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Negaunee City Council approves vote for development

MARQUETTE — “If you build it, they will come.” This quote from the 1989 film “Field of Dreams” applies to baseball, but it could just as easily refer to fledgling development efforts in Negaunee.

The Negaunee City Council, in a unanimous vote Monday, instructed city staff to broker a development agreement with VM Builders, a firm out of Palos Hills, Illinois, to construct a sports complex and soccer arena on the 33-acre city-owned site where the Mather B Hoist House now stands.

In an interview Tuesday, City Manager Nate Heffron said talks between city staff and the developer had already begun. Once an agreement is reached between VM Builders that Heffron and the city attorney believe may be acceptable to the council, it will be presented to councilors for final approval. Following that approval, the council will set a public hearing for the disposal of the Mather B property. Subsequent to that hearing, Heffron said, the council would have to give him permission to auction the property off.

“But we would be using the development agreement as the basis of the auction, meaning whoever bids on that, they would have to fulfill everything to a T in that contract,” he said. “We feel highly confident that this will be a straightforward process with very little complications.”

The proceeds of the sale will be held in escrow, Heffron said, to ensure the project moves forward.

“We are not just going to sell them a piece of property and let them sit on it,” he said. “We are going to hold their money in escrow and upon completion of their project, then we will release the deed fully once they get their occupancy permit and their intended use met. Then the property would be free and clear theirs.”

He said VM Builders was the sole developer to respond to a request for qualifications issued by the city in November.

The city’s vision for the site includes recreation and tourism; a mix of uses to create vibrancy and year-round use; and a design that respects the historic character of downtown Negaunee, its legacy buildings and the on-site hoist house, which once held massive drum hoists used to lower and raise men, iron ore and supplies in the shaft.

The Mather B Mine, which opened in the 1950s, is considered one of the last great underground mines. The mine closed in 1979.

Preservation of the Mather B Hoist House is a requirement, Heffron said, along with some form of free public access to the onsite building and/or grounds.

“From our understanding, they are going to incorporate part of the Mather B building as some indoor basketball or other sports recreation activities and some kind of cafeteria area because they are trying to bring in a bunch of different athletes to participate in this overarching idea of a soccer complex. There are going to be five soccer fields there. So in order to accommodate that, we were going to have some type of communal eating area,” Heffron said. “The rest of it will be used for, like, Airbnbs or places that people can rent while the tournaments are going on.”

The total investment for the project will be $11 million, Heffron said, which would cover infrastructure such as water and sewer service, electric power and roadways. It would all be paid for by the developer.

Some of the infrastructure elements will likely be extended from Negaunee High School, Heffron said, which itself consists of repurposed buildings that formerly held the Mather B’s shops, offices and the mine rescue station.

By the time the developer is finished, according to the proposed preliminary plan, the site will contain several new elements, he said.

“They have indicated that they want to build onto the Mather B building. They want to build out an indoor/outdoor arena for an enclosed soccer field. In addition to that, they will have four soccer fields somewhere on the property,” Heffron said. “They want to provide some space for some recreational vehicle camping and they have also indicated they want to build some cabins that people can stay in.”

The goal of the developers, who will be assisted by Marquette real estate broker Dan Keller, will be to bring tourists and sports enthusiasts to the area, he said.

Under a proposed timeline, the entire project would be expected to be complete by December 2025.

Heffron noted the project, which already falls in line with the city’s master plan, recreation plan and Moving Forward Economic Development initiative, will also rely on public input.

“We definitely want the public involved in this process,” Heffron said.

VM Builders has been involved in several projects in Marquette County including 11 condos built on West Main Street in Marquette in 2009, 15 building lots on Picnic Rocks for a condo and other land development.

The company is also affiliated with the 64.34-acre Up The Sky development in Marquette Township.

Lisa Bowers can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.

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