouse, which was built in the 1800s. The hope is to transform part of the historic structure into retail space.
The roundhouse is in pretty bad shape, said Gest, We are hoping to save as much of the limestone and brick walls as possible.
Construction is slated to begin in early 2007 in the Marina District, which is near where the old Mitchell building was. The boathouse residences will include seven condos with a deli and lounge, catering to the marina.
The entire development is projected to be 15-20 years, and will change a long-held industrial site into an improved and useable site. Were here for the long run, Gest added.
The new development comes on the heels of a waterfront upgrade undertaken by the village.
In the fall of 1996, after 13 years of negotiations with the Michigan Department of Transportation, the Village of Elberta purchased 21.5 acres of the deserted Ann Arbor Railroad Terminal Yard on Betsie Bay in the village limits to develop an eight-acre waterfront park. Work on the park began in 2000 and since its completion it has become a focal point for festivals and celebrations.
The park includes the relocated U.S. Coast Guard Life Saving Station, a playground, and outdoor pavilion for open air concerts, restrooms, parking and a boardwalk along Betsie Bay.
We have been surprised by the amount of gatherings that the Life Saving Station has been used for, from family reunions to lots of weddings, to graduation open houses, it is rented most weekends all summer, said Elberta Village Clerk Sharon Bower.
The park allows public access to Betsie Bay and provides a scenic view of the City of Frankforts waterfront.