Serving Gogebic, Iron and Ontonagon Counties

Ironwood EDC eyes light industrial district


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Ironwood — Growing interest in the Western Upper Peninsula might turn out to be the silver lining of the COVID-19 crisis, according to reports at Wednesday’s meeting of the Ironwood Economic Development Corporation.

In his COVID-19 business update, Tom Bergman, director of community development for the city of Ironwood, said he is hearing at InvestUP meetings that the Upper Peninsula had better than average tourism and sales as compared to previous summers. The exceptions were bars and restaurants and venues that have severe restrictions.

“The positive takeaway is that we are on people’s radar now — maybe more than ever in terms of the overall upper Midwest,” Bergman said. “When people are traveling, I think that the U.P. and the western U.P. especially is a place that people are seeing more as a destination, and not just for tourism, but it sounds like there is a tendency for migration in terms of people moving to smaller communities in general from some of the bigger cities.”

There is growing interest in the area real estate market and especially for countryside properties as more people want elbow room, said EDC Chair John Wyssling. The difference now is that sellers are getting multiple offers as compared to hoping they get a single offer, he said.

“The change that we have seen on that end is kind of exciting,” Wyssling said. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the prices are growing and the underwriting is also a challenge.”

As for retailers, Wyssling the sales are up and the challenge is with restocking inventory with some items that have been in high demand with the pandemic shutdown creating shortages.  

Tim Erickson, community development specialist for the city of Ironwood, said downtown business owners reported that sales were up but inventory challenges remain, during his discussions throughout the October First Friday event.

“It seems like business has been pretty decent this year and especially in the summer,” Erickson said. “The major issues are with keeping inventory and supply chain type issues.”

The EDC also discussed the idea of expanding the city’s industrial zone to include a light industry and a business industrial district. Bergman is polling various city committees and groups to see if there is a need for an additional industrial district.

The information will help update the city’s zoning ordinance. 

“I have been meeting weekly with consultants regarding the zoning ordinance and we are making quite a bit of progress and we will probably come back to the committees pretty soon with a list of things that we need input on from the public and from our committees for direction,” Bergman said.

The question of an additional industrial district comes down to the two predominant uses of the existing industrial district, he said. There are large indoor manufacturing companies that require people working on site, and there are outdoor industrial spaces that require open areas for materials.

There are only two undeveloped lots remaining at the industrial park, and the calls coming in asking about space are either for an office complex or low impact industrial use such as breweries, coffee roasters and artisans, he said. The 2-acre space and an 11-acre space could possibly be redesignated for lower impact industrial use.

“These would be lower impact business areas but not necessarily requiring a lot of retail space,” Bergman said. 

A business development district could house business incubator space to lease out to new businesses, he said. The consultants looked at community size and said that one district is enough but Bergman said he wanted to gauge interest in the opportunity to provide space for other types of businesses.

EDC member Gina Thorsen said that a light industrial district made sense but that a business district did not. People are moving away from offices and working at home and not just because of the pandemic, and it’s more important not to close the door to opportunities that require workers to be on site, she said. 

“If you have a business that is truly just an office, I don’t think that many people are going to be building buildings for that anymore,” Thorsen said. “Part of me wonders if developing a district that would be heavy toward office space makes sense, because I am not sure if that’s the way the world is going.”

Maybe the single industrial district makes sense if there isn’t a demand for office space that would likely have conflicts with adjacent industrial districts, Bergman said. It might be better to widen the definition of the existing district to incorporate very light manufacturing or artisan manufacturing and the EDC could help develop cohort space within one district.

Wyssling said that such change should be consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan regarding development. It should consider space for “quiet business” and attract more business like Burton Industries that is now expanding in a light industrial capacity.

Erickson suggested that light industrial zones could buffer residential areas with restrictive covenants and restrictions.

The next EDC meeting will be at 10 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 4 via Zoom. The link will be posted on the city of Ironwood webpage.

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