It is “a place with a purpose,” says Arell Chapman, Chief Strategy Officer of the Midwest Energy & Communications (MEC). In the above interview, Chapman is speaking about MEC’s 250 acres of developable land adjacent to the headquarters of this energy and communications company.1 The Southwest Michigan Advanced Research and Technology (SMART) Park is designed to attract businesses and create jobs for the residents of the greater Cassopolis, MI region.
They are achieving success as evidenced by the November 16th, 2023 opening of the Hydro aluminum plant. This company and its $150 million plant matched the values that MEC and the community identified in the placemaking process. This facility will bring post-consumer aluminum back to life, producing over 265 million pounds (120,000 metric tons) of aluminum extrusion ingots per year.
Chapman explains that the placemaking process was important in identifying their region’s assets, such as the east-west rail line that goes through the SMART Park, convenient highway access, co-located data center, and fiber connectivity. It also means taking into consideration the needs of the community.
Working with the Community & Local Governments
MEC began the process by working with the community to identify what it wanted. As a result, they were able to effectively pre-entitle the land. The upshot of their upfront work and their strong local government relationships is that the time to launch is much shorter for a tenant in their park as compared to a traditional development. With only 18 months between its announcement and opening, Hydro is a great example of the speed of deployment that MEC has made possible with the SMART Park.
In addition to the economic benefits, the park is also expected to have environmental benefits. Thanks to the suggestion of a MEC staff member, they are working to add a future trailhead. The trail has been rerouted around the solar farm, connecting to the Cass County Center of Counseling on Aging’s walking trail. The region is working to start the trail in the Village of Cassopolis and connect it to Dr. T.K. Lawless Park; a dark sky park (PDF) where people can go to enjoy the stars without light pollution.
The park will provide jobs, economic development, and environmental benefits. Chapman points out that “to have a legacy, you have to have someone who wants to receive the legacy.” Chapman believes that SMART Park will be a legacy project that will benefit the community for generations to come. The kind of grassroots placemaking that MEC led is exactly the type of process to create the legacy that spans generations and helps build “vibrant, relevant, [and] sustainable rural communities.”
1 In a follow-up email, MEC reports that in total they have 500 acres. There are 150 acres east of Decatur Road that are not part of the SMART Park. The remaining 350 acres of the SMART Park includes the 100 acres MEC developed for their headquarters, substations, and community solar project. This leaves 250 acres for companies such as Hydro.
- 00:14 – Chapman provides an overview of the SMART Park. It is about creating a place with a purpose. They started with a scope of work that was created with input from the community.
- 01:49 – Hydro is creating a $150 million plant on 30 acres out of the 400-acre SMART park. They received a grant from the U.S. Economic Development Corporation.
- 02:34 – The original motivation for the purchase of the land was that MEC needed a place for their new headquarters. The land trust required them to purchase the entire 500-acre plot and wanted MEC to follow through on their vision to develop the land.
- 03:24 – Chapman discusses how they worked with the communities and plugged into their placemaking processes.
- 04:22 – MEC clears the regulatory roadblocks for its tenants, making it relatively fast to build and move into the SMART Park. The types of organizations they are attracting want to be involved in the community, such as what Hydra is already doing in its work with the local community college.
- 05:34 – Working with regional development organizations, MEC has a targeted marketing campaign for the SMART Park. The package they provide to prospective tenants goes beyond marketing documents and includes documentation of soil samples, utility requirements, and traffic studies.
- 07:45 – The amenities go beyond commerce and include elements to improve the quality of life, such as food trucks, trails, and a dark sky park.
- 09:25 – This is a legacy project that will live on for generations.
- 10:34 – It is a project that reflects MEC’s cooperative roots.
- 11:15 – Fiber is now as essential as the electricity and propane products they provide their members.
- 12:17 – The additional energy and data usage will help generate returns on MEC’s investment. It also opens new opportunities for people to work near where they live.
ViodiTV coverage of FBA’s Fiber Connect 2023 courtesy of Calix.