CCLBA receives grant to revitalize buildings in Cassopolis, Marcellus

Published 11:42 am Monday, March 18, 2024

CASS COUNTY — Buildings in two Cass County villages will soon get a new life, thanks to a recent grant through the State Land Bank’s Blight Elimination Program.

In Round 4 of the program, the Cass County Land Bank was awarded more than $2.8 million to fund two projects: the rehabilitation of the former Cassopolis Village Hall, and the stabilization of two historic buildings that once housed The Tailgater in downtown Marcellus.

Cass County Treasurer Hope Anderson, who also serves as chair of the Cass County Land Bank Authority, said she frequently hears from township, village and city supervisors throughout the county that one of the biggest challenges they face is dealing with blighted properties.

“They’re saying they need help,” she said. “The cost to address blighted properties is more than any one township can bear.”

Since February 2023, the Cass County Land Bank has received $4,027,923.87 through four rounds of the Blight Elimination Program. The first two rounds focused exclusively on demolition projects, but the third and fourth rounds permit grantees to use funds to acquire, stabilize and rehabilitate blighted structures as well.

“We submitted nine projects for Round 4 funding — more than any other land bank in the state,” Anderson said. “[The State Land Bank Authority] said each land bank could submit up to $3 million, and we wanted to be sure we got as close to $3 million as possible.”

The Cass County Land Bank was awarded just over $2.8 million — $354,712 for the Marcellus project, and $2,482,950 for the Cassopolis project.

Former ‘Village Hall’ — Downtown Cassopolis

The Village of Cassopolis has put a significant focus on revitalizing its downtown in recent years. Through its Imagine Cass initiative, the Village has redesigned its streetscape and Stone Lake Beach, attracted multiple several businesses and assisted in the rehabilitation of multiple storefronts. With the help of the nearly $2.5 million grant from the Blight Elimination Program, one of the two largest structures in the downtown will be reimagined, as Cass Village Manager Emilie LaGrow likes to say.

Before the Village left its former home on Broadway and relocated to its new municipal complex a couple of blocks away, village leaders paid experts to determine how the building could be repurposed to create living spaces. The village then sold the building to a developer with the goal of creating apartments.

“Their business decisions led them in another direction, so it’s just been vacant for three years,” LaGrow said. “You hate to see that with any building in your community, especially a large, very visible piece in the downtown.”

Grant funds will allow the Village do not only reacquire the building, but also rehabilitate its top floor into up to eight apartments.

“The main floor is still in decent shape, so that could be easily turned back into commercial space,” LaGrow said. “The grant really is looking at funding exterior windows, rehabbing the upper roof, all of the HVAC system, things like that, and also creating the apartments and the housing on the second floor.”

LaGrow said the project would not have been possible without the assistance of the CCLBA and the State Land Bank Authority.

“It’s a great opportunity to reinvigorate another downtown building,” she said. “It will complement fantastically with what’s going on with the courthouse to have the other corner under construction and in movement again.”

‘The Tailgater’ — Downtown Marcellus

Like Cassopolis, the Village of Marcellus and its downtown development authority have put a concerted effort into revitalizing its downtown in recent years.

Marcellus Economic Development Director Sarah Ayers, who grew up in Marcellus and currently owns a business there, said she thinks of the building commonly known as “The Tailgater” as “the two front teeth of downtown.” She is excited to see the 19th Century structure get another chance.

“The funding for this will be allocated for the stabilization of the building — nothing overly glamorous, just making sure that these buildings stay there,” she said. “For me, it really indicates the importance of historic preservation, but also economic revitalization, which is critical in thinking about the long-term sustainability of our town. I couldn’t be happier to see these buildings and knowing that they’ll be on the main street for a long time to come.”

Marcellus Village Manager/Clerk Jacqueline Terrill said three words come to mind when she thinks of the Blight Elimination Program: opportunity, possibility, and ability. Though the Village had already been working hard to purchase the property, committing all of its ARPA funds and additional fundraising dollars, she said the DDA would not be able to stabilize the building without the help of the CCLBA and the grant.

“I don’t know how I got so lucky to work with these people that I have on my DDA and in Cass County,” she said through tears. “It’s so appreciated. These people are able and resourceful.”

The DDA plans to use the funds to repair extensive water damage and make the building sellable so that it can eventually house two commercial storefronts and up to four living spaces.

Terrill said the key to the momentum happening throughout the county has been a change in mindset for the rural community that has historically struggled to compete with larger communities for grant funding at the state level.

“We have to stop having the idea that we can’t,” she said. “This is proof that, yes, we can. Ask for the world and you’ll get it.”