Berrien County purchases American Electric Power building in Buchanan

Published 10:37 am Friday, July 29, 2022

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ST. JOSEPH – Berrien County Commissioners made it official Thursday. The county is buying the American Electric Power headquarters on Circle Drive on the north side of Buchanan. 

Commissioners approved the purchase of the 19.19 acre property for a price of $200,000. That price includes both the office building there as well as the land around it which is expected to be home to a new communications tower. 

The resolution passed unanimously by commissioners states that the acquisition of the property “represents a unique and cost effective opportunity for Berrien County to address current and future facility needs and requirements.” 

As outlined earlier this month by Berrien County Administrator Brian Dissette, the goal is for the AEP property to be the new home of the county’s Emergency Operations and 9-1-1 Centers. Those centers are now located at the county’s 2100 Empire Facility in Benton Harbor. 

Dissette said then that the new south county 800 megahertz communications tower will be built on the AEP property. The county has been looking for a location for a new tower in the south county for the last few years. The county received a $5 million state grant to help pay for the tower project last fall. The entire project is expected to cost $7.8 million. 

In addition to the county operations to be located at the AEP site, Dissette said that the building will give the county board space for a conference room to hold meetings in the south county as well as space for at least some Buchanan city offices now in the Buchanan City Hall. 

County Commissioner and Administration Committee Chair Jim Curran reported Thursday that he and other county officials toured the AEP facility last week with State Sen. Kim LaSata. LaSata was instrumental in securing the $5 million state grant. 

“I think she was impressed with the fact that we got this building, something that nice,” Curran said. 

Curran also presented information about another future project. He said Dr. Loren Hamel of Spectrum Lakeland Health spoke to the administration committee earlier Thursday and will be making a similar presentation to the full board at a future Committee of the Whole meeting. 

Spectrum Lakeland owns the former Berrien General Hospital property off Dean’s Hill Road in Berrien Township which is located adjacent to the Berrien County Juvenile Center. The hospital is currently leased by the Sacred Heart organization which provides substance abuse and other rehabilitation services. 

Hamel said the hospital building is in bad shape and that Sacred Heart is looking for a new location. He proposed having the county build a 14,000 square foot, $5.6 million facility which would be leased back to Lakeland and Sacred Heart. 

Curran said the new facility could be built next to the proposed new juvenile center which will likely be constructed on the county’s Napier Avenue campus. He said that county officials including Berrien County Chief Trial Judge Mabel Mayfield like the idea of having the Sacred Heart facility close to the juvenile center so juveniles can take advantage of their services. 

“The concept is to build three buildings with the juvenile center and Sacred Heart done now and the Family Court later,” Curran said. “Then we can see how much land is left over for other county facilities. This is all concept, but we want you to visualize what it could be.” 

While Commissioner Ezra Scott questioned using taxpayer money for this project, Dissette said there is a synchronicity to having the Sacred Heart facility next to the juvenile center. “If we don’t find a space for them, if we don’t step in and provide services, they (Sacred Heart) will go elsewhere and youth will end up in the ER or in jail,” he said.  

Thursday’s Committee of the Whole session covered another topic: how American Rescue Plan Act funds can be spent. Consultant Tim Dempsey of Public Sectors Consultants told commissioners that there is a different way the county can approach spending the nearly $30 million it is getting. 

While the county board has committed $6 million for grants to local townships for broadband expansion, commissioners have debated how to spend the rest of the money in light of facility and infrastructure needs. 

Dempsey said the ARPA rules require that the funds be allocated by Dec. 31, 2024 and spent by Dec. 31, 2026. He and Dissette said those are tight deadlines given supply chain shortages, inflation and the difficulties in getting companies to even bid on projects. 

He suggested that the county take advantage of the ARPA regulations which allow entities to use their ARPA funds for government services including general fund shortfalls due to the pandemic. By doing so, the county gains flexibility in when and how it spends money on strategic plan projects, he said. 

The county board’s next meeting will be in Niles. The night meeting will be next Thursday, Aug. 4 at 6 p.m. at the Niles District Library.