Upton tours Dowagiac business center

Published 10:06 pm Monday, July 1, 2013


U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, met Monday with Brian DeLong, vice president of Prairie Ronde Realty, which manages the privately-funded Business Center of Southwestern Michigan in Dowagiac in the former National Copper Products plant.   Congressman Upton watched dancers of Miss Michele and Co. with studio owner Michele Winchester. “Fifty kids use that space,” the St. Joseph resident learned.

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, watched dancers of Miss Michele and Co. with studio owner Michele Winchester. “Fifty kids use that space,” the St. Joseph resident learned.

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton visited Dowagiac Monday to “kick the tires” on The Business Center of Southwestern Michigan.

With 213 vehicles from Jackson, Mich., to LaPorte, Ind., stored there along with 20 start-up businesses employing more than 40 people, there are many tires to kick. Storage helps offset heating costs.

“Two years ago, I had 30, last year I had 93.”

But the real reason for the incubator Brian DeLong manages at 415 E. Prairie Ronde St., is growing jobs, such as Bill Sheffer’s Unique Cutting, since the odds of landing one company to fill the massive, 617,000-square-foot former home of Rudy Manufacturing, Sundstrand, Modine and National Copper Products are slim.

“There are not a lot of 617,000-square-foot users out there,” DeLong said. “Instead of waiting around for one of those to come by, we thought we’d be proactive, give small businesses an opportunity and diversify.”

“Parts of this building are nearly 100 years old,” Upton said, “and was ready for a bulldozer a few years ago. It’s a third full and has such assets as a rail spur inside. They’ve weathered the economic storm in Michigan and are excited about the future. I had no clue that these girls were next door. It was a nice little show.”

Miss Michele and Co., Michele Winchester’s dance studio, performed a couple of numbers for Upton during his first visit. He said he heard of the incubator serving on the board of the nine-county Southwest Michigan First in Kalamazoo.

Its goal is creating 100,000 jobs over the next 10 years.

“One business we looked at had seven employees this week and 14 next week,” Upton said.

“The Business Center offers a home to fledgling businesses which might not be able to afford rail, semi docks and the infrastructure we have here, plus synergy,” DeLong said. “Some of our businesses work together on similar projects. A vendor can drop off his truck at one location and have three different processes done. Rail is an advantage for our property with high-speed trains through this area. It’s very costly to put in, so businesses are looking for sites where it already exists.”

“The internet’s working, too,” the congressman said. “One business we talked to, 90 percent of their sales come from the internet, out of state, 10 percent Michigan.”

“I hope to see some manufacturing distribution use of the large industrial space we have as anchor tenants, and I hope to continue to help small, start-up businesses as well,” DeLong said. “I’ve had one business that was taken over by a larger company, but none that have moved out” to their own locations. “That separates us from a true incubator model. There’s not a time frame where you get it running and have to leave. We want it to grow here so we can keep the jobs here.”

Across the hall from the conference room where he met with DeLong and economic developer Cindy LaGrow, is Troy Clay’s staff of Mno-Bmadsen, the economic development arm of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, which last week broke ground on a gas station and convenience store adjacent to the new Four Winds Dowagiac casino.

Another partnership between the tribe and Southwestern Michigan College is a three-year apprentice program, which turns out skilled tradesmen. Twenty-eight expressed interest in starting in October. Students are aged 19 to 52.

Five are helping build four fourplexes and eight duplexes in the tribe’s development on Dailey Road, plus a bus shelter.

Almost all of the motivated 12 students who went through this year earned all A’s and B’s. One rode his bike from Paw Paw twice last winter to get here.

With the Pokagon Band hosting an August national gathering, students built 20 picnic tables, which are to be followed by horseshoe pit backstops.

“With their entrepreneurial spirit, we see them going on to being general contractors and starting their own businesses, which will benefit us all,” DeLong said.