August 22, 2022

Where a new Muskegon shipping port terminal fits into city’s postindustrial rebrand

MUSKEGON — A new commercial port terminal is open at the site of a decommissioned Consumers Energy plant on Muskegon Lake — a step the city and port facility owner say is part of the town’s shift from industrial powerhouse to recreation destination.

Muskegon Lake, which flows into Lake Michigan through a channel, is the largest natural deep-water port on the state’s west coast. It is home to five commercial docks, 12 recreational marinas and over 20 charter fishing operations, according to Muskegon County.

The Verplank Family Holding Co. on Saturday held a grand opening for the Verplank Port Terminal at 151 N. Causeway St. on the east side of Muskegon Lake.

The facility is located on 115 acres formerly occupied by the B.C. Cobb Generating Plant. Verplank Dock Co., a subsidiary of Verplank Family Holding Co., bought the site in June 2020 from North Carolina-based Forsite Development Inc.

The coal-fired plant was finished in 1949 by the company then called Consumers Power. Consumers decommissioned the plant in 2016 as part of its shift to clean energy. Forsite bought the site from Consumers in October 2017, demolished the plant and remediated the site by 2020.

Verplank CEO Ron Matthews said after buying the parcel from Forsite in 2020, his company invested its own money — a sum he declined to disclose — to

  • Remove more than 100,000 tons of coal that had been on the site for more than 70 years, cleaning 745,200 square feet to meet state environmental regulations.
  • Cover the site with more than 100,000 yards of fill sand and eight inches of base aggregate to enable freighters to transport clean aggregate to the site.
  • Improve access and repave and redirect roads.
  • Build a new scale house with two scales to enhance efficiency.
  • Establish on-site offices that will let employees manage Verplank’s docking operations in Muskegon, Holland and Ferrysburg from a single location.

Verplank did not use any public funding, tax incentives or grants for the project, according to Matthews and the city of Muskegon.

“We believe if business makes sense, then you do it, and if it doesn’t, you don’t,” Matthews said.

Matthews said the company’s three subsidiaries — Verplank Trucking Co., Verplank Dock Co. and Asphalt Paving Inc. — together focus on logistics, construction aggregate and asphalt paving.

The new terminal will be privately owned and operated by the Verplank Dock Co., which will use it as a loading and unloading station for commercial freighters transporting the companies’ ice control salt and construction aggregate materials such as limestone, slag and trap rock to its customers.

The new port, which is roughly twice the size of Verplank’s other docks in Ferrysburg and Holland, is the only one on Muskegon Lake capable of accommodating a 1,000-foot freighter, Matthews said. The new facility will be able to handle more than 1 million tons of freight annually, allowing Verplank to expand its operations and explore partnerships with other companies that might want to use the dock.

Although the new port will be used for commercial freighters, Matthews said it plays into the city’s downtown and lakeshore redevelopment plan in a few ways.

First, it represents much-needed environmental remediation at the B.C. Cobb site that will benefit everyone who uses the lake.

Secondly, Verplank will use the facility to shift some of its commercial freight activity from other docks on the lake, including The Mart Dock — which is on the lake’s southwest shore — to the east side, outside the residential and downtown core and closer to the highway. The new port location is expected to reduce traffic congestion and noise in the city.

“When you move the commercial activity to the east end of the lake, it makes sense both from a planning aspect and from a business aspect, because it keeps the big trucks out of the city,” Matthews said.

Muskegon enacted its downtown and lakeshore redevelopment plan in 2008 to shape future business, housing and recreation in the city. The B.C. Cobb plant and former Sappi paper mill, which closed in 2009 and is currently in site remediation, represent the city’s industrial past, while the redevelopment plan is meant to turn the city into a tourism destination.

Downtown Muskegon’s website tallies about $123 million in recently completed redevelopment investments, with another $37.5 million underway. The projects include housing, hotels, restaurants, resorts, marinas, entertainment venues, a new trail system and much more.

Jake Eckholm, director of economic development for Muskegon, is 32 and has lived in the city most of his life. He said Muskegon’s transformation has been underway for so long that tourists and even residents might not even be aware of Muskegon Lake’s industrial past.

“A lot of people that don’t know our community don’t realize that our entire lakefront in the city limits was by and large, industrialized,” he said. “We had Continental Motors that built all the engines for Sherman tanks during World War II; we had large, heavy metal foundries for the automotive industry over here; (we had) sand mining — this was all stuff that was there that is no longer there.

“Now, we’re seeing hundreds of millions of dollars in reinvestment on the lakefront that’s geared toward active recreational amenities, housing and things like that. We’re at a point where this (port redevelopment) is just one great example of this renaissance on Muskegon Lake.”

Eckholm said the new port facility is a boon to the tax base, contributing corporate tax and employee income tax filings that hadn’t existed since Consumers shuttered the B.C. Cobb site. He said the B.C. Cobb plant had hundreds of employees, whereas Verplank Holding Co. has only 120 across its subsidiaries. While it’s not a “dollar-for-dollar” tax match, Eckholm said it’s still a “productive reuse” of the site, especially given the remediation that was required.

This year, Muskegon celebrated its delisting from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “areas of concern” list, which tracks waterways contaminated by industrial pollution. The milestone is the culmination of nearly $100 million spent on cleanup efforts since 1987, according to MLive.

Matthews said he feels lucky to be a part of mass change happening in the city and on Muskegon Lake.

“This is not something that happened overnight. It’s been years in the making,” he said, adding that when the B.C. Cobb plant was decommissioned, “we were lucky enough to be in the right position to take advantage of that.”

“Muskegon is being revitalized right now,” Matthews said. “Over the last six or seven years, it has really reestablished itself as a nice town to come visit. And this is probably going to help that a lot.”